Realities of Devolution
6 Rhagfyr 2011,
Last week, I was delighted to attend the relaunch of the hugely successful Sharing Treasures by Huw Lewis, our Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage.
Under the initial scheme, local museums were able to apply for grants to put on exhibitions and raise gallery standards in order to be able to borrow national collections from Amgueddfa Cymru for display. Though we remain an integral partner, the scheme has now been extended to allow libraries and archives to also borrow items from the national collections. It also allows museums to apply for grants to develop touring exhibitions as well as apply for a grant more than once so that they can develop successful projects. Importantly, financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund has also been secured for 2012/13 to extend the parameters of the initiative. Many people attended, and we had an interesting day of discussions. I was asked to say a few words, and was glad that I was able to express how important I believe the scheme to be. We as national organizations do not own the national collections, but simply hold them in trust for the people of Wales. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to them, and this scheme allows us to give more people the opportunity to engage with the national collections.
This ties in nicely with a meeting I attended yesterday - the AHRC Museum Ethics Network Workshop. This was the first of five such workshops, one of which will be held in Cardiff. Yesterday's was held at Leicester at the School of Museum Studies at the University. Many interesting presentations were given about the link between ethics and social justice, and the failure of some museum organisations in the UK to think of ethics in those terms. It opened up the prospect of UK museums rethinking their ethical frameworks with a view of putting more emphasis on public engagement. We are lucky to have such a resource as the School of Museum Studies in the UK. They provide intellectual rigour to museum practice that may otherwise not be addressed.
One other event I wanted to mention was the Great British Art Debate which took place on Saturday. It marked the end of a three-year programme which has involved four gallery organizations across England (Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield) working together to explore questions about nationhood, regionalism and artistic identity today through a series of exhibitions and events. The speakers were almost all from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or the English regions. Some speakers strongly challenged the basis for the project as a whole. Indeed, two Scottish speakers challenged the concept of Britishness and, by implication, the authenticity of the name of Tate Britain in the context and the reality of devolution. The speaker from Northern Ireland was equally critical, saying that English art institutions have collected very little art produced by Northern Irish artists who stayed in Belfast during the troubles. They prefer instead to collect work by international artists who may have briefly visited Northern Ireland during that time. Indeed, overall, the day questioned many of the premises on which the project was based. It left me with the sense that there was a growing separation within the cultural world between institutions based in London and the rest of the UK. This may well reflect the realities of devolution.