Understanding the future: museums and 21 st century life: A RESCUE response

In 2005 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) issued a consultation paper entitled Understanding the Future: Museums and 21 st century life. RESCUE has been involved in campaigning to support local and regional museums in the face of continual threats to staff jobs, funding and opening hours and welcomed the opportunity to put the case for museums to the DCMS. Our response to the consultation paper is reproduced here in full. The DCMS document is available on the Departments website at the following address:


Understanding the future: museums and 21 st century life

The value of museums

A response by RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust

June 2005


RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust welcomes the publication of Understanding the Future: Museums and 21 st century life as an opportunity to debate the role of museums at the beginning of the 21 st century. We are particularly pleased to see commitments to the museums sector being made by ministers and look for these to be carried forward into practical policies which will reverse the chronic underfunding which has plagued the museum sector, and particularly the local and regional component of that sector, over the next few years.

In our response to the discussion document we have sought to highlight a series of issues which affect the effectiveness of museums in carrying out their various tasks. Our concerns are focussed specifically on archaeology, but our comments may also have more general applicability. Our principal concerns lie in the following areas:

  • We argue for investment in research and in the facilities required for effective research which will enhance the value of collections and increase public understanding of the significance of collections (specific proposals are made in the response to Question 4);
  • We suggest that closer links between museums and the Higher and Further Educations sectors would allow research to be focussed on existing and new collections of material which are, at present, underused for research purposes, with appropriate changes to the Research Assessment Exercise to bring British collections within the scope of university-based research;
  • We argue for a revised funding structure that will ensure that museums are not the first targets of local authorities seeking to reduce their expenditure;
  • We urge the establishment of effective career structures and better pay and conditions within the museum sector as a way of attracting individuals from a wider range of social backgrounds into the sector, bringing careers in museums into line with other public services such as education and health;
  • We suggest that the authors of the document have failed to appreciate the extent to which museums (and archaeology generally) are already engaged with the public through a variety of initiatives based upon formal educational structures and also less formally through clubs for children and young people (notably the Young Archaeologists Clubs) and through the close association between local history and archaeological societies and local and regional museums;
  • We draw attention to the diversity within the museum sector (mirroring the diversity within the heritage sector as a whole) and suggest that this should be seen as a source of strength, rather than a drawback, as it appears to be viewed by the DCMS.

Understanding the future: museums and 21 st century life

The value of museums


RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the debate over the future of museums and the development of their role in the 21 st century. Our comments in this response to the document are intended to be a positive contribution to the debate even where these are critical of present and past national and local government policies towards museums.

We particularly pleased to note Ms Jowell’s statement that scholarship and research are central to the role of museums in the 21 st century (page 3). We also welcome Estelle Morris’ acknowledgement of the fact that museums lie at the heart of our cultural heritage (page 5). We look forward to seeing these statements followed up by positive support for museums at times of crisis, support which has rarely been forthcoming from the DCMS in the past few years.

Before addressing the questions posed in the annex to the document we believe that it is important to engage in some discussion of the content of the document in general.

As RESCUE is an organisation primarily concerned with archaeology, the comments in this contribution will deal specifically with that subject, although some of our observations may also be applicable in other areas. RESCUE is concerned that archaeology, which constitutes an important part of the museums sector, is under-represented in the document, as evidenced by the limited inclusion of archaeological projects amongst the case studies selected to illustrate the document. This, we feel, reflects the generally low priority given to archaeology by the DCMS generally, a point that we have made elsewhere, notably in our response to the Minister’s essay Better places to live . We look forward to a more inclusive approach to the issues raised once the consultation exercise is complete.

With reference to the issue of diversity within the museum sector (which is raised a number of times in the document), we would point out that museums, which often incorporate art galleries, are institutions with an unusually wide remit. It is perhaps time that the DCMS recognised that diversity (which the Department appears to read purely as ‘fragmentation’) is a characteristic of the heritage sector in general and that there are good practical and historical reasons for this diversity. In the case of local and regional museums their collections may cover palaeontology, archaeology (including Egyptology), anthropology, technology, social and economic history, political history, natural history, fine art and other areas within their collections and exhibitions.

A distinct group of museums are devoted to single subjects (military history, transport or social history for example) and these are equally a significant part of the part of the sector, offering a different but equally valuable experience to the visitor and a range of specialised resources to the student or researcher.

Collections of national and international importance are held both in our major national museums and also in the more specialised regional museums (such as the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent ).

There is no reason to suppose that this diversity within individual institutions and between different institutions is not a valued part of museums in general. RESCUE would suggest that many visitors enjoy the wide range of material housed in our museums and value the different parts for different reasons and perhaps differently at different times in their lives. Given this, it is inevitable that there will be a variety of concerns and issues raised within the museum sector and the onus is on the DCMS to come to terms with this rather than seeing it as purely as a problem.

This high degree of diversity in all areas of the museum sector requires a flexible response from government and an acknowledgement that there may be no single policy that will cover all museums or all aspects of individual museums. Ministers and civil servants must understand the nature of the museum sector before attempting to impose policies and practices upon it and must ensure that proposals take the existence of diversity into account.

In terms of the care of collections the responsibilities of museums are also wide and encompass the management and curation of diverse types of material, the provision of research facilities and of services to the education sector. RESCUE suggests that diversity should be seen as a source of strength in that it enables the museum sector to reach out to a wide variety of constituencies within the population at large and to provide facilities which appeal broadly within society.

The following discussion deals with general points drawn from each section of the document in turn before turning to the questions posed in the annex. We deal first with the issues discussed in the introduction.

Museums and the public realm

RESCUE agrees with the substance of this section, but notes that recent government policy has failed to support local and regional museums by insisting that they are purely the responsibility of local authorities. RESCUE believes that this has lead directly to the closure of a number of important museums and the curtailment of facilities at others. We look for a commitment to supporting the museum sector as a whole and a change in the system of funding so that local authorities no longer have the power to close local and regional museums. This point is discussed at greater length below.

Museums, identity and citizenship

RESCUE welcomes the moderate tone of the section covering museums and identity and in particular the avoidance of the term ‘Britishness’ which has featured in other documents from the DCMS. Nationalism and sectarianism are powerful and destructive forces within contemporary society and as the history of archaeology has shown, require careful and considered handling. RESCUE welcomes the acknowledgement that

Museums can provide a tolerant space where difficult contemporary issues can be explored in safety and in the spirit of debate (Paragraph 10)

Archaeology is a discipline which deals with the realities of human interaction through trade, migration and inter-cultural and inter-communal contact as well as with the myths and legends that human beings create around issues of nationalism, sectarianism and group identity. Archaeology emerged from the 18 th century Enlightenment and, at its best, embodies many of the principles of this philosophical movement, combining these constructively with aspects of critical social theory developed during the later 19 th and 20 th centuries. This having been said, archaeology is a social practice and, like other disciplines, has been implicated in a number of shameful passages in recent human history including the creation of explicitly racist, imperialistic and class-biased accounts of the past. Through the often painful process of facing up to this heritage, the modern discipline of archaeology has developed a high degree of self-consciousness and an ability to engage in auto-critique that should, we believe, be reflected in museum practice, particularly in respect of public presentation. There is a place in contemporary museums for the presentation of disruptive and unsettling displays and educational initiatives which challenge established perspectives on human society, religion, ethnicity and sectarianism and we suggest that such initiatives should be encouraged as a way of challenging entrenched and divisive social, political and religious attitudes. As will be emphasised elsewhere in this document, such initiatives require the support of high quality research input. The potential for undertaking such research has been badly damaged by recent local and national government policy in respect of museum funding and structure. RESCUE makes a number of suggestions as to ways in which this trend can be reversed in the discussion which follows this introduction.

RESCUE acknowledges the need for museums to respond appropriately in terms of their role in society (see paragraphs 11 – 14) as society itself changes, but would point out the dangers inherent in institutions such as museums attempting to follow social trends rather than using their broad geographical and chronological perspective to comment on such changes from an informed and critical perspective. This should not conflict with positive and innovative schemes such as that outlined in Box 1 but ought to allow museums to work free of any suspicion that they are being forced to respond to the perceived ‘needs’ of a ‘market’ or of ‘customers’. Such a ‘market-led’ orientation is wholly inappropriate for museums but appears to have been fostered in recent years by the requirement to generate income and increase visitor numbers in order to fulfil goals set by managers and marketers whose principle area of interest is not always that which many users of museums would see as their primary role.

As an aside RESCUE notes that archaeology has contributed in a major way to collaborative outreach projects designed to foster social inclusion, one example being the ‘I dig Moston’ project in Greater Manchester; http://www.idigmoston.co.uk/ ).

Issue 1: Collections and their uses

Before addressing the two specific questions posed at the end of this section, RESCUE has a number of more general issues which arise from statements made in the text.

RESCUE is perturbed that research is barely acknowledged amongst the uses of collections; this matter is addressed in the response to question 1, but it may be noted here that this separation appears to imply a divorce of the issue of research from the issue of collections. Collections of archaeological material held throughout the country in museums of all types (local, regional, national, generalist and specialist) constitute a primary resource for archaeologists, both professional and amateur. The discipline of archaeology is essentially an investigative and research-based one which depends upon an accumulative and aggregative model of knowledge founded upon principles of interpretation and re-interpretation undertaken on the basis of bodies of material which are susceptible to multiple readings and interpretations. To the archaeologist, seeking to interpret past society and to present his or her results to the wider contemporary society through a variety of appropriate media, museum collections are the raw material upon which they depend. Understandings of collections expand and diversify as methodologies and perspectives on human societies change and to this end the curation and maintenance of collections (as well as additions to them) must be orientated in significant part to the needs of researchers. This has implications for the facilities which museums require in order to undertake this important aspect of their multiple roles. It is unfortunate that no account of this aspect, with its resource implications, is included in this section of the document.

Paragraph 24 outlines the nature of the ‘national collection’ envisaged as the totality of museum holdings, spread throughout diverse institutions. RESCUE agrees with this conception of collections and has mentioned it previously in correspondence with the former minister Lord McIntosh (letter dated 24 th June 2004 ). The principle carries the implication that central government bears a responsibility for the curation and maintenance of museum collections. RESCUE regrets that the DCMS has hitherto refused to face up to its responsibilities in this matter, preferring to place the responsibility entirely on the shoulders of local authorities. It is to be hoped that in addressing the issues raised in this document, the DCMS will revisit this issue and seek alternative funding arrangements which will guarantee museums a secure funding stream which will enable them to fulfil their responsibilities towards their collections as well as to their audiences.

Connected to the previous point, RESCUE notes that paragraph 25 acknowledges the issue of limited storage space for collections. This matter is particularly acute in terms of archaeological collections which continue to grow rapidly as a consequence of the rapid pace of economic growth resulting in a building boom in many areas of the country and the associated need for archaeological excavation under the terms of PPG 16. RESCUE knows of numerous cases in which museums have run out of storage space with the result that uniquely valuable archaeological archives are held in temporary and often unsuitable conditions by archaeological contractors. It is to be regretted that the lottery-funded expansion of museums and their facilities has not generally included the provision of high-quality storage and research facilities which would lead directly to the enhancement of displays and access to the material by researchers and by members of the public.

In paragraph 27 the issue of ‘disposal’ is raised. RESCUE vehemently opposes any policy which involves the destruction, dispersal or discard of archaeological material. Archaeological archives represent the sole surviving traces of many thousands of archaeological sites (enshrined in PPG 16 as ‘preservation by record’) and as such are unique and irreplaceable. While the costs of storage may be considered high, they are reasonable in view of the importance of the collections involved. RESCUE would suggest that innovative solutions to storage and archiving issues should be sought, perhaps with the involvement of the private retail and distribution sector which may have much to offer in the way of cost-effective technological solutions to storage problems, based upon their commercial experience.

Q1: How should museums develop and utilise their collections to serve the concerns and interests of the whole of the population most effectively?

RESCUE asserts that the archaeological collections which constitute a substantial part of the holdings of many of our museums represent a uniquely valuable cultural asset, held by a diverse range of institutions on behalf of the population and society at large. We believe that high-quality research, undertaken by knowledgeable and experienced scholars from both the professional and amateur sectors should be at the heart of any policy or policies which seek to serve the interests of the wider society. It is such research which underlies the interpretations upon which presentation to the public is based. In recent years the scholarly basis of the work undertaken within our museums has been degraded by cost-cutting in terms of staff numbers and working hours and by the failure to invest in adequate facilities for research, conservation and the curation of collections. RESCUE argues that the move away from research and the increased emphasis on the presentation of traditional and stereotypical accounts of past human life and experience fails to do justice either the richness of the collections or to the requirements of a significant part of the audience. RESCUE suggests the following steps to address these issues:

  • Programmes of staff training and professional development with the emphasis on research and scholarship, possibly undertaken in co-operation with the university sector and with independent researchers from the emerging commercial archaeological sector;
  • Positive discrimination in favour of potential recruits to the museum sector with a background in relevant research and scholarship;
  • Closer liaison with higher educational funding bodies to encourage the use of existing museum collections in post-graduate and post-doctoral research programmes, tied into a reform of the University Research Assessment Exercise to replace the focus on foreign research with a one more equally balanced between the possibilities offered by home and overseas research;
  • The creation of usable and adequate research space within museums to allow the potential of existing and growing collections to be realised. It should perhaps become a requirement that the creation of new museums and the extensive refurbishment of existing museums (such as is currently being undertaken with Lottery funding) should include both storage and research space; to date many opportunities to do this has been missed, to the future detriment of the institutions involved;
  • Development of travelling exhibitions suitable for installation both in other museums but also in other public institutions (art galleries, concert halls, community centres etc) based upon the results of recent excavations and surveys undertaken under the PPG 15 / 16 regime (and equivalents in other parts of the UK). Such exhibitions might in part be funded by the private sector through an extension of the planning rules covered by PPG 15 and 16 (see the following section for more on this)

Should this include releasing parts of their collections to others, including outside the museum?

RESCUE would welcome the opportunity for parts of collections to be made available to researchers within the university sector (as outlined below) for the purposes of academic study. While safeguards designed to protect the integrity of collections will always be necessary, there are many collections which are of great potential value to post-graduate and doctoral students as well as to many highly competent researchers based in the amateur/voluntary and professional sectors of archaeology. The outcome of such study would benefit not only the academic world but also visitors who would be able to benefit from contemporary interpretations based upon the latest research techniques and theoretical perspectives. As facilities in many museums are entirely unsuited for the types of study required to unlock the information contained within collections, release to universities and similar institutions is essential in order for this to take place.

There may be considerable scope for loans from collections to institutions and organisations outside museums, notably in the form of travelling exhibitions, as outlined above. Most museums now maintain loan and teaching collections and there may well be some potential to expand this, but it must be understood that a proportion of museum collections are unique and relatively fragile. In the absence of in-house conservation staff and facilities, such loan policies must be carefully judged and closely and effectively monitored in order to maintain the quality and integrity of collections.

Q2. How can the sector ensure that the opportunities offered by ICT, electronic access and digitisation are fully utilised for the benefit of users and to reach out to non-users?

The use of digital and other new technologies certainly offers the opportunity for much larger audiences to view the collections held in museums. Such technologies are to be welcomed as a valuable tool for broadening access to the collections held in museums, but they are not equally applicable to all collections. Documentary and text-based collections, where the principal interest might be the content of the documents are certainly highly suitable for dissemination in this manner (as the example of the British Library clearly demonstrates), but archaeological material is generally less suitable for such treatment. On-line catalogues, amply illustrated are certainly a valuable research and educational tool and should be made available as widely as possible, but for the purpose of both serious study and a full appreciation of the materiality of archaeological collections, there is no substitute for the study of the real objects and for this adequate research facilities are required within museums.

Issue 2: Learning and Research

Before embarking on the discussion of this important section of the document it is necessary to establish some basic definitions in order to facilitate discussion.

The term ‘learning’ is used throughout the document where RESCUE would consider ‘teaching’ to be more appropriate. Teaching, we suggest, involves the dissemination of knowledge where one party, in possession of knowledge, seeks to impart this to a second party through the application of appropriate pedagogical methods. Learning is the process in which individuals or groups undertake a quest for knowledge and this may be facilitated by a teacher or a lecturer or may take place through the study of texts (conventional or digital) on an individual basis. The use of ‘learning’ in the document where a choice of either ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’ as appropriate does nothing to improve the clarity of the text and in places actually detracts from it.

RESCUE welcomes the acknowledgement, in paragraphs 33, 41 and 42, of the essential place of scholarship and research within museums. We look to the government to take positive steps to put this into practice through the provision of appropriate funds, a requirement for museums to provide adequate research facilities (and to provide the funding to allow the creation of such facilities) and the necessary changes to structures within the higher education sector which, in archaeology, currently discriminate against research based upon British material, as outlined above. The latter measure would have little or no impact on resources as it would involve nothing more than a shift of emphasis within higher education. It will, however, require liaison between government departments and the long-overdue application of the principles of ‘joined-up government’.

RESCUE agrees with the statement in paragraph 43, that a strong research base leads to an overall increase in the quality of museum functions at all levels. Britain has a strong and well-deserved reputation for high quality research in archaeology (a subject in which we lead the world in terms of both methodology and theory) and funding initiatives (parallel to those highlighted at the Natural History Museum) would certainly contribute enormously to a transformation in the quantity and quality of information available relating to the archaeology and history of our towns, cities and rural areas. The ongoing Regional Research Frameworks being currently funded by English Heritage (e.g. http://www.le.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/eastmidsfw/index.html ) may well be of great value in highlighting areas where research may be targeted. Liaison between museum staff, local archaeological curators and specialists with knowledge of the material offers a way forward in identifying projects that might involve researchers, museum staff and members of local communities in collaborative projects based around hitherto unpublished and underused archives within museums.

RESCUE does not agree with the statement in paragraph 44 ‘ The field of academic research is competitive, and that is as it ought to be’ . Academic research is too important for trivial considerations such as competitive advantage to play a part. At its best, research is (and should always be) a collaborative effort with individuals using their abilities in different fields to tackle problems, whether intellectual or methodological. RESCUE would wish to see structures put in place that would draw together individuals with compatible and complementary skills and knowledge from a variety of fields and institutions who could work together to undertake specific programmes of research. Such programmes should involve museums, universities, archaeological contractors and independent specialists and they should, in the first instance, tackle the backlog of unpublished archaeological sites, the legacy of the inadequate funding initiatives of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, which are to be found in virtually all museums throughout Britain . Such programmes, formerly funded by English Heritage, have been largely abandoned in recent years as the cuts to English Heritage budgets have forced the organisation to restrict its activities. Changes to the criteria employed in the University Research Assessment Exercise, which appears to structure the scope of research within universities, are essential if such programmes of research are to be possible. In this, RESCUE agrees with the points made in paragraph 46 regarding links between museums and the further and higher education sectors. RESCUE would also note the increasingly important role of scholars working outside the educational and museum framework, within the world of commercial archaeology. Such individuals now play a significant role in pushing forward methodological and theoretical advances within archaeology and are responsible for the much of the work which creates the archives from excavation and survey projects which are deposited in museums.

RESCUE endorses the sentiments expressed in paragraph 47 and the acknowledgement that museums have a vital role to play in research and would advocate wider collaboration. We note, however, that such work will be severely handicapped, or even rendered impossible if local authorities are to be allowed to continue running down and closing local and regional museums, sacking staff and disposing of collections. Halting the current tendencies in this direction is imperative as a preliminary to revitalising the research sector within the museum sector as a whole.

RESCUE would draw attention, by way of an example of what can be achieved in a particular area, to the very positive results from the collaboration in the field of 18 th and 19 th century ceramics between members of the staff of Doncaster Museum, Temple Newsam Museum and a variety of other institutions and an independent researcher, Mr John Griffin, as an example highly successful collaboration (Griffin 2002, 2005) resulting in the publication of new and exciting work.

Q3: How can museums strengthen their commitment to education as a core and strategic priority within the overall commitment to collections and users?

RESCUE has always been an advocate of the value of archaeology in education. The formation of Young RESCUE in 1972/73 was an innovative step designed to introduce children and young people to archaeology and the initiative gave a number of today’s leading archaeologists their first experience of the subject. The initiative continues today in the form of the network of Young Archaeologists Clubs co-ordinated by the Council for British Archaeology, many of which are closely involved with museums and museum staff, the latter often working on a voluntary basis. RESCUE believes that the activities undertaken by the Clubs give children invaluable experience outside the arena of formal education as archaeology in its broadest sense provides a wide range of activities and challenges both intellectual and practical. Lottery funding has proved invaluable for many groups and RESCUE would argue strongly for the continuation of this form of funding as a way of supporting such activities.

The majority of museums, whether national or local and regional have an important educational role and already provide a wide range of services for schools and colleges through outreach programmes and activities developed and run by education staff employed within museums. RESCUE supports these kinds of activities, but notes that a substantial part of their value derives from the collections which constitute the core of the museum sector. It is imperative, therefore that educational outreach work is supported by high-quality research based upon museum collections; there is little point having a sophisticated and extensive educational programme if the knowledge which is being imparted is incorrect, out-of-date or does not take account of the latest research. It is also essential that educational work is seen as a result of and dependent upon, the work of individuals who have the time and resources necessary to carry out fundamental research. As with so much else, funding lies at the heart of this issue and, as argued elsewhere in this document, the current funding of local and regional museums is entirely inadequate for them to fulfil their potential in this, or, indeed, in many other areas.

Q4: How can a strong research culture be built and sustained, as well as quality measured across the museums sector?

RESCUE advocates the following steps to rebuild and sustain a strong research culture:

  • Provision of adequate facilities within museums to enable basic research work to be undertaken on collections;
  • Provision of adequate and accessible storage facilities to facilitate access to collections;
  • Recognition of research as a central component in the work of a museum through the creation of appropriate posts and clear demarcation between staff roles and responsibilities;
  • Funding of research posts within museums, possibly in collaboration with universities;
  • Facilitation of communication between staff in different institutions;
  • Facilitation of communication and exchange of skills between the higher education, independent research and museum sectors;
  • Make suitable adjustments to higher education regulations to encourage work on museum collections, specifically be revising RAE rules and regulations to ensure parity in ratings between research focussed on British and overseas research.

What role should Government play?

It is essential that central government takes responsibility for the funding of local and regional museums, either by funding them directly (and adequately) or by making their funding a statutory obligation for local authorities. RESCUE would argue against centralisation in terms of administration, but calls (and has been calling over a number of years) for reform of the current system of funding which has been failing museums (and thus the communities which they serve) for many years.

Q5: How could stronger links be created between the Higher and Further Education sectors and museums?

As noted elsewhere in this document, the current structure of archaeological research funding within universities places the emphasis upon work undertaken abroad. While this is valuable and appropriate in many instances, it is entirely unreasonable that work undertaken using British data, including collections held in British museums is not accorded parity in terms of academic research rating exercises. This must be tackled at the highest level within academic management and administration and existing funding should be redirected as appropriate.

At a more detailed level it is clear that there are research areas which are being identified through the English Heritage funded Regional Research Framework programmes and it might be useful if these could be reviewed with the aim of identifying specific areas where research is currently lacking and programmes drawn up which would be designed to address these areas specifically. As noted above, it is essential that appropriate facilities are made available within museums for the necessary work to be carried out and that the temporary transfer of archives to educational establishments be facilitated. It ought to be possible (as noted above) to create research positions in museums in partnership with universities so that individuals can undertake work on museum collections as a way of gaining post-graduate qualifications (M.Phil. / PhD) and at the same time contributing directly to the enhancement of collections held by museums and facilitating the communication of research outcomes with the communities served by those museums.

Issue 3: Careers, Training and Leadership

RESCUE has only a limited number of observations to offer on the subject of careers within the museum sector (but see the comments made above regarding the possibility of linking museums with the higher and Further Education sectors through research). In general we see a need for a greater emphasis on research ability and scholarship rather than on marketing, management and salesmanship within the museum sector, reversing the apparent trend of the last decade.

We note in particular the decline in the employment of qualified and experienced conservators within museums, able to devote themselves to the care and curation of the collections. Concerns have been expressed regarding this issue by both RESCUE and by the Archaeology Section of the United Kingdom Institute of Conservators (UKICAS) on a number of occasions in recent years and RESCUE fully supports the UKICAS in their campaign to reverse this decline.

Specific observations on this section include:

Paragraph 52: The heritage sector generally suffers from serious problems of career structure and progression and this is particularly acute in archaeology, inside and outside museums. Wages are low (amongst the lowest in any field of graduate employment), terms and conditions are poor and the individuals who enter the profession with a strong vocational commitment regularly find this commitment exploited. RESCUE has argued this case in greater detail in our response to Better places to live and, while the survival of local authority standards of remuneration and employment rights in the museum sector means that it is somewhat better off than is commercial archaeology, these standards are under constant attack and, as described elsewhere in this document, can be entirely removed when museums are transferred from the public to the trust sector.

Box 11 and paragraph 59: While RESCUE welcomes moves to make employment in the museum sector more inclusive and representative of the overall profile of contemporary British society, we are sceptical of the need for more middle and senior managers, unless these individuals have a strong research background and a commitment to the sector based upon a commitment to research, the enhancement of collections and the presentation of collections backed by the most thorough research. Management is only truly effective when it is based upon a strong background in the relevant field of endeavour; as an activity in its own right it has little or nothing to offer, being essentially parasitic on those who are actually able to deliver tangible results within a specific field. RESCUE will view with extreme scepticism moves which seek to introduce additional tiers of management into a field which requires investment in research ability and scholarship and not in management.

Q6: How can the sector achieve the right balance of pre- and post-entry training to build skills for the range of their workforce?

RESCUE has no specific views on this subject, beyond those covered elsewhere in this document.

Q7: What initiatives and targets would increase mobility, training and career progression for all types of museum professionals?

An improvement in collaboration between the museum sector and the Higher and Further Education sectors might be structured so as to allow museum staff to engage in collaborative research projects based upon the collections held by the museums within which they are working. The possibility of being able to base a post-graduate qualification or post-doctoral research upon a particular collection (or a group of related collections held in the same or different institutions) would yield benefits for the museums whose displays, websites and publications would be enhanced by the results of the research and for the educational institution through its research ranking. For the individual undertaking the research the gaining of a qualification and the authorship of resulting publications would have benefits in terms of their research profile and status within the profession. Research is, in addition to its inherent benefits in terms of qualification, is also a valuable experience in terms of enhancing an individual’s self-confidence and ability to undertake largely self-directed work towards a specific and defined goal. The nature of archaeological research in particular means that it involves the gaining of familiarity with diverse areas of practical and academic work.

Q 8: What must be done to secure a better representation of currently under-represented groups in the museum workforce, and in the sector’s governance?

The prime requirement in any sector’s professional development is a clear and obvious commitment to a satisfactory career structure together with adequate pay and conditions for employees. RESCUE has noted with alarm the tendency for local authorities to divest themselves of their responsibility towards local and regional museums by the creation of Trusts and the subsequent changing of terms and conditions of employment which are aimed at reducing costs through lower wages, reduced conditions of employment, enforced retirement and involuntary redundancy. In one case, known to members of the RESCUE Council, this process involved the appointment of a Trust director who instituted a programme of staff cuts which targeted individuals, (particularly women, a number of whom had hitherto been employed on a job-share basis), for ‘voluntary’ redundancy through changes to the terms and conditions of employment which made it all but impossible for them to continue in employment while at the same time meeting their family and other responsibilities. In this particular case a senior member of the museum staff described the regime instituted by the director as involving a ‘climate of fear’ in which staff were under constant threat of disciplinary action if they took any steps, however reasonable, to resist changes to terms and conditions of employment or redundancy. In other cases, museum staff have been threatened with disciplinary action if they attempted to argue against local authority plans to sack staff, reduce museum opening hours or close particular museums or galleries. For obvious reasons we are unable to provide details of these cases in a public document such as this, but the cases are well known within the heritage sector generally.

RESCUE believes that it is essential that adequate terms and conditions of employment are guaranteed for those working within museums and that they enjoy the benefits of a clear career structure, on a par with other public service employees (within, for example, the health service and the education sector). This will not only safeguard the jobs of those already employed, but will also create the conditions in which a career in museum work will be seen as an attractive option to people from a wide range of backgrounds and not only for those with a passion for the subject whose vocational commitment can be exploited by unscrupulous managers and administrators.

Issue 4: Coherence and Advocacy

This section begins with what has become a familiar complaint from the DCMS regarding the supposed fragmentation of the heritage sector in general and, in this case, the museum sector in particular (paragraph 62). As discussed in the introduction, RESCUE would suggest that such diversity within the sector is not an entirely negative aspect of the structures which constitute it. Museums typically cover an enormously wide range of human activity and human experience and the financial and administrative structures which support them need to be designed to reflect this. The would seem to be no case for attempting to remodel the sector itself in order to conform to rigid management structures; management and administration should exist to facilitate creativity, innovation and research rather than vice versa (see paragraphs 68, 77). Policies and structures should be designed and implemented with this as a first consideration.

Q 9: Would structural changes better support museums and provide effective means of ensuring a national strategy for museums?

A change in the way that museums, and particularly local and regional museums, are funded is essential if these institutions, which serve the interests of local people and local communities as well as the wider society, are not to be destroyed by the actions of local authorities who view them as a financial burden and are frequently either wilfully ignorant of, or blind to, their wider importance and significance. RESCUE has heard, albeit anecdotally, of councillors who are anxious to close museums and galleries for reasons more closely connected to their own personal prejudices against ‘culture’ than for the professed reasons of lack of money and the need for cuts to budgets. While RESCUE does not believe that such attitudes are general, they certainly seem to have played a part in some recent decisions to close museums and dispose of collections. The commonly expressed reasons for closures, staff redundancies and reductions in opening hours are financial and RESCUE believes that it is essential that the burden (as it is seen) of maintaining these unique cultural assets is removed from local authorities who have so clearly demonstrated their inability to either understand or appreciate the value of what the hold in trust for the nation. The creation of a funding agency or council, while it would inevitably bring with it its own share of problems and challenges, would perhaps be a step forward (depending on the precise arrangements and the levels of funding) in tackling this most pressing of problems. RESCUE regards it as essential, irrespective of the precise arrangements put in place, that funding is structured so that an adequate proportion is directed towards the provision of adequate storage space, conservation and research facilities within museums. There is a danger that these core functions will be overlooked in favour of the higher profile ‘front of house’ facilities.

Q 10: How best do we combine more coherent and efficient delivery of museum services with a service that is responsive to the needs of local communities and users?

While museum funding should be guaranteed by central government, the actual management of local and regional museums should remain local and regional in order that those close to the communities served were making decisions relating to specific museums. Having said this, it is important that broader issues are not neglected and, in terms of archaeological collections, some involvement of regionally based members of the English Heritage inspectorate and of local archaeological curators drawn from the collecting areas of the individual museum should certainly be considered. The role of commercial archaeological contractors is more problematic; in many areas these organisations are aware of, and responsive to, local issues and regional aspects of the archaeology. The larger, national contractors however have less investment in specific areas and in many cases also act as consultants to large national and multi-national firms. It is less clear that it would be appropriate to involve such bodies in the management of museums. RESCUE suggests that this is an area in which there are a significant number of issues to be considered and resolved before final conclusions can be arrived at. RESCUE notes, and appreciates the content of paragraph 75, although is sceptical of the value of European experience, given that, in archaeology at least, Britain has a unique structure with no close parallels in Europe, notably in terms of the involvement of the amateur/voluntary sector in archaeology generally and in museums in particular. RESCUE would like to see an expansion of this sector and does not believe that the adoption of a European model would necessarily facilitate this. European countries have some very fine museums, but also some extremely poor ones and it would be unwise to adopt a European model uncritically.

RESCUE is also profoundly sceptical of the value of Trust status when applied to museums. The example of Sheffield , cited in paragraph 74, is not one which inspires any great confidence. While it is true that the former Sheffield City Museum has attracted a significant sum in lottery funding, the degree of consultation on the form of the new facilities was entirely inadequate and has led to the views of many people who might be regarded as having a stake in the new museum being ignored, with the result that what is emerging from the process fails to address many important issues. RESCUE is aware that there is considerable disquiet amongst staff in other museums who see management enthusiasm for Trust status as being unrelated to the potential quality of service offered. There is also concern regarding the revised conditions of employment that may apply should Trust status be granted. Given the existing problems of recruiting from sections of the population not traditionally involved in the museum sector (as outlined in Section 3), RESCUE would advocate a very cautious approach to this model as a way forward.

Issue 5: Partnership and Measuring Value

RESCUE strongly supports the idea of partnership between individual museums and between museums and compatible institutions where these are designed to achieve enhancements in the quality and breadth of research, in the presentation of coherent and comprehensive exhibitions to the public and in enabling researchers from all sectors to gain access to collections and archives. Archaeology, with its long history of interdisciplinary collaboration, is eminently suited to providing a model of the way forward in this regard.

Q11: How can partnerships within the museums sector and with other sectors be better embedded?

The potential benefit of partnerships between the Higher and Further Education sector and museums in terms of facilitating research using museum collections have been outlined above, as have some of the changes to existing structures required. RESCUE would support the implementation of such schemes and notes that given the dispersed and complementary nature of many museum collections, a variety of institutions might be involved in a single scheme. This should be regarded as a positive aspect of such initiatives rather than as a drawback.

Q12: What systems or methods should be used to assess quality and success in the museums sector?

There are dangers in using simple indices such as visitor numbers and demographic profiles in assessing the success of a museum as an institution and RESCUE would wish to see the development of more sophisticated methods of measuring quality and success. Issues to be considered might include the following;

  • The diversity and quality of research undertaken within a particular institution;
  • The extent of collaborative programmes of research involving various elements of the heritage sector and the HE and FE sectors;
  • The accessibility of research archives to bona fide scholars from the professional, educational and voluntary/amateur sectors;
  • The level of publication in academic journals and monographs;
  • Participation in research through the hosting of symposia, conferences and day schools on subjects relevant to the collections held in the museum;
  • The nature and quality of links with local voluntary / amateur groups in fields such as local history, folk and social history, archaeology, natural history etc.

RESCUE notes that the criteria used in local authority Best Value assessments have not generally been appropriate to museums or to archaeology generally. To date the experience of the application of such measures is of schemes that have led to closures, staff redundancies and reductions in access and opening times under the guise of ‘Best Value’; Orwellian phraseology at its most potent. RESCUE would oppose any extension of such schemes within the heritage sector.

Q 13. What would need to happen to make international strategic alliances possible between museums?

RESCUE notes that the structures underlying the funding and legal basis of museums differs in Britain and many European countries and also in countries outside Europe . These different institutional arrangements often also involve rather different conceptions of the function, purpose and remit of museums, to the extent that British archaeological teams working abroad have sometimes found collaboration to be difficult (see, for example, Cumberpatch 1998, Cumberpatch and Thorpe 2003). While international collaboration is to be welcomed and encouraged, the existence of cultural and institutional differences needs to be acknowledged in order that negotiations can be undertaken on a realistic basis.


Cumberpatch, C.G 1998 Approaches to the archaeology of Beirut . National Museum News 7, 18-21.

Cumberpatch, C.G. and Thorpe, R. 2003 Encountering the ancestors: some reflections on archaeology in the Middle East . Paper presented at the 2003 CHAT Conference, University of Bristol

Griffin , J.D. 2001 The Don Pottery 1801 – 1893 Doncaster Museum Service

Griffin , J.D. 2005 The Leeds Pottery 1770 – 1881 Leeds Arts Collections Fund

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