Editorial

By Stoddart, Simon; Malone, Caroline | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Stoddart, Simon, Malone, Caroline, Antiquity


`In the name of God and Profit' was the inscription on the ledgers of Franceso di Marco Datini, the Merchant of Prato (Origo 1979). To what extent should this epithet be inscribed on the accession ledgers of our Great Museums? A formula for success in the 15th century is now considered a contradiction, if reports from the UK national press are correct. Priestly curators are contrasted with managerial efficiency (Sunday Times, 9 September 2001). The debate between public service, commercial enterprise and management ethos pervades the cultural scene, and this issue is especially marked in the Museum sector (particularly National Museums and Galleries). Can commercial practice be applied to organizations whose current political credo is the encouragement of free access? Can modern management practices be applied where the motivation is public service, not profit? As expressed in the Museum Journal (Morris 2000: 16), and attributed to the Managing Director of FT Finance until 1998, `it can be more difficult to know when an institution is doing well when quality is judged on exhibitions rather than profit'. To which we would add that evidence of growing knowledge and active research of the collections is a further key measure of success.

Yet what form should managerial success take? Can or should there be centralized efficiency without duplication, and richness of diversity? Should there be democratic devolution of responsibility to the regions and the specialist curators? In Sweden, steps have been taken to centralize the museums system (Anderson 2001: 12-13). In Britain, there is a dynamic tension between pre-eminent London with its Tates, V&As and British Museums, and the smaller population centres, with their important regional museums, and, increasingly, national thematic museums created by lottery money. What should the relationship be between a capital visited by the vast majority of tourists, and consequently open to the profits generated by numbers, and local museums, where other survival strategies must be developed?

As has been aired in a number of quarters, there is an urgent need for the professional cultural manager, and this new profession is in short supply (Clare 2001: 19). Yet we profess that it is insufficient to bring in managers from other sectors and expect immediate understanding of the demands of public service, and the intricacies of scholarship and curation. As we have emphasized elsewhere (ANTIQUITY 74 (2000): 5), archaeologists need to proclaim their transferable skills, and these include the ability to manage people and resources as well as to practice excellent scholarship. In the search for candidates to fill the senior managerial posts, archaeologists should receive the prominence they deserve.

Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) have been considered one means of enrolling private finance. The Royal Armouries (now relocated to its new museum in Leeds, West Yorkshire) which followed this route is now in severe financial difficulties. Income cannot be generated in the same way as gate receipts to a football match. The location of a successful local football team, albeit with international aspirations, may not be as successful a location for a national museum. As predicted by some, the calculation of visitor numbers has been much too optimistic, and has massively anticipated growth for often already crowded venues: `Maximising audiences is the wrong approach to take -- it is far better to plan for a sustainable audience' (Black 1999). The planned British Museum PFI to redevelop the new arena of access in the British Museum, the Study Centre, was jettisoned, and the laudable project itself all but abandoned, with the realization of declining income and government support. There is no alternative to a substantial core of public investment.

The British Museum is inevitably at the centre of this debate for archaeology in Britain -- it is the largest museum and focused on archaeology -- but it is ultimately an example of a much wider issue and crisis. …

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