It is just over a year since we announced the first museums funded through our Renaissance programme. Here Hedley Swain, Director, Museums, takes a look at what has been achieved since then.
Last month we announced a £17 million investment in English regional museums through the latest round of the Renaissance Strategic support fund, a good time to reflect on how much has happened since we first assumed responsibility for museums at the Arts Council in October 2011 and some of the challenges currently facing us.
Just over a year ago, we announced the 16 Major partner museums (MPMs) who will receive about £20 million in funding over a three year period. They were selected because of their consistently high quality work, and because of their capacity to offer leadership and best practice across the country.
Last year’s Han China exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum is a great example of what our MPMs do best, and was enjoyed by large audiences and received critical acclaim. The Financial Times described it as 'the largest and most significant exhibition of ancient royal treasures ever to travel outside China'.
Maximising audiences is important – and we need to encourage even more people to experience the great collections and stories that can be found in our museums. But quality and excellence are equally important. They come through great people having the confidence to experiment and take risks but also in remembering what is at the core of a great museum experience – fascinating stories told in inspiring ways and built around our collections.
Audiences for museums continue to grow but many people still do not see them as an important part of their lives. So we should not be complacent and keep trying new ways of engaging people. Museums at Night, funded from Renaissance, has been one way of attracting new audiences. Last year its events across the country attracted around 5,000 people to venues for the first time.
Museums at Night in 2012 was also a great example of the new benefits that have come from museums working even more closely with the arts – through our Grants for the arts scheme we were able to provide funding for contemporary artists to work with museums for the event. One of the memorable outcomes was seeing ss Great Britain surrounded by jelly.
Innovation is crucial. But we also need to ensure our museums are resilient and sustainable. The stronger the sector is, the more it can engage people who do not usually attend museums or arts and cultural events, and the more challenging work it can put on, and the more it can experiment and develop the offer to audiences to ensure a healthy future.
That is why our Strategic support fund has been so integral, investing in projects that allow museums to build on their resilience, invest in their leadership and workforce, understand their audiences better and improve their business models.
We also need to inspire and engage children and young people to experience the richness of museums. This is exactly why Kids in Museums receive funding from us. Kids in Museums’ Takeover Day has been a huge success for the past three years – giving children the chance to guide tours, curate exhibitions, and delve into the archives. Every single child who took part in 2011 said they enjoyed themselves, and 75 per cent of them said that they felt that museums were for them.
We also continue to recognise the importance of museums to formal education and our Department for Education-funded schools and museums project has partnered up 10 national museums with 10 regional museums to improve engagement with schools. We understand that the current proposals to change the national curriculum will have implications for museums and have highlighted this in our response to the department.
More generally we understand that local authority cuts and the general weakness of the economy are putting mounting pressure on our regional museums. Our museums are brilliant: brilliant at being guardians of our cultural heritage and brilliant at using collections to provide great enjoyable learning experiences and making a positive difference to people's lives. The recent public attitudes survey undertaken by the Museums Association and funded by the Arts Council was a heartening reminder of just how highly the public value museums. It is really important that we do not lose what we have achieved and work together to build on our achievements.
Director, Museums, Arts Council England