22 January 1999 - 24 January 1999

The role and running of museums

Chair: The Honorable William Luers

We were conscious of meeting at a boom time for museums.  Whatever might be happening to other expressions of culture, the sector was more in the public eye, attracting more visitors, modernising its methods more and starting more new ventures than at any time within living memory.  We conjectured various explanations – the mounting impact (possibly TV-stimulated) of image relatively to word in learning and experience, perhaps, or the sense of museums as safe places for congregation, contemplation, community memory and even inspiration in the way that cathedrals and other places of religious worship had been.  But whatever the cause, the phenomenon was widespread.

This boom, we knew, could not be guaranteed to last;  and it behoved museums accordingly to think clearly about their purposes and keep effective focus upon them.  Purposes might vary considerably in character or priority amid the wide diversity of museums – we had to remind ourselves continually not to think too narrowly in terms of the great national museums rather than of the rich range of local or small specialist ones.  But a powerfully recurrent theme in our discussions, for almost all museums, was the importance – not just in order to profit from current political fashion – of contribution to education.  There was an echo here of the dominant aim of the major nineteenth-century creations, but it might need now a new affirmation of its centrality.  In at least some of our countries there should be scope for a more conscious alignment with and support to school curricula, though we noted that to exploit this effectively might require conscious effort to help re-equip teachers, who were often less strong in the visual than the verbal arts.  We were aware, too, that the educational contribution should be on offer to adults, not just the young.  All this might require among museum staffs a battery of skills – including the vigorous use of information technology in communication – not generally salient hitherto among the tasks put before them. 

Entertainment of course still had a valid part among museum aims, both for its own sake as an attraction to visitors and as a lead-in to other missions, including stimulus to the up-to-date flourishing of visual art and design.  But we recalled that museums must never lose sight of their role as custodians and conservators of treasures, and of the need this entailed for sustainability, renewal and enrichment of collections.  (We heard a note or two of unease on this last score, at least in respect of the emphasis of current public-funding provision in the United Kingdom.)  The reality, immediacy and authenticity of objects lay at the core of the museum function, even if modern concepts of display often reduced the number on show at a time.  And while not every museum could expect permanence, the sense of holding-in-trust, and so of inalienability, was strongly felt.  We heard a concern voiced about the general absence of legal protection to prevent the break-up of collections in liquidations.

This concern for treasures held in trust underscored in turn the continuing need for scholarship – including research – as a necessary task for most substantial museums, both in the understanding of collections and in their interpretation for museum users.  The setting out of an accurate and illuminating frame of reference for objects shown was a key component of museum experience, and the very fact that interpretation might sometimes be contentious reinforced the need for scholarly ability to make balanced, to widen and indeed from time to time to challenge the supporting narratives.  Our awareness of this interpretative function partnered a recognition that many museums – especially local ones – were key elements in community consciousness, anchoring self-understanding and sometimes indeed helping to keep town centres alive and cohesive (as well, in some instances, as making a significant contribution to economic activity – a point occasionally worth making to fund-providers).

Considerations of all these kinds were prompting wider expectations of museums, as an inescapable accompaniment of the boom.  Meeting such expectations increasingly required a clear identification of the customer segments – even if these were nowadays broadening – which a particular museum sought to address and of how they might best be served (including perhaps a greater flexibility of provision, as in longer or different opening hours or road-mobile offerings).  Awkward balances might have to be struck, for example between maximised access and preservation, or between populist and traditional styles of presentation.

Museums were under pressure – often though not solely on account of public-funding criteria – to develop more solid and relevant systems for evaluating and demonstrating their fulfilment of purpose.  There were, we acknowledged, difficulties about this.  The most measurable was not automatically the most important, and we heard some worries that concentration – however understandable and indeed necessary – upon numbers-through-the-door might lead to risk-averse homogenisation of approach.  It was highly desirable to find ways of assessing the quality of the museum achievement in ways relevant to particular purpose (including collection care).  The museum sector might usefully explore ways of meeting this difficult need by dialogue both among its members and with other sectors facing comparable problems of testing real value. 

The demands of museum leadership were becoming more and more extensive, and the dividends of imaginative – even risk-taking – management potentially greater.  But management at all levels was having to acquire skills and outlooks additional to, not in replacement of, those long established in the sector – a sharper consciousness, for instance, of how to exploit limited resources, how to advance the educative function and how to project the museum externally to its publics.  New patterns of training might be needed, and the business sector might have a contribution to make in this by way of secondment or mentoring.  One or two participants urged the advantage of greater staff mobility – even internationally – than had been the norm in at least the large museums.

We asked ourselves what should be the prime task and the best patterns of oversight governance.  To whom were museums accountable?  Proximately, as a rule, to boards of governors or trustees, and of course to funding-providers, whether public or private;  but beyond these there lay other lines, less precise but not thereby unimportant, to stakeholders of one kind or another – the wider community, and indeed posterity.  Boards (preferably not too large, and with genuine responsibility) needed to concentrate not just upon fund-raising – and certainly not upon micro-management – but also upon strategic direction and vision in accordance with purpose.

There was naturally much discussion of museum funding, across the very different traditions as between the United States and most other countries (though we observed that even in the United States much support for local or regional museums came from public purses below the federal level).  Public funding for the big national museums was an established feature in Europe, and only a major long-term shift in attitudes to private giving could alter that.  The record of enlightened governmental approaches was, many participants suggested, tolerably good, but public funding could not easily be secured for endowment accumulation and so for steady renewal of collections;  and amid the strains upon public exchequers steady long-term patterns of support could not readily be counted upon (and, so one comment feared, might be vulnerable to distorting temptations to re-allocate support away from those museums that had done best in self-help).  Should museums charge for entry?  There was, most of us judged, no doctrinaire answer;  what mattered was the net impact of the pros and cons of charging  upon the particular museum’s purposes in its particular environment.

For all that resource disciplines were salutary and even stimulating, some worries were voiced about pressures flowing from financial dependency;  but that could in principle arise whether sources were public or private, though support-system design could ease the tensions.  It was important, though not always easy, to avoid having support, if too narrowly concentrated in origin or in motivation, skew museum activity away from natural priorities.  We talked a good deal about the impact of tax-deductibility of donations, much more extensive and influential in North America than elsewhere (though we were warned against exaggerating its impact;  for example, one great United States museum cited drew less than a quarter of its income in this way).  Many participants believed that European governments ought to look afresh and more positively at tax-break options for strengthening support of museums.  Sceptics nevertheless recalled that tax-breaks still drew eventually upon the public purse in revenue foregone, and by means less discriminate than direct funding;  and it could not be expected that they would change European donor cultures in a US-matching degree in anything but the very long term.

The theme of greater collaboration among museums – or with others, such as libraries or bookstores – surfaced repeatedly in our discussions, often alongside concepts of using IT much more widely both for in-museum presentation and for outreach to schools and other customers.  IT exploitation might raise concerns about competition, about ownership and intellectual property rights, and even sometimes about manipulation of content;  but while it would never replace the immediacy and impact of the object itself, it should progressively have massive constructive influence over how museums operated and presented themselves, whether singly or in joint ventures.  We should have liked to find more time to explore all this, and also to examine the contribution – highly fruitful, in many museums – available from voluntary helpers and enthusiasts;  several participants urged that wider use be made of this resource, especially if greater flexibility in organisation and outreach made it possible to enlist a more diverse social segment.

The sense of problems and pressures alongside opportunity, expansion and innovation infused our conference.  If the latter were to be advanced by more effective tackling of the former much benefit might be secured by wider exchange of ideas and experience, and dissemination of best practice.  Ditchley had last discussed museums some seven years earlier;  it should certainly wait no longer for the next time.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: The Honorable William Luers
President, Metroplitan Museum of Art, New York

Mrs Patricia E Bovey

Director, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Mr John A Bovey
Formerly Provincial Archivist of British Columbia
Mr Stephens B Lowden
Chairman, Royal Ontario Museum;  President, SBL Capital Corporation

Dr Peter Friess

Director, Deutsches Museum Bonn
Professor Dr Herman Schäfer
Director, Stiftung Haus de Geschichte der Bundesrepublic Deutschland (public foundation dedicated to post-war history)

Dr Eric Anderson

Rector, Lincoln College, Oxford;  Member, National Heritage Advisory Panel for Public Appointments;  Trustee, National Heritage Memorial Fund
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster GCB CVO
Chairman, Board of Trustees, Victoria and Albert Museum
Professor John Ashworth
Chairman, The British Library
Dr Alan Borg CBE
Director, Victoria and Albert Museum
Mr Jonathan Bryant
Chief Executive, River and Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames;  Chairman, Association of Independent Museums
Sir Neil Cossons OBE
Director, National Museum of Science and Industry;  President, Association of Independent Museums
Mr Robert Crawford
Director General, Imperial War Museum;  Chairman, National Inventory of War Memorials
Mr Andrew Edwards CB
Secretary to Board, Royal Opera House;  formerly Deputy Secretary, HM Treasury
Dr David Fleming OBE
Director, Museums and Galleries Tyne and Wear Museums;  Trustee, National Football Museums;  Vice President, Museum Association
Dr Richard A Fortey FRS
Head of Research, Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum
Professor Christopher Frayling
Rector and Vice-Provost, Royal College of Art;  Trustee, Victoria and Albert Museum
Ms Kathryn O P Gee
Director, West Midlands Regional Museum Council
Dr Anne Grocock
Executive Director, Royal Society of Medicine;  Trustee, National Museum of Science and Industry
Mrs Anne Heseltine
Trustee, Victoria and Albert Museum
Ms Karen Hull
Head of Museum and Archive Services, Museum of Reading;  Expert Panel Member, Heritage Lottery Fund
Mr Simon Jenkins
The Times
Mr Mark Jones
Director, National Museum of Scotland
Lady Middleton
International Business Development Director, Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers;  Deputy Chairman, Royal College of Music
Mr David Normington
Director General for Schools, Department for Education and Employment
Dr Jessica M Rawson CBE FBA
Warden, Merton College, Oxford
The Rt Hon Dr Chris Smith MP
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
Miss Alex Stewart
Director of Finance, Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Mrs Gillian Wolfe MBE
Dulwich Picture Gallery;  Museum of the Year Award judge.

Mr Judson E Bennett Jr

Chief Curator, US Army Center of Military History
Mr John Botts
Chairman, Botts & Company Limited;  Chairman, Glyndebourne Arts Trust;  fund-raising committee for Tate Gallery of Modern Art
Mr Robert M Conway
Goldman Sachs International;  Director, English Chamber Orchestra
Ms Diane B Frankel
Director, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Washington
Ms Laura D Gates
Vice President, International Field Museum, Chicago
Ms Diana Chambers Leslie
Vice Chair and Distinguished Adviser, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Ms Christine M Miles
Director, Albany Institute of History and Art, New York
Dr Marc Pachter
Counsellor to Secretary, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
Dr Timothy Potts
Director, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Dr Malcolm Rogers
Director, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Mr Thomas Sokolowski
Director, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh