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INTERCOM: International Committee on Management

Management Challenges for the 21st Century Museum

David Fleming, Director, National Museums Liverpool, UK
ICOM, Seoul, 5 October 2004

This paper is also available in PDF format (38K)

Seven years ago I gave a paper in Canada at the Conference of the Ontario Museum Association on 'New Challenges and Directions for Museums'. That paper focused on funding issues, technological change, collections and collecting, and the role museums can play in helping bring about social regeneration in cities: a role as agents of social change.

Funding Issues - I said at that conference: 'Everywhere, there is reduced public funding at all levels. This has led to downsizing, and new flexible working practices. We now need better planning, and we need to augment our funding from other sources, including commercial activities. We need to advocate the value of museums much more than we used to. We need to attract more visitors, and encourage them to spend more while they are with us. So, we need more audience research, and better marketing. We need more effective leadership. We need to identify partnerships. We need more, better staff and training and development. We need better prioritisation.'

Technological Change - is rapid and keeps raising the stakes for museums.

Collections and collecting - it is becoming more difficult and expensive to care for collections, and more of a challenge to collect.

Social change - a role increasingly seen as central to museums, that is the impact museums can have in helping bring about social change through learning.

In concluding that paper I offered up twelve key words which I predicted would dictate museum agendas in the 21st century. Each of these could be the subject of an entire conference, but I want to briefly consider each one to see whether they all still have relevance to the museum management challenge.

I think that these twelve topics retain their validity, seven years on, and all this adds up to the role of museums as agents of social change - through learning we change people. We help bring about greater tolerance, respect, self-respect, and wider horizons through enlarging people's choice. Thus the essential management challenge for museums is to address these issues.

National Museums Liverpool, of which I am the Director, is responsible for eight museum venues, employs around 600 staff, and is a national institution. NML is Government funded to the tune of around $30m per annum.

An analysis of the organisation by its senior team in late 2001 suggested that the following characterised the service:

But that the service was:

Which led to:

Which in turn led to a staff mentality of:

Underlying all this, the organisation had more than a whiff of an anti-management culture, and the senior team which produced this analysis itself suffered from some unhealthy attitudes. These characteristics are, of course, not peculiar to NML, and what I have described will be familiar to many who work in the museum sector all over the world!

What have we done to help bring about change at NML?

There remains some resistance to change, but change is an ongoing process and the organisation has developed a strong momentum. You must not underestimate the time it takes to effect lasting change, and I estimate it will take 5-7 years in all to embed new practices and attitudes, to ensure that NML can sustain new ways of doing things without risking falling back into old ways.

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