Forging New Agendas: The Sector in Dialogue

11 February 2013

AND's Museums, Libraries & Heritage Advisor John McMahon reviews last week's AND/GEM joint event, aimed at helping the museums sector to understand and engage with current changes in London's cultural learning landscape.

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Download AND GEM Forging New Agendas event report (292.19 kB Pdf)

Cecil Sharp House in Camden is a fascinating place. Built in the late 1920s to commemorate the work of the renowned folk collector Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), it was opened in 1930, and serves as the physical and intellectual home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS).

On Thursday 7 February, the building, for the day, also played host to Forging New Agendas: The Sector in Dialogue, a mini-conference organised by the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) and A New Direction intended to help the museums sector understand, and explore ways to engage with, current changes in the landscape for cultural learning in London. A more thorough write-up of the day's activities will follow soon, but here's a summary of some of the main activities and themes.

Keynote Speakers

Proceedings were initiated and framed by a series of key note presentations. Firstly, AND's CEO Steve Moffitt spoke about the emerging context, with museums having been welcomed under the Arts Council's umbrella of responsibility; diversification of the way that schools are governed, and changes to the curriculum itself; the post-Henley report support infrastructure for cultural education in London; A New Direction's regional role as the regional Bridge organisation to support cultural education; and the need to raise quality of practice, and access to support and funding, for all partners across culture and the arts by building shared understanding and encouraging innovation and partnership working.

Sandra Stancliffe (Head of Learning & Interpretation at English Heritage) came next, arguing passionately for the need to move beyond presenting an 'Argos catalogue'-style menu of fixed sessions to schools and other clients. Sandra made a compelling case for how this can be done not just by finding ways to responsively tailor new activities to meet the individual needs of these partners, but through actively nurturing an understanding of how schools can utilising collections, buildings and local history (and the expertise of related organisations) in the planning of their curricula and teaching, in a way that enables pupils to really connect and reinforce their learning with an understanding of place and self.

Dr Jo Reilly, The Heritage Lottery Fund's Head of Participation and Learning, gave a great insight into the range and scale of their investment in the sector. Jo also summarised HLF's sector consultation and the development of their new 2013-18 strategic framework; and outlined HLF's exciting range of open programmes, including the smaller, light-touch Sharing Heritage grants, as well as the long-established Young Roots learning programme. Jo, Sandra and Steve all also alluded – encouragingly – to the ways in which English Heritage, HLF and ACE – along with the BFI – are finding ways to share thinking and the targeting of activity since the inception of the Cultural Education Partnership Group.

I also had a spot, giving a quick summary of AND's work programmes and talking about how museums can benefit from Arts Award, the Arts Council's Museums Strategic Support Fund (as well as Grants for the Arts), and the new Creative Employment Programme. Finally, GEM Director Dr John Stevenson revealed some of the key insights from their recent member survey. Some of it was quite sobering to consider – for instance, 39% of respondees are facing cuts to their education services, and a staggering 80% of museum and heritage educators are generally finding themselves having to do more with less. In spite of this, though, the picture that John painted was one of optimism, not just for how we might 'weather the storm' but for enabling the sector to make positive progress in a challenging climate.

Exploring Challenges & Solutions

The day's real focus, though, was upon facilitated group discussion with the 60 or so delegates, mainly drawn from the London museums and heritage learning but also including a number of arts organisations and a handful of colleagues from other regions.

In the morning, a series of the key challenges that we collectively face were identified. Prominent concerns included:

  • how the sector can sustain good work in a time of flux, and shifting/sometimes conflicting priorities;
  • how professionals who are stretched just through maintaining 'business as usual' can even make sense of, let alone engage with, the steady flow of new initiatives;
  • the challenges of connecting to schools as the curriculum re-shapes;
  • barriers to entry and lack of diversity across the cultural learning profession:
  • and a pressing need for organisations to try to view each other as friends and potential partners, rather than competitors.

In the afternoon, the groups were re-jigged, and took to the matter of identifying potential solutions to the above with great clarity, energy and enthusiasm. In-keeping with the tone of the whole day, partnerships and innovation were a clear focus for everyone. There was a also a recurring feeling that organisations like A New Direction and GEM could make a real impact by continuing - and finding new and extended ways to:

  • play a brokerage role for the sector, bringing schools and the sector into contact, signposting potential partnerships and highlighting and promoting existing sector networks;
  • support strong, effective partnership working, perhaps by offering advice and resources (for instance, on things like partnership agreements, shared planning processes, etc);
  • protect individual organisations and practitioners from 'information overload' and helping them to navigate emergent opportunities by providing clear, easily digestible updates on things like policy changes and new funding opportunities;
  • conduct and share research and data which could further support and enable the types of positive working practices described above.

We were amazed and impressed by the thoughtfulness and creativity of participants, who in both discussion sessions produced a dazzling array of challenge maps and solution diagrams, some of which you can see below:

To Sum Up

As the day progressed, it was interesting to consider how the venue itself was a perfect setting within which to address the question of how museums and the heritage sector can understand their closeness to, access support from, and work in partnership with, organisations and agencies in adjacent sectors. EFDSS is a living, producing arts organisation which receives core funding as part of Arts Council England's national portfolio. However, the building also houses a Designated library & archive; and in the development of their learning programmes, EFDSS regularly accesses funding from both the arts (eg Youth Music) and heritage (eg the Heritage Lottery Fund).

There are lots of other similar examples, across London and beyond, of organisations finding the space and the resources to do great work in part by ignoring, or adroitly navigating, the slightly arbitrary distinctions that many funders and other partners have to try to impose upon the cultural sector as a whole (a necessity brought by the heavy responsibility of allocating increasingly scarce funds in a highly diverse landscape). The closer integration of the sector occasioned by the changes of recent years has been challenging but it has also brought new opportunities, and many of these can be most effectively and sustainably seized through fresh thinking and a renewed commitment to collaboration and partnerships.

Download AND GEM Forging New Agendas event report (292.19 kB Pdf)