By Nick Poole, CEO, Collections Trust
It is time to celebrate everything that is great about Britains' museums and galleries. From our venues which inspire, educate and amaze millions of people every year, to our collections and the rich, creative online resources we provide, our dazzling cultural offer is the envy of nations worldwide. Our heritage unites us, gives us strength and confidence in facing the challenges of tomorrow. Governments and agencies from all over the world come knocking on Britains' door for the knowledge and expertise of our professional community, from curatorship to conservation, education and outreach.
Britain's army of professional and volunteer museum staff should be proud and we should be confident. So much has been achieved over the past 10 years - we have professionalised our work, improved our collections and thrown open our doors as never before. We should face the next Spending Review in the knowledge that great culture is what makes Britain great.
Anyone watching the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games will have seen cosmopolitan, enthusiastic nation which truly understands the connection between a proud heritage and the fabric of daily life. Our culture is playful, inclusive and grandiose precisely because we celebrate our past as the story of our present. That is the unique thing that museums do, in every community, in every village, town and city for people of every age.
The benefits of placing museums at the heart of our cultural life reach everyone, whether they are a regular museum-goer or not. Museums revitalise communities, making our neighbourhoods more lively, attracting visitors and tourists and inward investment. Museums encourage us to share common experiences, expose us to new ideas and foster tolerance and understanding.
For too long, museum theorists have agonised over the question of whether museums should be prized for their instrumental or their intrinsic value. The answer, with a glorious yawp is 'both!'. It is time to peek out from the petticoats of quantification and measurability and be ballsy, joyful and celebratory about our fantastic museums and their extraordinary, beautiful collections, places and stories.
And of course that is not to say that museums can't do good - of course there are outcomes and benefits and values-added that can be quantified and use to justify the taxpayer's investment in culture. But before we try and justify museums, before we make the instrumentalist case, we need to make a bold, assertive and loud statement that museums ARE good. In fact, more than this, they're great. They're amazing. Just go to one, right now, today, and you will see what I mean.
Because a culture of openness and accountability is a good thing. A culture of instrumentalism is cloying. Worse, it is the wrong cure for the wrong problem. Governments who feel the need to measure everything are Governments who have lost touch with the concept of public benefit. Look at the triumphs of human endeavour in 2012 - we have discovered a particle which unifies our concepts of the Universe. We have placed a robot the size of a small car on a planet 100m miles from Earth. Both CERN and Curiosity are born of the rich heritage of the human instinct to explore and discover. Neither makes sense on a balance sheet, but both have repaid their public investment in countless ways, and will do so for generations to come. How many disadvantaged schoolchildren have benefitted from Curiosity landing on Mars? I couldn't tell you, but eventually the answer will be 'all of them'.
Whether it is roads or railways, sewers, Universities or broadband, truly transformative public works rarely make economic sense before you do them. Of course, they need to be justified in terms of anticipated benefits, but the real currency, the real calculus which achieves genuine social change, is courage.
Of course we need to give our politicians and our funders evidence, and value and impact, but before this we need to give them courage and conviction. Without intrinsic belief in the value of a strong museum sector, no amount of measurement will ever make up for that nagging lack of conviction.