Museums body is 'old boys' club'

May 28, 1999

A survey of university museums has uncovered widespread disaffection with the University Museums Group, with many staff accusing it of being an "old boys' club" with "no grip on reality".

The report's author, Melanie Kelly of Bath University, said many museum staff also feel that the UMG, composed of museum directors, was only interested in the larger national-type galleries and the "old university caucus".

Smaller museums and collections, already under severe financial pressure, believe their interests and concerns are not being adequately represented by the body.

Alistair Smith, chairman of the UMG, said he has been fully aware of the strong criticisms: "When I took up the post last November, my first preoccupation was to make the UMG representative."

Mr Smith, director of Manchester University's Whitworth Gallery, said action has already been taken to address the problem.

"The group has altered its constitution, extending its memberships beyond its former limitations," he said.

Previously, the UMG membership was restricted to directors of university museums and art galleries or their named representatives. Now, he says, UMG membership will typically be staff of university museums and art galleries. It is also being opened up to related academic departments, members of committees responsible for those institutions and collections, and members of support groups and concerned scholars.

"This is a solid measure that will move us away from any 'old boy' atmosphere," said Mr Smith.

The survey covered nearly 100 university museums, ranging from the very small collections to larger concerns that are registered as having holdings of national and international importance.

Funding pressures on institutions mean many museums, especially small ones, are cash-strapped and in danger of closing.

"There should be more opportunities for external funding available," said Ms Kelly. "At present, funding is monopolised by the big boys' league. For smaller museums and galleries, a comparatively small sum of money could make a huge difference."

Ms Kelly, based at Bath's International Centre for Higher Education Management, also called for a more systematic regime for the funding of university museums.

She said: "There is no recognised formula for funding museums. That means that, for many, funding is provided at the whim of university management."

Ms Kelly said many small museums felt that bodies such as the MGC and government departments "did not understand their plight because they only listened to a select circle of large institutions whose staffing levels freed directors and curators to attend national policy meetings".

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