Collections 2030: What’s Next for Museum Collections?

What does the next decade look like for museum collections in the UK? This is the question that the Museums Association’s new research project, Collections 2030, is asking.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be working with museum workers, researchers and users to think about the big issues that the sector needs to have on its radar as we plan for the next decade. What trends do we need to adapt to? Will the way that we treat and value collections change? What are the implications of a new generation taking charge in our museums? And will we have the infrastructure that we need not only to pass on collections, but to make them valued by the wider public?

When asked about the future, it can be tempting to let our imaginations run away with ourselves.

But if we’re going to consider what museum collections might look like in 12 years or so, it’s worth casting our minds back the same distance. Over that period, technological changes have been huge, and have led to much experimentation in museums but not always greater impact. The financial crisis has radically changed the workforce and business model for many museums, with major implications for collections knowledge and management.

But our museum collections themselves can seem oddly absent from this picture of change.

Collections have not grown much, and to the extent that ‘pure’ collections issues enter into our discussions, we have seen a period with much to talk about. But not a huge amount of change in practice, about disposals, about storage, about where to put everything, and occasionally, and with much trepidation, whether we should give some of our stuff back to those who made it.

So what should we aspire to change in the next decade? To my mind, many of the changes that will occur in collections management and use will be driven by public demand. I want to look at just a few trends which museums must adapt to – namely: transparency, accountability and democratisation.

First – transparency. We are already on this journey, but it is clear that the public are going to expect far more than today to understand what museums hold and what for. The internet is undoubtedly the key factor in this – users increasingly expect to be able to search for and find what they’re looking for. This is a goal that we have been quietly working towards for years. Making collections more accessible through digitisation, research and interpretation. But many rightly point out how innovation in the front-end has come from outside the sector – through google and ArtUK – but built on the back of years of behind the scenes work from museums themselves. This is a journey that has only just started, and museums need to think about how they can provide the public with what they want, and get the recognition that they deserve.

More transparency means more accountability about what museums have and what they do. How are decisions made about collections? Who is involved in that process? What was an obscure process done by experts is increasingly on public show – and that’s generally a good thing. But audiences are also asking why museums are happy to sit with 95% of their publicly-owned collections in storage – ostensibly to little public benefit. We need to demonstrate that we are capable of dynamic collections management that responds to a public need.

The last force that I want to consider is a more positive one. With transparency and accountability comes greater democracy. That is, we ought to see a greater sense of public ownership of what are, after all, public collections.

This is a scary prospect for some – it can mean relinquishing control. But while we ought to acknowledge that the public want to hear from people in museums who really know what they’re talking about, they increasingly want to be involved in a two-way conversation about our collections, have a greater say in how they are used and what should be collected to tell the story of now. Socially and technologically, we can’t ignore the fact that society and our institutions are becoming more permeable. Museum collections are part of that process too.

And we should see this as the opportunity that it is – an opportunity to work with external expertise, to work in partnership with other organisations, to engage communities with our collections. Doing so is good in its own right. We ought to be delivering tangible impacts for society. But having that democratic involvement in our institutions is also a means of ensuring the ongoing relevance and trusted status of museums.

These are just a few ideas about some of the things that are coming down the line. Through Collections 2030, we want to understand these issues and others so that we can prepare for the future, and we want to work closely with NatSCA and other SSNs to make sure that we can set out a vision that will work across the whole museums sector.

Written by Alistair Brown, Museum’s Association

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