Back to list

SHCG committee respond to MA's Collection Knowledge consultation


SHCG have, for some years, been aware of the decreasing opportunities for museum staff to develop expertise in and specialist knowledge of collections material and are keen to do all we can to assist our colleagues in addressing this decline. As a long-standing network of Subject Specialists we are concerned by the decline in collections expertise and have established several projects to assist our members in developing their own knowledge in this area. We welcome the MA’s interest in the situation and this opportunity to contribute ideas to a wider discussion on the subject.

1. One way to encourage the development of expertise could be through a mid-career secondment scheme, enabling individuals to spend time with collections and other experts. Do you think this is the right way forward? If so, how should the scheme be structured?

The suggestion of a secondment scheme is relatively valid, but raises issues which may make it difficult to implement. Much of the problem with allowing staff to develop expertise is the sheer volume of work they undertake. For a secondment scheme of this kind to work, it would need to provide for the back-filling of their post for the duration of their absence and a similar arrangement would need to be in place for the host institution to continue the work of the member of staff whose time & attention would be diverted from their normal tasks.

There are also concerns about the suggested time for the proposed scheme. There is an argument that it might more appropriately form part of entry level training, but a more workable system would be that the timing should be more flexible, allowing it to be available at the most suitable stage in the career of any given museum professional.

The identification of ‘experts’ is also an issue that would need to be addressed. The selection process would need to transparent, fair and overseen by a respected, impartial body.

2. Apart from a secondment scheme, what other ways could the sector encourage the development of expertise?

One of the major reasons identified for the current perceived loss of expertise is the rapid turnover of staff within the Museum sector. The best way, therefore, to prevent this would seem to be to encourage people to remain in particular posts for a sufficient length of time to develop a sense of commitment to the institution and collections with which they work and, thus acquire expertise naturally. This could be achieved through the provision of fewer short-term, project-based contracts and a better system of salary progression through wider paybands. This lies largely in the hands of employers, but if they could be persuaded to value collection knowledge as much as they value project management skills, by advocating the purpose and outcomes of collections expertise, this may help to alleviate the implicit feeling that a collection specialist is unlikely to be as open to new ideas, access, etc. than someone with more general management skills.

It may also be achieved by encouraging governing bodies to include a requirement to spend time with and develop knowledge of collections in job descriptions and staff training plans.

3. Should all museums be encouraged to have a research plan/strategy with someone responsible for it?

We recognise the potential advantages of assessing the research needs of a collection and setting this out in some kind of plan or strategy detailing areas of the collection which are in need of research and defining the focus and purpose of the research. However we have concerns that the introduction of this into the requirements of accreditation may lead smaller museums, or those with fewer resources to withdraw from the scheme altogether.

Any such strategy would need to recognise the validity of all research whether carried out by a volunteer, staff member or visiting academic researcher. There would also need to be a clearly identified person in each institution overseeing the writing and achievement of the strategy.

4. How can we encourage more museums to be research ready and open towards all types of external research?

Many museums are currently willing and keen to provide a service for researchers of all types, but are restricted by the availability of space and staff resources. It is not generally identified by Local Authorities as a core function, and is not necessarily measured as part of the standard Performance Indicators. Perhaps, by encouraging the funders of more museums to recognise the value of this, they may be persuaded to allocate greater resources to this important area of museum work.

5. Is building more partnerships with universities, university museums and IROs the way to ensure more research within the sector? If so, how can we encourage that research to be audience driven and the research process to be of greater benefit to museums?

Partnerships do exist (e.g. between Cardiff Museum Project and the University of Glamorgan and Tyne & Wear Museums and the University of Newcastle). However, it is often difficult to match the priorities of a museum with those of academic researchers or students. Where research plans exist, the identified priorities can be promoted to those looking for research opportunities making them aware of the work required and access granted if the two match.

Extant academic research (relevant information from theses already written) can be, and is, used in exhibitions/gallery text, where such opportunities arise.

We have concerns over the possibility of becoming too dependent on ‘audience needs’. Any research carried out needs to be suitable for use in displays, but allowing the audience to drive this too far could lead to some areas of collections being considered no longer relevant because they do not fit in with current requirements. This may well result in some areas of knowledge being lost completely.

6. What role would you like to see SSNs playing in the development of expertise and research?  What needs to be done to make it a reality?

SSNs already contribute a huge amount by disseminating information; and providing opportunities for networking and skills sharing.

SHCG provides a regular training programme through an annual conference and seminars on relevant topics (one of the most popular of which is ‘How to Identify Whatchamacallits’, run at least once a year and always oversubscribed). We have developed firstBase; an easily accessible web-based database of curatorial information. We publish an annual journal and twice-yearly newsletter; and have set up an e-Mail list for the sharing of information in less formal ways. We have also established the ‘Object Lessons’ loan box scheme to enable individual curators or small groups to develop their own knowledge.

This is the kind of purpose that we feel more SSNs should serve in the future. However, this will require sustainable funding streams. SHCG has its own funding stream through a paying membership scheme and has survived due to the continued commitment of members and committee members in contributing time and effort to the running of the group, largely due to their own passion for the subject and desire to assist colleagues. The narrow focus of some newer SSNs may mean they have limited scope for this constant renewal of keen and committed leadership. The newer SSNs are also likely to suffer from the demise of funding from MLA, as they have no funding stream left open to them. This means they will only be able to do things on a free/voluntary basis, which has implications for the standard or amount of work they can do. Succession planning and the consideration of future funding is needed at this stage, while enthusiasm is still high, to prevent their failure over the next few years.

7. How can we develop mentoring and specialist groups within organisations and the sector to encourage the sharing of knowledge between colleagues?

Financial support and practical assistance is essential for the development and continuation of knowledge sharing schemes run by SSNs (such as FirstBase or the Object Lessons scheme).
SSNs could be supported in running training sessions, through the provision of free or cheap rooms, underwriting the costs, or by co-ordinating partnerships between relevant specialist groups.

Mentoring and specialist groups should be more regionally based, so that regular training events are easier to get to and informal contact could be maintained more easily.

We would also like to see the encouragement of greater skills sharing between staff in National and Regional Museums; the provision of facilities for better communication between museums; and improved access to, and promotion of, the availability of specialist knowledge/information (such as a centrally administered database listing curators with specialist knowledge in certain fields who would be willing to contribute to mentoring groups and training activities).

8. The Monument Fellowships Scheme is tackling succession planning in a small number of museums. How can succession planning be encouraged more broadly across the sector?

The Monument Fellowships scheme is addressing this issue to some extent, but the real aim would be to ensure that collections knowledge is captured at the time it is gathered, rather than in retrospect. One way to improve succession planning would be to support the re-introduction of ‘Assistant Keeper’ or ‘Research Assistant’ posts to ensure a more natural dissemination of information from one generation of curators to the next, or to establish an ‘apprenticeship’ style of training akin to that for junior doctors. Retirement is not the only reason for the loss of knowledge, it is often caused by staff moving on to other institutions.

Handover periods are rare in most museums and if the departing curator’s expertise in the collection they are leaving is not left in an accessible form for their successor, it can prove irretrievable as they are, understandably, more concerned with gaining knowledge of the collection to which they have moved. A better structure and support system is necessary to address this problem.

9. How might we encourage more hands-on subject-specific training with objects across the sector? Or is there a better way to share knowledge to a wider range of people?

SSNs can provide this, but require more sustained support and assistance to do so.
Further support would allow schemes such as Object Lessons or the firstBase model to be expanded further or adapted to other specialisms.

We feel that institutions need to take greater responsibility for training their own staff and consider that were the AMA to include a more detailed requirement for specialist knowledge (in the candidate’s area of museum work), they may be more willing to accept the need for collections staff to develop relevant expertise.

Employers need to be encouraged to allocate greater resources to collections & allow their staff to put aside time for independent research into the collections and a sector-wide reconsideration of training requirements and increased focus on collections knowledge could help to achieve this.

10. There are examples of new and exciting ways of sharing, exchanging and transferring knowledge beyond the sector. How can we encourage museums to be more ambitious and innovative in how they share knowledge?

The examples cited in the consultation document are interesting, but some SSNs have forged links with relevant businesses and groups of private collectors, (e.g. the Plastics SSN), the MA could widen this by acting as a broker between different groups with similar interests and ensuring that any partnerships arising from this are mutually beneficial.