Laura Crossley spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis about embedding community engagement work with non-traditional groups in their core practice even in leaner financial times.
Laura: Hello, thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. It’s been a real privilege to hear such fantastic presentations so far and hopefully that will continue with mine! And thank you to the museums who have provided really nice images of community engagement work that are in my presentation.
I believe, as I’m sure everyone here does, that museums have a duty to be inclusive institutions that enable everyone no matter what their backgrounds to access culture. International austerity and financially leaner times appear to be here to stay. Sorry about that, it’s not my fault! And under this pressure, it would perhaps be easy to decrease or discontinue work with non-traditional groups. I think that if they are to continue to be inclusive institutions, museums must take measures to embed community engagement work with non-traditional groups in their core practice so that it happens whether museums have funding or not.
Research has painted an often very gloomy picture of the impact of the financial cuts on museums. A 2014 UK Museums Association survey found that 43% of respondents experienced a budget cut of more than 10% in the previous year and 9% of respondents reduced access to sites by closing whole or parts of their site. And a 2013 American Alliance of Museums report found that more 67% of US museums that responded reported economic stress at their institutions in 2012 and felt that belt tightening measures could be ongoing in the medium term future.
So my presentation draws on interviews with 19 museum professionals across England who work in a variety of museums so small independent museums, council run museums, national and university museums. And it demonstrates how the interviewees are changing their community engagement practice to ensure that they remain dynamic inclusive institutions despite either losing their core funding or having their core funding much reduced. This research was undertaken as part of my PhD in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester and it reveals how museum professionals who really deeply believe that museums should be inclusive institutions are bringing community engagement to the core of their work.
The presentation doesn’t seek to justify or welcome cuts to museums but it will provide practical examples of robust and durable community engagement practice with non-traditional groups in a diverse variety of museums in England. I hope that these examples and my talk will provide you with an opportunity to consider how your museum might continue to undertaken community engagement work in financially lean times.
My PhD research. I’m looking at what English museums’ community engagement practices look like in the current financial climate and I’ve undertaken interviews with museum professionals in England who work at different levels of the organisation so directors, curators, community engagement officers and learning officers. And collecting this real breadth of data has allowed me to take a critical look at the ideas that were conveyed during the interviews.
The people I’ve interviewed have discussed experiencing a noticeable shift in funding since the UK government introduced austerity measures. Prior to this, many had run regularly funded community engagement projects to reach out to non-traditional visitors and bring them into the museum. The number of projects has reduced since the cuts due to lack of funding and an effort to keep core running costs down. Interviewees are undoubtedly frustrated at the cuts that are preventing them from undertaking the same level of community engagement as they were during New Labour’s time in office in the UK when funding for museums was greater. However, my research is showing that despite these frustrations, museums are adapting to meet the new funding climate and much more than being a source of frustration, the new financial climate is forcing museum professionals to work in different more sustainable ways. And indeed, interviewees have often talked of concerns that previous funded projects during the economic boom were often tokenistic and not very well evaluated.
So I’m now going to discuss the main findings of my research to date, together with some specific examples that museum staff are doing to continue to work with non-traditional groups. It’s worth noting that this just provides a snapshot of community engagement in English museums at the current time and it’d be interesting to hear whether my research matches what you’re finding. And also to let you know I can’t name individual museums or practitioners because of the confidentiality requirements of my research.
Museums are bringing community engagement to the core of their work so that it’s protected as much as possible from funding cuts. One of the ways of doing that is by including the importance of working with non-traditional groups in their mission statements and policies. Some interviewees spoke of every member of staff in a museum being expected to have a community focused outlook no matter what their post as there’s often no longer money to fund staff posts that are dedicated to engaging with non-traditional groups.
There appears to be a real desire to move away from tick box exercises and tokenistic community engagement that was perhaps undertaken for the sake of getting money and maybe had no real impacts on the museum or project participants. One interviewee, for example, said that she used to deeply question what the value of her previous well funded projects were and came to the conclusion that their only real value was for the museum as it brought money in from funders. And others spoke about their concern that previous projects were tokenistic in that participants were dropped as soon as funding ended and maybe never became long term users of the museum.
Wayne Modest has written about the difference between real and symbolic community engagement practices suggesting that real practices that are embedded into a museum’s ethos benefit community partners as well as the museum and are sustainable. My research suggests that museums are perhaps moving from engagement that could’ve been described as being somewhat or maybe wholly symbolic to being more real.
A member of staff in a council run museum that’s lost almost all its core funding since 2010 said that her museum is increasingly blurring the lines between project and core work so that what was once seen as community engagement and we need to externally fund it because we can’t possibly pay for that with our core money is now part of the museum’s everyday operations. And if the museum does receive money for one-off community engagement projects, they now work much harder to ensure that these projects have sustainable legacies like ongoing partnerships with community organisations.
My research is suggesting that larger better funded museums could learn lessons from small museums that have to survive without any core funding. One small independent museum I went to received £20,000 a year to pay for a manager and that was it, no other funding at all. It didn’t charge an admission fee because it wanted to be financially accessible to everyone so the museum hired out rooms to the community. It co-curated community exhibitions using external funding and it held annual exhibitions of work from local schoolchildren and a local photography club. It was supported by a diverse team of volunteers from lots of sections of the local community. Community and constantly connecting with wide sections of local community was embedded in all this museum does and that approach was actually key to its survival. If we need further proof about the importance of this museum to its community, here are its numerous community pride awards.
So how are museum professionals continuing to undertake community engagement and bring this to the core of their work? Mainly I found through widening their networks to reach out to and create sustainable relationships with partners in the community such as charities who work with non-traditional groups. Collaboration is supporting museums to find new funding that might not be available to them without a community partner on board and in addition by working with partners, money is being saved by sharing resources and funding with partners. And let’s not forget that many community organisations in the UK anyway have been absolutely devastated by the cuts, possibly more than museums are and they often welcome the opportunity to share resources with a museum.
Although interviewees have acknowledged that finding and working with partners can be problematic and time consuming, they’ve also been really brimming with positivity about partnership working believing it to be firstly a sustainable way to reach people in the community who might be really difficult for the museum to reach, a means to connect with experts who really understand the needs of specific non-traditional groups and a way to ensure that community engagement isn’t entirely tokenistic. So although a partner’s clients might maybe only participate in one museum project, at least the relationship with the partner is ongoing and sustainable. My research shows that museum professionals are making a real effort to stay in touch with community partners so that relationships aren’t lost, doing things like sending out quarterly e-newsletters to community partners or larger initiatives like inviting partners onto museum panels.
So how are museums choosing which partners to work with? I found that firstly they think about the priorities of their funders if they have funders. So one local council run museum I talked to were asked by councillors to specifically work with looked after children which they did. The interviewee said it’s really essential for council run museums in particular but also other museums to keep an eye on the local and national political agenda as that agenda can bring funding to the table.
Priorities of staff members or directors, so one director I spoke to who was really passionate about supporting unemployed people in his local community has created a program in which local unemployed people do a period of work experience in his museum to gain skills and crucially work references, so hopefully get them a job in the future.
Which partners will work with them? And I’ll talk a bit later about the need for advocacy so partners really buy into the notion that museums can have a positive impact on the lives of people. Which partners show commitment to projects? Some interviewees did speak about their frustration at running projects with partners who weren’t fully on board and also which partners have the same aims and vision as the museum.
As well as building sustainable partnerships, museums are also widening their networks by searching for new funders. In the UK, that will be alternatives to the usual funders like the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund who fund a lot of museum projects in the UK. Interviewees I’ve spoken to at large institutions in particular are seeking funding from health bodies for museum projects that have an impact on health and well-being such as dementia patients and people with lived experience of mental health issues.
In order to find new funding, I’d like to suggest that the sector needs to get much better at demonstrating the tangible impacts our work is having on participants in the long term. And my research suggests that museums are starting to do this and I think it’s great that they’re also working with partners to collect, analyse, understand and disseminate this data. So one person I spoke to is working with a local mental health charity to develop an evaluation methodology that will robustly test whether the work she’s doing with people with lived experience of mental health issues is improving people’s well-being and mental health in the long term.
Better recording and reporting demonstrates to funders that museums really can make a difference to people’s lives and can help also bring community partners on board. Several people told me that partners they’ve approached have turned down collaboration because they’ve said ‘Oh no, our clients wouldn’t be interested in working with museums and I don’t think museums are going to be able to support them in any way.’ And clearly this is a view that we really need to challenge if we are to continue to develop meaningful and long term partnerships that make a difference to people’s lives. I think it’s really easy for us to exist in a museum bubble where we all know the positive impacts that museums have on people’s lives and we just assume everyone else does too and that’s just not true. It’s up to us to shout about the role museums can play in changing lives and provide concrete examples of this to ensure the message gets out much further than our narrow museum networks.
So why are today’s museum professionals continuing to find ways to undertake community engagement work in the face of the cuts? I found that they strongly believe in the ability of museums to change lives and will adapt as necessary to ensure that community work takes place no matter what the finances look like. Perhaps this attitude is because ideas around new museology and its focus on museums as socially inclusive institutions that strive for increased access have been well and truly taken on board by the profession in the past 20 years and ingrained into museum training and practice. Certainly there’s people I’ve spoken to who have formal museum training like a Museum Studies Masters who’ve said that their belief in museum’s social role has been directly influenced by their training. And given this, I’d like to suggest that we ensure that we push the message about the social role of museums so that this thinking continues to be embedded within the sector.
I’d argue that museums are effectively evolving to meet the challenge of reduced funding for community engagement. They’re shifting their mission statements to place community at the heart of their work and increasingly viewing themselves as and taking steps to be part of an inter-related network of museums, educational and cultural institutions and the community. By embedding community engagement practice into the heart of their work, museum professionals are not simply utilising a temporary unsustainable solution to the funding crisis. Rather they’re confidently taking the stance that museums should be working to change lives and therefore taking steps to ensure that this will happen no matter what the funding situation is now and in the future.
We don’t know what the funding situation will be. We might suddenly get a lot of money although I very much doubt it and we might have to survive in a climate of permanently reduced funding. Whatever happens, I hope that we take full that has no long term impacts on participants. It should be embedded into practice. A museum shouldn’t work in silos with no connections to their local communities. They should be outward looking connected institutions that are at the heart of their communities.
So recently, I’ve been reading about resilient systems and thinking about how museums can be resilient under pressure which, at the moment, is often financial pressure. A resilient system is one that can withstand shocks and surprises, absorb extreme pressure but still maintain its core function, though perhaps in an altered form. A resilient system has transformability which is the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic, social and political conditions have made the existing system untenable. I believe that by changing their community engagement practice to ensure that it survives with less money, museums have shown they have transformability and therefore resilience.
And this ability to be resilient in the face of great economic challenge I think should be applauded. The museum sector will undoubtedly face challenges in the future, both those we can foresee and those we can’t. Let’s celebrate the sector’s resilience and be confident that we can overcome challenges to maintain our innovative thriving museums.
And before I finish, I’d like to challenge everyone here to think of one thing that you can do to further bring community engagement to the core of your work, whether it be rewriting your mission statement to include community engagement or work with non-traditional groups, reaching out to a new partner, developing a permanent program of community led exhibitions, whatever works for you.
Thank you very much, happy to take questions now or during the conference or on Twitter.
Female Voice: I’m curious if you could go into a little more detail about resilient systems and what are some tactics or how does that work within organisations? How can we build resilient systems?
Speaker: I’ve only just started to read about resilient systems so I put that slide in thinking I hope no-one asks me a question about that! Anyway, I’ve read a bit of Robert James about how resilience in museums shouldn’t just be financial resilience and I actually think that’s something that I’m thinking more and more. We seem to just completely reduce the idea of resilience to needing money and needing money to do things and actually I think we need to look much more at how museums are doing things without money. At the moment, we think that somehow in the future lots of money is suddenly going to materialise and it’s not really maybe living in reality. And although it’d be great if more money materialised, it might not happen and so we really need to think about people’s personal resilience, so what happens to people who’ve had jobs for 20 years who then are suddenly on temporary contracts or lose their jobs. What about people who suddenly have to do the work of three different people?
I also think resilience is about looking outwards so connecting with partners, connecting with the community. The local community are our greatest advocates and so we really need to work hard to bring them on board. That doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Today we’ve heard about the community blogging program and other programs. So I think it’s about taking that idea of resilience but not just seeing it as purely financial.
Female Voice: I just have a housekeeping question. Who is it that you referenced when you talked about real versus symbolic community engagement?
Laura: Wayne Modest. If anyone has any other questions, please do speak to me at the conference.
Female Voice: It’s not a question so much as a kind of statement. As you can probably tell, I’m from Scotland, the National Museum Scotland and I’m probably one of the very fortunate people. We still have a community engagement team there, although it was halved about five years ago because of budget cuts. We have depended a lot on projects on external funding. We’ve got fantastic core support from our director and our board and I totally agree with everything you’ve said. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. I think one of the challenges we have though is we tend to work with small numbers compared with, say, our colleagues who are delivering schools programs or other types of activities. So I think that’s where the balance comes in and in showing that actually we can do an awful lot with very little but maybe for very few people. But it makes high impact on them.
Laura: And I think it’s about having a focus. We shouldn’t just chase funding pots. We shouldn’t try and do everything, we can’t so I think it’s about really thinking about who is our museum best positioned to work with and support, who are our local partners, who are our local funders and really work with a few groups and get it right rather than trying to do everything because that’s a much more sustainable way of working than just chasing funding pots and trying to do everything and not really having a strategy.
Thank you very much.
Laura Crossley from the University of Leicester in England spoke at our first North American Museum Conference in Indianapolis about embedding community engagement work with non-traditional groups in their core practice even in leaner financial times.
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