Monday, 15 March 2010

Museums and strategies for the 21st century

It is natural that the presentation of a strategic plan creates debate. The IMC Strategic Planning – Museums for the 21st Century (available here in portuguese only) could not be any different. It has already been widely debated and commented in the media and various forums of museum professionals and people in general who follow and participate in the country´s cultural life.

I do not wish to repeat or comment on everything that has been said. I would like to give my opinion about some aspects of the plan that, it seems to me, have not been discussed yet.

First of all, I would like to highlight the lack of a vision statement. Any strategic plan, before specifying objectives and concrete measures, should provide a context for them, it should help us understand what the big picture is and what expectations we could have. What is the place the Ministry of Culture would like museums to have in the portuguese society of the 21st century? Why does it still invest in them the tax payers´ money? What can society expect? What are the challenges, at a local, national and international level? Which are the factors that will determine priorities?

Another omission that worried me since I first read the document was the total lack of references to the public. If people are the raison d´être of museums, the final beneficiaries of their activity – whether museum professionals, researchers, students, ‘initiated’ public or, and above all, ‘non-initiated’ public -, how is it possible that they are never clearly and directly mentioned in the strategic document? When the performance of national museums is mainly measured, at least publicly, by the number of visitors, when some museums express a constant concern for raising visitor numbers, diversifying their offer and raising its quality, it is disappointing that a strategy for museums of the 21st century fails to define them as one of the factors that determine, or should determine, the priorities. As long as people are not clearly defined as a determining factor in the strategic planning, museums will continue to be visited and enjoyed by a minority; people will continue to think that museums are important, yes, but they are not for them, they are irrelevant to them; there will continue to exist a lack of affective and intellectual involvement, which in some countries motivates the whole society (the local society, not foreign tourists…), whenever necessary, to defend its museums and not to abstain, considering that this is a struggle concerning just the professionals and those ‘initiated’. If we do not look at the exterior, it is inevitable that we will go on looking at ourselves, and Axis 5 is another sign of this attitude. Here, in the introduction, we read for the first, and also for the last, time the word “communication”. In the lines that follow we clearly understand that it is “internal communication” we are talking about.

Not wishing to speak only about the omissions, I was very pleased to read in the strategic document that there is an aim to monitor and evaluate the strategy (Axis 2). Nevertheless, the way to carry out this task is not specified. The definition of indicators, for the evaluation of the strategy, but also of museum performance in general, is a need and an obligation, that goes much beyond counting visitors and is specific for each museum, based on the objectives it proposes to achieve. Some, naturally, are common, others are related to each institution´s very specific reality. We should consult and learn with those countries that have already tested and implemented evaluation models, and not be tempted to start from zero.

I have left management models for the end. In the various comments I have read so far about this point in the strategy, it seems that it is a question of choosing between a more commercial vision and one more related to the care of collections. As if we should choose. As if we could choose… Once again, we will not have to start from zero. Various models – some better, others worse – have already been tested and implemented in other countries. It is the profession itself, that of the museologist, that can and should train its managers. People who will gain, if they don´t already have it, the necessary sensitivity for managing and directing cultural institutions and, specifically, museums. They might be people with an art history, archaeology, history, sociology background, etc; they are more and more people with a background in economics. Museum management is, in some countries, an essential part of museum studies courses. There are more and more leadership courses for museum professionals in the UK, USA, Australia (although we should not fail to distinguish between leadership and management). Both ICTOP (ICOM International Committee for the Training of Pesonnel) and INTERCOM (ICOM National Committee for Management) can orientate our decisions and support our actions.

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