Whole and parts

Back in September last year – what feels some days like a lifetime ago – I’d been to Kyoto for the ICOM conference and was thinking about the debates around the museum definition, as well as about the distinctive things about university museums in particular. I wrote a blog post about it, which among other things talked about how university museums, like some others, are within institutions whose primary purpose is not running museums.

That idea is now front of mind again, as both universities and museums navigate the radically changed context we are in. In Febraury I wrote a business plan for the coming academic year, starting in September. By March it was already looking shaky, and in April was put aside. Strategic planning, which I’d just started working on with the team, is for now out of the window – to know what the next 5 years might look like, we would have to know what will probably happen next year. With the museum team I’m having to rethink core elements of our work, and decide which really must continue. But, despite all this, I’m hopeful – there are some certainties to be found, and areas of solid ground to stand on.

Some of those areas of solid ground can be found in the core purposes of a university: research and teaching and learning. That sense of the whole of which the museums are part is what shaped our work before, and shapes it still, even as specific priorities change. For example, universities are pivoting to deliver the best possible teaching online. So, we are moving rapidly to digitise more of the collection, making it available for research and teaching and learning online, and doing in a few months what we had previously planned would take a more leisurely couple of years. We also created and launched new strands of video content, some for people with children at home, and some to bring a weekly moment of calm and inspiration from our collections to people who need a break, but all backed by properly thought-through learning and social outcomes. More than a temporary adaptation, what we’ve learned from this sudden reprioritisation is already changing our plans for what we will do when we are back in our buildings – there are some things we just won’t go back to doing in the same way.

I’m also heartened by the way that both within the university and in the university and museum sectors the lockdown period has prompted closer and more collaborative working. It can be tempting in a crisis to batten down the hatches and protect what is close to you, and I’m conscious that for some museums that may be the only option given the financial crisis they face. But for museums that are part of larger organisations like universities, the most acute financial challenges are very likely yet to come. So, that institutional context means that as we move from crisis response to resilience, it’s not only important to understand the university’s priorities so that we can use those to prioritise our work, but also actively to articulate our contribution, and to demonstrate relevance and value to our audiences and to the university we are part of. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the whole is also stronger because of the distinctive contributions each part makes.

This is why despite it all I’m optimistic, in a determined sort of way. Staying focussed on the whole strategic context and our part in it feels to me like a path not only to get through this, but to come out the other side with momentum and with energy.

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