Is it time for museums to go public about the impact of funding cuts?

Back in December last year I posted asking 'Why do people rally to save libraries but not museums?'. Many of the reasons revolved around the different relationships people have with their local library compared to their local museum, the types of services they offer, and especially the idea that part of using a library involves visiting it regularly: libraries are simply more embedded in people's daily lives than museums.  But a few other responses addressed the perception that libraries were under threat, but museums weren't because 'the immediate threat to museums isn't highlighted'.  Libraries took to social and traditional media, asking both famous and ordinary library users to speak up on their behalf  (e.g. Voices for the Library, Speak up for libraries, and sample press coverage on the BBC 'Library closure threats spark campaigns across England' and Guardian 'The campaign to save libraries continues'), but museums were largely silent as they quietly said goodbye to staff, reduced their services or simply closed.

Some reasons why museums might not be taking their fight to survive against cuts to the public are highlighted in this piece from the Museums Association's Museums Journal: Head to Head, with David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool and Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield.  It's a really important conversation for the UK's museum sector, so I'd encourage you to go read it yourself, but to pick up some important points, David Fleming says:

'I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would think it’s useful to the museum sector for us to keep quiet about the funding cuts that are affecting so many of us. … our sector, unlike many other sectors, appears to be reluctant to talk about the impact that cuts are having, and I don’t know why.'

The reason for silence seems to be (from Simon Wallis):

'I think we do need to be very wary of how what we are communicating can be seen by the public. I frequently encounter derision and anger from some people over receiving what they see as a “public subsidy” taking money from taxpayers’ pockets for non-essential elitist services.'

I suspect there are other reasons that contribute to the silence, like gagging orders about cuts and redundancies at councils, and if you haven't already read Nick Poole's The Ties that Bind, go read it now. One quote that's relevant to museums' silence over cuts is: 'The National Museums will broker a deal under which the cuts to baseline budgets are maintained at 3-5% per annum for the next 2 years, in  return for which they may be fairly quiescent on the question of overall public subsidy of culture and the arts.'

I don't think a fear of comments about 'elitism' should be enough to stop museums taking their fight to the public, especially when, as another Museums Journal article points out, thirty museums and heritage sites have shut in the past two years.  Maybe it's time to get over that fear and ask the public if they want to lose their museums?

Define your purpose or others will define you (and you may not like the results)

[A re-post, as the blogger outage seems to have eaten the first version. I'm incredibly grateful to Ben W. Brumfield @benwbrum for sending me a copy of the post from his RSS reader. I've set blogger up to email me a copy of posts in future so I won't have to go diving into my Safari cache to try and retrieve a post again!]

There's a lot of this going around as the arts and cultural heritage face on-going cuts: define yourself, or be defined, a search for a new business model that doesn't injure the unbusinesslike values at the core of public cultural institutions. Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian, Global art: nice canapes, shame about the show:

Many of our UK institutions operate under a strange contradiction: most of the signals we give out suggest that we offer the international glamour, the pampering loveliness, the partnerships with banks and brands… But at the same time, we agonise about access: we want everyone to be let into the business lounge.

In a modern world that buys and sells information and luxury, the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored.

What we need now, more than ever, is a clear message about what we do and why we do it. The government has opted for swift deficit reduction and a good hack at the arts: it's up to us to set the long-term agenda for the role of the arts in public life over the next decade and beyond if we're not going to be cut, cut and cut again. Boom and bust are here to stay: capitalism will always be in a permanent state of crisis.

Nick Poole has also written on A New Way Forward for Museums, saying:

It is entirely possible to be commercially savvy, operate sharply and make sophisticated uses of licensing as an artefact of control all in the name of serving a public cultural purpose. Equally, it is possible to throw open the doors and make content universally accessible in the name of driving commercial value to the bottom-line. The cultural and commercial imperatives are not in opposition, but coexist along a spectrum of activity which runs from non-commercial, through non-transactional (things like brand equity and audience engagement) to strictly financially transactional.

If the financial future of museums lies in becoming commercially acute, then a key part of true sustainability will lie in recognising our place in the supply-chain of culture to consumers, and in truly understanding and embracing our core competence and their value.

…we need to recognise that focussing on our core competencies and using them to create cultural assets and experiences which we can monetise (and therefore sustain) in partnership with the private sector is a story of success and advantage, not failure or loss.

His post has some interesting suggestions, so do go read it (and comment).

Nick also describes a vision "of a world in which museums have renegotiated the social contract with the public so that people everywhere understand that museums are places where culture is made and celebrated, rather than preserved and hidden from view" – it's easy, in my happy little bubble, to forget that many people don't see the point of museums. Some I've talked to might make an allowance for the big national institutions, but won't have any time for smaller or local museums. Working out how to deal with this might mean changing the public offer of these museums – or is it too late? There's a silent cull of museums happening in the UK right now, and yet I don't hear about big campaigns to save them. What do you think?

A call for agile museum projects (a lunchtime manifesto)

Yet another conversation on twitter about the NMOLP/Creative Spaces project lead to a discussion of the long lead times for digital projects in the cultural heritage sector. I've worked on projects that were specced and goals agreed with funders five years before delivery, and two years before any technical or user-focussed specification or development began, and I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happened with NMOLP.

Five years is obviously a *very* long time in internet time, though it's a blink of an eye for a museum. So how do we work with that institutional reality? We need to figure out agile, adaptable project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into…

The initial project bid must be written to allow for implementation decisions that take into account the current context, and ideally a major goal of the bid writing process should be finding points where existing infrastructure could be re-used. The first step for any new project should be a proper study of the needs of current and potential users in the context of the stated goals of the project. All schema, infrastructure and interface design decisions should have a link to one or more of those goals. Projects should built around usability goals, not object counts or interface milestones set in stone three years earlier.

Taking institutional parameters into account is of course necessary, but letting them drive the decision making process leads to sub-optimal projects, so projects should have the ability to point out where institutional constraints are a risk for the project. Constraints might be cultural, technical, political or collections-related – we're good at talking about the technical and resourcing constraints, but while we all acknowledge the cultural and political constraints it often happens behind closed doors and usually not in a way that explicitly helps the project succeed.

And since this is my lunchtime dream world, I would like plain old digitisation to be considered sexy without the need to promise funders more infrastructure they can show their grandkids.

We also need to work out project models that will get buy-in from contractors and 3rd party suppliers. As Dan Zambonini said, "Usability goals' sounds like an incredibly difficult thing to quantify' so existing models like Agile/sprint-esque 'user stories' might be easier to manage.

We, as developers, need to create a culture in which 'failing intelligently' is rewarded. I think most of us believe in 'failing faster to succeed sooner', at least to some extent, but we need to think carefully about the discourse around public discussions of project weaknesses or failures if we want this to be a reality. My notes from Clay Shirky's ICA talk earlier this year say that the members of the Invisible College (a society which aimed to 'acquire knowledge through experimental investigation') "went after alchemists for failing to be informative when they were wrong" – " it was ok to be wrong but they wanted them to think about and share what went wrong". They had ideas about how results should be written up and shared for maximum benefit. I think we should too.

I think the MCG and Collections Trust could both have a role to play in advocating more agile models to those who write and fund project bids. Each museum also has a responsibility to make sure projects it puts forward (whether singly or in a partnership) have been reality checked by its own web or digital specialists as well as other consultants, but we should also look to projects and developers (regardless of sector) that have managed to figure out agile project structures that funders and bid writers can also understand and buy into.

So – a blatant call for self-promotion – if you've worked on projects that could provide a good example, written about your dream project structures, know people or projects that'd make a good case study – let me know in the comments.

Thanks also to Mike, Giv and Mike, Daniel Evans (and the MCG plus people who listened to me rant at dev8D in general) for the conversations that triggered this post.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Confluence on digital channels; technologists and organisational change? (29 September 2012) and Museums and iterative agility: do your ideas get oxygen? (21 November 2010).

Cultural heritage – particularly important in a recession?

Articles on the value of the arts and cultural heritage are useful at the best of times, let alone when funding to the sector is being squeezed.  From the New Statesman, Looking back to go forward:

In looking at, visiting and absorbing culture and heritage, we are doing more than simply finding things out and enjoying them. Certainly, these are vital and thoroughly justifiable parts of the equation, but we also need to think about how heritage is presented and what role it plays. Culture and heritage are spaces in which we encounter different values: the objects in museums, the results of our creativity and the fabric of our buildings are the material signs of our beliefs and values. Our cultural and heritage institutions can help us interpret and make sense
of these.

Certainly, if culture and heritage can distract from graver issues, then that in itself is a reason to support them. However, they also provide spaces in which we can confront, approach, discuss and renegotiate the many values that make up our society, and this is what we need as our worldview has been shaken to the core.

Hat tip: I only spotted this article because the link was tweeted by Bridget McKenzie.

What makes a good API? JISC want to know

Tony Hirst blogged about a JISC survey on good APIs, so if you're an API producer or consumer with a few minutes to spare then have your say on good APIs:

The aim of this survey is to identify best practice which should be adopted when making use of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). The feedback will inform a report for JISC on best practices related to the development of and use of APIs in JISC's development activities and will be made freely available.

You might not be directly affected by JISC's funding decisions, but I think the entire cultural heritage sector could benefit from better information on the best practices for API creation and use. Early last year I heard a speaker say 'APIs are UIs for programmers' and the nicer the UI we get to work with, the easier our jobs are. Apart from anything else, the more good examples out there, the more creating an API for any digitisation project will become the norm.

Funding for major heritage projects to be slashed by £60m

Lottery money for major heritage projects in Britain is set to fall to £20m a year, down from £80m last year. … The most important reason for the cuts is the London Olympics. Originally HLF was set to lose £143m to help finance the games, but last March a further £90m was taken, making a total of £233m up until 2012.

From The Art Newspaper.

In the same edition of The Art Newspaper, Giles Waterfield, former adviser and a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) asks "What will happen to Britain’s museums now?":

The HLF is—or has been—the only body in this country capable of making multi-million awards to museums for building projects or acquisitions.

While the Fund will continue to play an important role as a funder, as a result of pressure from the Olympics it will become just one more organisation dispensing helpful, but not crucial, sums to a great variety of bodies including museums. A highly efficient and discriminating funding mechanism is being junked.

England's DCMS never has the funds to make major grants, and apparently never will. The situation is highly ironic since the Blair administration has loved grand gestures such as the Millennium Dome and now the Olympics. Museums, clearly, are not big enough to excite Government interest, in spite of the huge numbers of visitors they attract. While this Government has been quite generous in funding running costs for national museums, over acquisitions and capital projects they have sheltered behind the Lottery. Asked for financial support, whether for building projects or acquisitions, the Department refers applicants to the large and generous body which until lately has dispensed over £300m per annum: the HLF. Well, no longer.

The next decade looks to be a dim one for British museums: let's hope the Olympics will show that the sacrifice was worthwhile.

Severe cuts in UK cultural heritage as funding diverted to the 2012 Olympics

While there's good news for the Museum of London, overall the cultural heritage sector in the UK is about to suffer. As the 24 Hour Museum puts it:

While the round of government grants, now in its sixth year, is welcomed by the country's museums and galleries, trepidation still hangs in the air as severe cuts are due to come into force in Heritage Lottery and Arts Council funding.

The main reason for this is money being diverted for the Olympics – the HLF has lost £233m to the Olympic fund up to 2012.

Lottery grants for projects exceeding £5 million have been slashed from £80 million in 2006/07 to half that in 2007/08, and to £20 million in 2008/09. Big handouts have helped projects like the £10m York Minster restoration this year, but commentators say hard decisions will have to be made over future applications of the same significance. The HLF budget for smaller projects has also been reduced.

From DCMS Wolfson Fund Announces £4m For Museums And Galleries.

AHRC Funding Cuts: An Open Letter

I've been following this issue with interest. Read the full letter here.

Members of Antiquist, Digital Classicist, the Text Encoding Initiative, and Digital Medievalist believe that the AHDS's services play a vital role within the Digital Arts and Humanities. We are concerned that the consequences of this decision could be severe unless part of a larger strategy of support and have issued the following request for information