Waving not drowning

Posted By John Orna-Ornstein on 02 August 2016

John Orna-Ornstein, our Director of Museums, blogs about how we’re investing in strategic thinking in museums through our Museum Resilience Fund.

Almost three years ago I finished the Clore Fellowship Programme – several months of intense development and learning that preceded my joining the Arts Council as Director of Museums. Speaking to other Clore fellows soon after taking up my new role, I explained that I was loving the new opportunity, but felt at times that I was drowning. There was so much to learn, it felt like I was keeping my head and arms only just above water. The response of one of them has stayed with me: ‘Keep kicking - perhaps you’re waving not drowning’.

This week, we’re announcing details of 94 successful applicants to the second round of the Museum Resilience Fund, a £30 million fund set up soon after I joined the Arts Council to address the key current needs of museums across the country. One of the successful applicants is Lancashire Museums, a service that has hit the headlines in recent months because of the massive challenge the local authority is facing and the possible closure of some museums. And the name of the project, which is about developing a strategic plan for Lancashire’s museums?  ‘Waving not drowning’.

Exterior shot of Dean Heritage Centre - an old building on the edge of a forest in front of a lake
Dean Heritage Centre. Photo © Eye Shut Photography

Looking across the fantastic programmes supported through the fund provides some clear indications of how it’s possible to be ‘waving’ even at a difficult time.

The largest grant goes to Transformers, a Museums Association programme that supports a diverse cohort of mid-career museum workers in developing new ideas and ways of working. I recently asked Simon Mellor, the Arts Council’s Executive Director of Arts, about the most important things he’s learnt through working here. His answer was that, across the arts and culture sector, the most successful organisations were those with the most effective leaders. I’d agree with that, and programmes like Transformers and the Arts Marketing Association’s Future Proof Museums, invest in the development of strong, dynamic leaders across our museums.

the Museum Resilience Fund is providing vital support for museums across the country

Internal shot of foyer at the Corinium Museum
Main Roman Gallery at the Corinium Museum

Another grant goes to Vestry House Museum in London, for a project called ‘Re-imagining the civic museum’. I met the manager of Vestry House some months ago, and she described her aspiration for the museum to be ‘not the museum of everything’. The project will focus on working out the most important stories and collections for that particular museum and place. Our civic museums have so many stories to tell that I think they sometimes end up not telling any story clearly, so a move towards clear purpose and narrative is vital.

Keep kicking - perhaps you’re waving not drowning.

I’ve spent time in places like Lancashire and Kirklees over the past year, talking to senior councillors and local authority officers about how they can continue to support local museums. Projects like ‘Waving not drowning’ in Lancashire, ‘Museums for everyone’ in Kirklees and ‘Resilience and relevance’ in Oxfordshire support the development of new models for running these vital local services. Across the many local authorities I’ve met, the clearest contrast is not between those that have more money and those that have less, but between those that are thinking strategically about their cultural services and those that are not. So support for strategic thinking is vital.

A historical and a contemporary photo of the exterior of Weston Museum merged to make one picture
Weston Museum - then and now. © WsM Town Council. Image taken by A1 Camera Club on behalf of WsMTC. Photograph: Keith Spicer

Another focus for the fund is partnership and sharing. To prosper, our sector needs effective networks that make expertise, insight and collections available across the country. We’re supporting a new Subject Specialist Network for photographic collections, particularly important at a time when there are questions about the move of photographic collections from Bradford to London. And continued support for the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing will network the hundreds of museums that are developing and delivering programmes in this area. Funding for the Bulldog Trust will allow collections from across the country to be showcased at Two Temple Place in London, and a grant for the Touring Exhibitions Group will help museums tour their collections.

Overall, the Museum Resilience Fund is providing vital support for museums across the country, ensuring that they are well led and clear about their purpose, strategic in how they use their resources, and effectively networked.

The Arts Council recently announced that we plan to integrate our funding for museums with funding for the arts. I’ll be writing more about this in a couple of weeks, but this important change will allow museums to access a far greater range of funding opportunities and will be a vital step in ensuring that museums thrive at a time of challenge. In the meantime, a glance at the projects supported through the Resilience fund shows that it has been a timely response to the challenges and opportunities facing our wonderful regional museums.

Exterior shot of a building surrounded by parkland
Gilbert White & The Oates Collection

Find out more                                                                                   

See all the successful projects to receive funding through this round of our Museum Resilience Fund

Find out more about how we’re changing our funding for museums beyond 2018, and listen to our podcast

Learn more about how the Arts Council supports museums in England

Follow John and the Arts Council on Twitter

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