Museum visitor looking at a painting
Photo: Acesso Cultura| Access Culture

A few days ago, the Museums in the Future Project Group made its final report (a preliminary version) publicly available. Acesso Cultura | Access Culture was heard by the Group in the consultation phase, together with various entities and professionals, in May 2019. Now, we were asked to read the preliminary report and make suggestions. With the agreement of the Group, we share our feedback.

Regarding the final report (preliminary version) of Museums in the Future Project Group

Acesso Cultura | Access Culture was very pleased to see the creation of the Museums in the Future Project Group (MFPG). We believed that the area of ​​Museums, Monuments and Palaces (MMP) urgently needed to be seen in a more holistic way and be the target of analytical and strategic thinking, which could consider central issues and essential interventions – in the short, medium and long term . It was therefore with great pleasure and a sense of responsibility that we accepted the invitation to meet with the MFPG in May 2019 and that we now share our thoughts regarding the final report, in its preliminary version.

Firstly, we would like to highlight the feeling of confidence that results from reading the report. It becomes evident that a rigorous analysis was carried out by a team of people with a good knowledge of context

It should also be noted that the report allows even people less connected to MMPs to understand the context in which these institutions have operated, developments in recent years, advances and setbacks. Thus, the recommendations do not appear in a vacuum, but are the result of critical thinking and knowledge of the path that has been taken so far and of what still needs to be done.

Finally, the report is presented in a clear and well-structured way, built around five fundamental axes, which we agree are essential for thinking about MMPs in Portugal in 2020 and in the future: Museum Management; Networks and Partnerships; Digital Transformation; Collections Management; Public and Mediation.

Our suggestions focus mainly on the first and fifth axes. We believe that some considerations should be expressed more clearly and firmly, in order to become truly guiding in the reflection and practice related to museums in the future; so that the future can be different in its essence and so that there can be changes long desired by several museum professionals.

Museum management

  • Leadership: There is a need to create conditions for bold thinking in MMPs at management level. This thinking and vision are expected to have an impact on all museum areas. It is necessary to start at the top so that – in addition to considering that it is essential that the people responsible for the Direction of museums have studies in Museology – it is important to have training courses that may build and support this leadership (such as, The Clore Leadership Programme in the United Kingdom or the DeVos Institute Arts Management Fellowship in the USA).
  • Mission: The vast majority of MMPs do not have a specific mission – short, clear, concise and individual. Most see the description of what they do as a mission, without addressing the reasons why they do what they do. It will be necessary that each entity thinks about, formulates and shares its mission internally and with the public. Without this work, it is difficult to develop consistent and effective work. In Portugal, we know about the work developed in this direction by the Vila Nova de Famalicão Museum Network. There was also a seminar by Access Culture, Mission: why we do what we do, which will be soon developed into a training course.
  • Relevance: The relevance of MMPs in society, as well as their offer, is something that should also be considered centrally, at management level. The desire and the obligation of relevance implies changes at several levels: first, in terms of thinking and then also in terms of team competences. The inhibitory barriers referred on page 64 of the report have a lot to do with the current position of MMPs. We mainly see MMPs that are detached from their societies, oblivious of what is going on around them and, therefore, of little relevance, limited in their ability to act and react to pressing issues and situations, but also in the contribution they can make, being part of a citizenship education and training network that involves several other entities. The relevance is, in our view, closely linked to the development of leadership in this sector, so it is a subject that must be explored in terms of training.
  • Human resources and diversity: Diversity in terms of visitors (pages 63 – III.5.2) is unlikely to be achieved if we are not concerned with guaranteeing diversity in MMPs teams, among those who work in them and those who think about them. For this reason, it will not be enough to have a youth recruitment programme (age variant), an effort will be needed to include other variants (such as ethnicity or disability). We know from experience that, in order to attract these people to the field, it is not enough to advertise positions simply stating that applications are welcome from all people. There will still be a need for concrete training in diversity and inclusion, concepts that are widely talked about but upon which there is little reflection (in terms of their impact on the way MMPs are managed) and even less practice. At the same time, it will be necessary to build an incentive system for people with different profiles to consider a career in this area (for example, the Museums Association’s Diversify programme in 2007, among others developed in the United Kingdom; the work of the company Sour Lemons; the work of the Museum Detox group of museum professionals).
    With regard to human resources, the report makes clear the known flaws, especially in what concerns museum guards – one of the main problems (page 43). This will have to be one of the big challenged to be addressed in the future. Working hours and conditions are not very appealing. Portuguese legislation allows managing this area with greater flexibility and imagination, creating conditions for a more motivating and diverse work.
  • Evaluation: In addition to improving statistical systems (and also ensuring the timely presentation of results, so that they can be useful to the field), it is necessary to implement qualitative evaluation methods. This is necessary in order to be able to interpret the numbers and also assess the impact of MMPs on society (on page 63, there is a reference to the social, economic, cultural and educational impact).

Audiences and mediation

In general, the recommendations made in this chapter seem appropriate and relevant to us, but their impact will be relative, or even very small, if they do not result from concrete management thinking and practice – in terms of what constitutes relevance, diversity and inclusion. If there is no structural change at management level, the specific recommendations on extended hours, online ticketing systems or publicity campaigns will not achieve, in a decisive and permanent way, the desired diversity in terms of audiences. In Portugal, it is urgent to consider the relationship of MMPs with the so-called “non-audiences”, especially national visitors, and not just define measures that facilitate and improve the relationship with those who already visit.

That said, we would have to make some more specific suggestions:

  • Suggestion in terms of language – the use of the term “vulnerable” (p. 63): The use of the term to refer to migrants, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities does not seem appropriate. Many of these people do not see themselves in this way nor does their condition necessarily result in vulnerability. But it is a fact that we don’t see them much in MMPs, so they should be target audiences.
  • Creation of community consultation groups (III.5.4.7 – p.67): The idea is good, but we think that the following factors should be considered: 1) It is the diversity within museum teams that will allow to create closer relations with the different communities; if this is not guaranteed, the effectiveness of the consultation groups will be reduced, not forgetting that the initiative comes from people without affinities with these groups; and 2) Communities are not homogeneous bodies, mono-cultures, one-sided identities. In this sense, it seems to us that the idea of ​​having members representing different social, economic, educational and cultural areas will be difficult to implement, unless a rather large group is created, so that it may be considered representative.
  • Training for working with different audiences (III.5.4.9 – p.67): We believe that this training must also include directors, curators and communication officers. The way in which the institution communicates and relates to the outside world (through interviews given by the Board, advertising campaigns, public programming, the way collections are interpreted, etc.) does not depend only on the work of mediators and front-of-house staff. Barriers are created by various professionals and in various ways.

Almada, 28 July 2020