TaitMail Flogging a dead museum

Is the Museums Association preaching heresy?

“Deaccessioning”, or flogging off works of art and antiquity, used to be anathema to the curators’ professional organisation, and here it is apparently endorsing the recommendation of its own task force that museums and galleries should be doing just that. What a row it kicked up when Northampton Museum sold off its 4,000-year-old Sekhemka statue four years ago for £16m, what has changed?
Or perhaps not enough has changed. The suggestion is rather buried in the report https://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=1246941 put together by the team led by Bristol’s culture head Laura Pye, and made up by 15 museum heads from all four nations, published more than 18 months since the MA set the task force up. It went through all the research, reports, strategies it could find, and talked to everyone here and abroad, to come up with what could be the start of a national policy that local and regional authorities would be a key part of with the Arts Council and DCMS.
Because this is not the flog-and-cash0-in screech we've had before. The semantics are extremely careful not to sound like that, so that “rationalisation” is the preferred word, but there is a lot more here than pawning treasure to fill funding gaps.
Starting off with the rather grand premise that “put simply, museums can help to make people’s lives better”, the task force found that collections had been accumulated almost will-nilly, they were not always managed properly or at all, and there was significantly limited in-house knowledge about what was there.
In truth, there are museums that ought not to open at all, so woeful is their curatorial understanding and interpretation. Too many rely on volunteers whose enthusiasm is frequently balanced by their ignorance. They don’t connect with their communities, either to impart what they’ve got to tell or to find out what is wanted, or ensure that what they have got to show reflects those communities in all their diversities. Too seldom do they talk to other museums, local, regional or national to swap advice, experience, contacts, and are not equipped to deal with the crises funding shortages inevitably provoke.
So what’s needed, says the MA and its task force, is a general rethink of collecting, why, what and for whom, and of funding which should probably result in local endowment funds to deal with the exigencies created by political looniness and ensure these vital resources survive. And, here it comes, they want museums to “consider more radical approaches to the disposal of collections in order to help secure the long-term future”. It’s John Tusa’s “strategic pragmatism”, vide last week’s TaitMail offering: not flogging treasures but deciding what they represent and making the collections reflect it.
And it comes when the big regional authorities, the super councils, are starting to want to take charge of their culture to keep it safe, with this week’s significant announcement that Manchester is committing £7 to its arts organisations, because it sees the that there is income, jobs, tourism, status in its arts and heritage. They talk to each other, and a co-ordinated “rationalisation” should start there.
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