As 2012 draws inexorably to a close, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the past year in the UK museum sector and for our colleagues in libraries and archives, and to look ahead to some of the key themes we'll be working on in 2013. This is just our list - we would love to hear from you about the highs and lows of 2012, and what next year holds in store for you and your organisation.
A time of change
Of course, it's impossible to look back over 2012 without mentioning the London 2012 Olympics - a crowning achievement not only for the UK's athletes but also for showcasing a modern, forward-looking, diverse and enthusiastic nation to the rest of the world. The Cultural Olympiad came together as an exciting programme of public art and entertainment, and demonstrated what everyone already knew - that the UK is home to an amazing array of talent and creativity.
Of course, despite the energy and enthusiasm of the Olympics, any review of the year also has to take into account the wider context of economic and political upheaval. The impact of the Credit Crunch in 2008 continues to reverberate throughout the public and private sectors, with the Coalition Government's fiscal policy to recover the deficit in public finances perfectly coinciding with its ambitions to create a smaller State infrastructure.
For some parts of the museum, archive and library sector, this coincidence of politics and economics set the scene for a perfect storm - increased visitor figures, severe pressure on Local Authority budgets and reductions in National and Departmental expenditure have compelled the industry to make very difficult choices about staffing and public programming. The resulting closures and reductions in service have been well-documented elsewhere.
But while the immediate impact has been clear, the long-term impact is less so. As cultural organisations strive to deliver an exciting frontline offer, there is a risk that we will stop collecting, stop planning and that we will continue to paper over the cracks rather than planning for the kind of real, long-term infrastructural development that is needed to ensure that future generations have access to the same compelling cultural offer that we did growing up.
While the outlook may be gloomy for some parts of the sector, though, it is by no means the case everywhere. In July, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced its new Strategic Framework 2013-18, setting out a positive vision of how it will provide strategic support for its communities in the context of an increased share of Lottery revenues. This Framework was amongst the first of the major funders to recognise the transition of the sector from providing physical services to delivering experiences which integrate the physical and the digital.
The Arts Council England set out its stall with Culture Knowledge and Understanding: Acheiving Great Museums and Libraries for Everyone, integrating its new responsibilities into the newly-published 10-year Strategy to 2021. Since then, the Arts Council has worked with NESTA to develop the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts and with the BBC to launch The Space, a new approach to public programming for digital media.
In the independent museum sector, too, there were some reasons to be cheerful. Museums like Beamish showed how the independent sector is positioned to make the most of staycationing Brits and overseas tourists to generate revenue and to continue to grow through the downturn. Under the leadership of their new CEO Sam Hunt, the Association for Independent Museums emerged as a powerful voice not just for independents, but also for a positive vision of a robust and resilient museum sector.
New Digital Channels
2012 was also a year of exciting launches of new digital platforms and services. In October, the Google Cultural Institute showcased their new tools for digital curation, launching with 17 online exhibits focussed on key events in modern history. We look forward to seeing how the platform will develop in 2013, and particularly the rollout of tools for the public to create exhibits of their own.
As well as The Space, we also joined the whole sector in celebrating the tremendous achievement of the Public Catalogue Foundation in completing their programme to digitise all 210,000 oil paintings in public ownership in the UK, and to make these available for crowdsourced tagging via Your Paintings, their exciting collaboration with the BBC.
Elsewhere, the theme of opening up collections continued, with the Culture Grid passing a key milestone of making 3 million digital objects from UK museums, archives and libraries available for enjoyment and creative re-use. The Collections Trust continued to act as the national aggregator for the UK, helping to promote UK collections through Europeana, the online platform for digital cultural content in Europe.
Europeana itself also passed a major milestone - delivering 23m digital assets to the world, licensed for open re-use. We hope that this will enable a new generation of developers to create applications which will showcase Europe's museums, archives and libraries and their collections.
Policy Developments around the UK
Against this backdrop of innovation and new development, 2012 also saw a number of key developments in the arena of cultural policy around the UK. In March, the Scottish Government published their 10-year Museum and Gallery Strategy with the aim of 'uniting the sector in a vision to achieve a more sustainable future and to maximise the sector’s reach, growth and potential.' The Strategy addresses key themes of sustainability, collaboration and internationalism with a clear focus on collections and people at the heart of a vital cultural offer for Scotland.
Scottish Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop built on these themes in her address to the inspiring 2012 Museums Association Conference, placing culture at the heart of a Scotland that, if not yet independent, is certainly independently-minded.
Wales, too, celebrated its 5-year (2010-15) 'Museums Strategy for Wales', building on the theme of 'A Collection for the Nation' and integrating a vibrant cultural offer into the specific needs of the people and industries of Wales. As elsewhere, the Welsh strategy provides a vision of a sector that is innovative, aspirational, campaigning, but built on a solid foundation of best practice, good management and sound Governance.
In Northern Ireland, the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure continued to build on its Museum Policy for Northern Ireland. As with the strategies in Scotland and Wales, the Northern Ireland policy strikes a balance between creativity, public engagement, great collections and good management - providing a model which will stand Irish museums in good stead for the year ahead.
The Museums Association has continued to play its role in provoking discussion about the basis of museum policy, now and in the future. It's Museums 2020 consultation spoke to themes of social justice, creativity and adaptability in the delivery of services, although many (us included!) felt that it sacrificed collections in the name of instrumentalism. What Museums 2020 did achieve, however, was to bring the different parts of the museum community together to explore how we can look ahead to the future without abandoning the best of our past. The Campaign for Good Curatorship was just one of many such outcomes which will continue to develop throughout 2013.
Partly in response to the wider context of social and political upheaval, 2012 also seemed to be the year of big ideas for the UK museum sector. Whether it was the Happy Museum, the Participatory Museum or the Museum of Social Justice, there seemed to be a strong sense that it is no longer enough for museums to be good, they must also do good - acting as agents for social change, cohesion and giving people a sense of place, purpose, unity and interpersonal responsibility.
In the context of these big philosophical ideas, museums continued to work on some of their more pragmatic implications - 2012 saw a lot of people revisiting their core mission and strategy, developing their Boards, building digital strategies, carrying out collections reviews and monetising their collections. Partly through the impetus of sustaining services through the downturn, people have tightened up on their processes, and adjusted their expectations in terms of acquisitions, loans and management.
A more subtle, but equally important theme has been the question of environmental impact and management. With energy costs at an all-time high and increasing pressure to put collections to work, more and more museums are thinking about how to prioritise their investment. The publication of the joint National Archives/BSI Publicly Available Specification 198 introduced the concept of lifetime management of objects - even to the point of coming to terms with their eventual loss.
The New Networks
Back in 2011, Collections Trust CEO Nick Poole wrote an article for the brilliant MuseumID magazine called The New Networks - heralding the arrival of the self-help sector, built on principles of grassroots collaboration and small-scale, adaptable and resilient networks. This vision has become increasingly apparent during 2012, with the rise and rise of the UK-wide Museum Development Officers network alongside innovative developments like SHARE Museums East (and its London equivalent).
This year, we also saw the Guardian Culture Professionals Network rise to prominence, with an energetic approach and a seemingly endless supply of fresh, interesting editorial, the Network has grown rapidly to provide a really valuable forum for people in the Creative and Cultural Industries.
Closer to home, the Collections Trust's own Collections Management LinkedIn group grew by 175% in 2012, with more than 30 new discussion threads being started per month, it has rapidly become the village well for the international Collections Management community.
On a less positive note - the emergence of new and more active local and sub-regional networks seems to be masking a significant transition in the museum workforce. We have heard that there are fewer staff, but also that many museums have lost senior or experienced staff, and with them the knowledge and experience which helps bring their collections to life. This has led, in part, to a debate about the role of specialism and expertise in museums, as well as to calls from some communities (most notably the Natural History community) to try and ensure that sufficient expertise is available to interpret collections meaningfully for the public.
New Directions for Collections Management
2012 was also a key year in the evolution of Collections Management as the body of professional practice which will power the emerging vision of a more open, participatory and agile museum sector. We saw Collections Management take centre-stage in the discussion about technology and engagement, as well as in ensuring that museums continue to be able to use their collections as an active resource.
A key development was the increased recognition of strategic Collections Management (making decisions about collections based on core mission and purpose), and the need actively to develop collections - both by growing them and shrinking them - strategically. We saw far less discussion about collaborative collecting, but if Collections Management in 2012 had a keyword it was 'integration'.
We saw museums all over the UK beginning to integrate their collections information alongside interpretation, outreach, education, online, social and mobile - bringing these different elements together under a common framework. It was exciting to see Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson's Digital Engagement Framework begin to take root in the sector, and to think about how collections form a key part of building meaningful and open relationships with audiences.
On the digital side, we saw the emergence of platforms which connect collections management with web publishing, engagement, crowdsourcing, user-generated content and a whole range of other channels - essentially fulfilling the vision of a two-way conversation with audiences that is also incremental and adds to the knowledge the museum holds about its collections. We also heard some familiar concerns - echoing the discussions about authority, trust and expertise in the real world, we have seen some interesting debates about the integrity, authority and provenance of digital assets and identities.
Of course, the themes of mobile, social and cloud continued to dominate throughout 2012, but towards the end of the year, we saw the beginnings of an interesting new conversation about value and impact - building on the Lets Get Real work done by Culture24 and more recently on Simon Tanner's Balanced Value Impact Model.
The other watchwords were rationalisation and commercialisation. As the economic pressure continues to build, many museums have started to find ways of being more proactive in the rationalisation of their collections. The big surprise for Collections Trust this year was to see the Revisiting Collections methodology (which we thought had gone more or less cold) being actively picked up across the sector as a mechanism for open, accountable rationalisation and collections development.
On the commercial front, we have seen a lot of interest in finding ways of commercialising digital content, and of balancing the commercial imperative with the drive to open more content as linked open (and therefore freely licensed) data. The sector has continued to flirt with openness while trying to find a structured way of monetising the highlights of their collections, and we confidently predict that this theme will continue throughout next year - and indeed the rest of our working lives.
Slightly surprising by their relative lack of profile this year were '3D' and 'copyright' (although we did have some interesting conversations about 3D copyright. We thought that 3D printing would revolutionise museums, as it is set to disrupt the worlds of manufacturing and retail, but there was something decidedly 'meh' in the sectors view of it this year. Perhaps this will change as the price point for 3D printers continues to fall - we will wait and see!
On the copyright front, it seemed like many of the people we were talking to have decided that they can no longer afford to allow vagueness about copyright to prevent them from doing what they need to do. More and more people are adopting a strategy based on risk management and a robust takedown policy, and we haven't seen anyone sued yet (or if they have been, they've been very quiet about it!).
10 Predictions for 2013
In spite of what you might think, we're not clairvoyants here at Collections Trust, and we don't have magical powers, so we're going to have to restrict ourselves to looking at what we think 2013 holds for collections and the people who work with them. So, for your edification and delight, see below our 10 Predictions for Collections Management in 2013.
- The public will continue to visit, access, enjoy and use collections across the museum and broader cultural sectors;
- We will see an increased emphasis on the skills and workforce development agendas in general, and on collections management skills and competencies in particular, including the question of subject-based expertise;
- We will see more examples of practical applications of linked open data coming through, with a greater emphasis on using culture-sector information to enhance other consumer offers;
- We will see a lot of museums revisiting their core mission and purpose, and updating their collecting and collections management policies as a result;
- We will continue to see the emergence of consumer-facing digital platforms based on digital cultural content but offering experiences which end-users genuinely want;
- We will see museums starting to use performance metrics and data to test, evaluate and improve both online and in-gallery experiences;
- Museums will increasingly experiment with opening up parts of their collection for creative re-use, and locking down other parts for commercial licensing and exploitation. This will continue to enrage Wikipedia.
- We will see fewer and fewer 'pure' Collections Management Systems, and more and more systems integration, bringing together digital assets, web publishing, user-generated content and other material into common publishing platforms;
- We will see an increased emphasis on the use of collections information for formal and informal education and research, including the delivery of museum content to MOOCs and VLE
- We won't see a definitive solution to the issues surrounding the reproduction and use of copyright material in museums
That's just our starter though! We're sure your list will include a lot of other things - why not share your predictions for 2013 in the comments below?
In the meantime, thanks to everyone in our community for your support, insight and guidance during 2012. We hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!