A sense of direction and purpose

I’m writing this blog on the train on the way back from a week in Kyoto for the ICOM conference – this year’s theme was “museums as cultural hubs: the future of tradition”. All anyone could talk about, though, in coffee breaks and online as well as in the sessions dedicated to it, was the proposed new museum definition. There’s no doubting that museums are today very different than they were when the current ICOM definition of what museums are was written, and that definition doesn’t any longer capture the sector particularly well. It also, like most definitions, doesn’t set aspirations or a sense of direction for the sector, and that is, I think, where things started to get tricky. The proposed new definition aimed to set out a vision and values for museums as well as capturing the essence of a sector whose practise has changed and is continuing to change. Given the diversity of institutions and practise showcased at the conference and in the museum sector globally, that’s a hugely ambitious task, so I’m not surprised it got stuck.

In all the conversations I had with people at the conference, I also found disagreement not only on the wording of a new definition, but on who the audience for the new definition was supposed to be and what changing does for the sector. Is it a relatively simple change to broaden the wording of the ICOM statues so that they more clearly and accurately represent the sector today, or is it intended to have broader impact in the sector, inspiring us to have greater relevance and supporting advocacy for museums beyond our sector? Is it supposed to set out where we are or where we’re going? Is it a definition that is supposed to be fixed for decades, or constantly a work in progress?

Among the ICOM conference sessions, I spent most of my time in sessions organised by the University Museums and Collections committee, thinking not only about the complicated question of how museums could be defined, but about university and academic museums as a part of the sector. I’ve spent my career so far in national museums (and a national library), which are research-based institutions, but am trying in my new job to be conscious of what the differences – as well as the similarities – are between that experience and what I’ll be working with as Director of Museums for a university. Two related and overlapping themes came out in the UMAC sessions in Kyoto: that university museums see themselves as distinctive because they are institutions within institutions, and they are institutions whose parent institution does not have a primary aim to run museums, meaning that university museums have to consistently advocate for the relevance and value of their work. I can see how both of those are true, but they are also true of other kinds of museums, for example local authority museums (in the UK) which have been so heavily cut in recent years, or corporate museums whose role within their parent organisations I’ve always found interesting. More important than all of that, surely all museums have to advocate for the relevance and value of museums – or should do?

To be honest, I’m not normally all that inclined to these kinds of questions of definition, and would typically prefer to be doing things rather than defining and debating them or attaching complex language or frameworks. At the moment things are a little different, though, because I’m thinking about the sector while working on assessing the strategic alignment and clarity for the museums I lead. For any new director to get a sense of the organisation’s mission and vision, and the extent to which everyone’s work is aligned to it, is important, and especially so for organisations in the middle of a period of change. I’ve joined my new team in the middle of a large project to extend and reopen the Wardlaw Museum in 2020, which involves the whole team working together to redisplay galleries, develop a new programme of temporary exhibitions, and renew programming. Big projects like this one can – and are often used to – create change, but there is always a risk that when a large project finishes, the team “snaps back” to older ways of working.

My brief as the new director is to use the project to extend and reopen the Wardlaw Museum as the starting point for a larger reimagination of the museums and their relevance and impact within the university (and beyond). So, one of my highest priorities at the moment is working out how to take the momentum of the capital project and turn it into ongoing momentum for the museums team. That will mean we need a clear shared sense of our mission and vision, that honours what the museums have been in the past, takes the best of that and continues it, as well as adding new plans for exhibitions and programmes.

Our work on the exhibitions and programmes for the Wardlaw Museum is driven by creativity and curiosity, and by embracing the spirit of enquiry and the scale of ambition that the university embodies in its research and teaching. But, we’re a relatively small museums team, so expanding our vision and ambition means we also need to make plans and priorities that help us make choices about which new projects to take on, and which programmes we might want to stop. That’s where strategic alignment can be the most difficult but important – adding more and more new initiatives without stopping others can lead to fragmentation and a lack of focus even if there are resources for all of it. In the more normal museum situation where there aren’t enough resources for everything, I’ve seen in a previous job the damage to the wellbeing of staff that can be the result of poor or unclear prioritisation, so I’m determined to do things differently in this job.

Listening to the conversations at ICOM, and thinking with my team about our plans for the future of the Museums of the University of St Andrews, it’s clear that whatever mission, vision and strategic planning documents that we write in the end, they need to be working documents, rather than ones that are approved and then ignored. They should be tools to help us make choices about what to do and what not to do, as well as helping us to talk about our ambitions and plans for the museums so that everyone in the university and the sector knows what’s the same and what’s changing. Essentially, we’re working on what we want the museums to become, and how to get there – on our sense of direction and purpose.

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