Research Process


Fiona Candlin

On Friday 26th January, the Mapping Museums project reached the end of its first phase, and for us, it felt like a momentous date. For the last fifteen months Dr Jamie Larkin and I have been compiling a huge dataset of all the museums that have been or were open at any point between 1960 and now. That information has now been finalised and handed over to the computer science researcher to be uploaded. In the coming weeks, we will be able to start analysing our material and generating findings about the past sixty years of museum practice in the UK.

The dataset of museums synthesises information from a wide variety of different sources. We started with DOMUS (The Digest of Museum Statistics), which was a huge survey of museums conducted in the mid 1990s and with the 1963 Standing Committee Review of Provincial Museums. These captured a large number of museums that were open in the mid to late twentieth century, but have since closed. We then added current records and information from the Arts Council England (ACE) accreditation scheme, and from the national records gathered by from both Museum Galleries Scotland (MGS), and the Welsh Museums Libraries Archives Division (MALD) and the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC), since these lists both include non-accredited venues museums. The Association of Independent Museums (AIM) gave us a list of the museums that have been members their membership records and we also managed to find the results of a very old survey that they had conducted in the 1980s in the University of Leicester Special Collections library. This was research gold for it identified very small museums that are extremely difficult to trace once they have closed.

We included around half of the historic houses that are listed in the Historic Houses Association guidebook, and a number of properties that are managed by English Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland, or CADW. Deciding which venues reasonably constituted museums was a difficult process and one that we did in consultation with senior managers and curators of those associations, colleagues from the Museums Development Network and with the ACE accreditation team, although the final decisions were our own.

In the course of researching my last book Micromuseology: an analysis of independent museums, I had compiled a list of very small idiosyncratic museums, and these were added into our rapidly growing list, as were a surprisingly long list of museums that were listed online but not in any of our other sources. We then checked our dataset against the Museums Association ‘Find A Museum Service’ and against two huge gazetteers The Directory of Museums and Living Displays and The Cambridge Guide to the Museums of Britain and Ireland edited by Kenneth Hudson and Ann Nicholls in 1985 and 1987 respectively. Finally, we also consulted the Museums Association Yearbook at five yearly intervals from 1960 until 1980 and also a variety of publications that listed historic houses that were open to the public. In all cases, any venues that we had previously missed were added.

Having established a long list of museums we needed to ensure that we had a correct address, and the opening and closing dates for each venue. We also wanted to establish its governance, whether it was national, local authority, university, or independent, and if the later, if it was managed by a charitable trust or by a private group. Finding this information necessitated months of emailing and telephone calls, and we often ended up speaking to the children of people who had founded museums, or to members of local history associations in the relevant area. Even so, the process of compiling our dataset was not yet finished for we also needed to classify each museum by subject matter. In order to do this we devised our own classification system and considered each venue on an individual basis. It is little wonder that major museum surveys are infrequently undertaken.

The next phase of the research is analysing the data, so watch this space for updates. The first findings on museum opening and closure will be presented at ‘The Future of Museums in a Time of Austerity’ symposia at Birkbeck on February 24th 2018. We will also be tweeting about interesting aspects of our analysis, so don’t forget to follow us @museumsmapping on twitter.

Copyright Fiona Candlin January 2018.

Research Process

Surveying museums: What’s in and what’s out?

We began the Mapping Museum research by investigating the numerous surveys and reviews of UK museums that have been compiled since the 1960s. Our intention was to use that material as the basis for our own dataset, but it gradually became clear that the various government and charitable bodies who had conducted the surveys or collated the lists did not always include or exclude the same venues. They all had subtly different ideas of what a museum was.

Clearly, the motivations for surveying museums vary depending upon the remit of the association or body that is conducting the survey. If a review is focused on state support then there is little reason in spending time and money investigating independent museums, art galleries without collections, and examining regimental collections would be pointless if the survey is meant to look at the role of university museums. It is not that the surveys have been inaccurate, or that we should advocate for a more perfect overview, rather that they are designed for particular purposes within specific contexts. Even so, the selectivity of a survey does matter, especially when they concern museums in general. In adopting one set of terms over another, or in deciding that a particular category of venues do or do not fall within their purview, surveys diverge in how they constitute museums. They have each understood museums to be slightly different entities, and this has an impact on how they portray the sector as a whole.

In this and the next two posts I will consider some of the types of venues that have been included or excluded from surveys, and as they are the main focus of our study, I will begin with independent museums.


Independent museums: In or Out?

In 1963, the Standing Commission stressed that they had considered ‘museums run by every sort of authority’. They listed local authority museums, those run by the Ministry of Public Buildings and works (which later became Historic Buildings Commission, then English Heritage), military, school and university museums and finally ‘privately-run museums’ of which a few belong to commercial firms, some to local learned societies, and almost all the rest …. are administered by trusts’. At this stage, who ran the museums, under what governance, and with what degree of professionalism, was less important than the fact they were a museum, and what constituted a museum was not raised as a question. Surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s were similarly inclusive but that situation had changed by the 1990s.

The shift in approach was motivated by an increasing emphasis on professionalization and specifically accreditation. In 1971 the Museums Association proposed a voluntary accreditation scheme, which would set basic standards in the sector. In order to be accredited, museums had to comply with the association’s benchmarks and with their definition of a museum. Responding to the plan, which was presented at the Museums Association Annual General Meeting, one speaker observed that many small independent museums would find it difficult to meet the first essential minimum requirement, namely, that they had sufficient income to ‘carry out and develop the work of the museum to satisfactory professional standards’. More than that, the accreditation process introduced a definition of a museum for the first time, and as the speaker also commented, it referred to museums as institutions, which the small independent venues were not.

Initially accreditation was voluntary and was run in a relatively ad-hoc way, but in 1984 it was taken over by the Museums Libraries Archives Council and became more closely connected to funding. Museums had to be accredited in order to qualify for public support and so membership of the scheme became increasingly ubiquitous. It also began to be used as the basis for surveys and lists. DOMUS, which was the most comprehensive survey of museums in the UK, only included accredited institutions and omitted an estimated 700 non-accredited museums. At one point the DOMUS team did consider the possibility of including non-accredited museums and of generating a more comprehensive view of the sector but it came to nothing, not least because the survey data was gathered in tandem with the annual accreditation returns, and so there was no process for collecting information on these additional museums.

The situation, wherein small independent museums did not meet the requisite standards and therefore were largely absent from official data, was exacerbated when the definition of museums changed in 1998. The new definition added a legal stipulation, which was that museums had to keep their collections ‘in trust for society’. Again, this concerned the contract between museums and the public because establishing museums as trusts helps ensure that collections are not sold or used for private gain, which is especially important when funding is involved. The result was that from this point onwards any museums that were run on an ad-hoc basis with little official governance, were constituted as commercial enterprises, or were owned by families, individuals, or businesses, ceased to appear in official data. Likewise, museums that did meet the terms set by the Museums Association definition, but had decided not to seek accreditation fell off the official lists.

The Museums Association definition works well as an aspirational target or a guide for professional practice, but it does not describe museums in the world at large. Similarly, accreditation is a useful means of ensuring some accountability with respect to public funding, as is the stipulation that museums should have particular modes of governance. National funding bodies do need to keep track of the museums that have been accredited and are eligible for state support. Nonetheless, using accreditation as a mechanism for collecting information about museums has resulted in a skewed view of the sector. Surveys are structured in such a way that they can only encompass museums that have achieved a particular level of professionalization.

To draw an analogy, imagine that a professional association of musicians declared that music needed to be made within a certain legal context and to be of a certain standard in order for it to count as such. The outputs of community choirs, folk musicians, pub bands, would no longer qualify as music unless they had established themselves as trusts. Yet, in the case of museums, such a definition has been widely adopted and implemented. The museum equivalents of pub bands do not appear in official surveys. In consequence, they do not figure in accounts of the sector or to a large extent in academic histories of museums. It is, as if museums only operate within the sphere of official culture.

Interestingly, some unaccredited museums appear in the Museum Association Yearbooks and more recently on their online Find-a-Museum Service. Although the Museums Association has been one of the main drivers in setting standards and establishing definitions of museums, they are also reliant on membership fees for income. Anyone who pays to join can submit their details, and the Association do not police entries according to their own criteria, since that would result in a drop in revenue. There is some irony in this situation. The Museums Association’s work on establishing definitions has resulted in smaller museums being excluded from official consideration but nonetheless its publications and website are among the few places where non-accredited museums are listed. The Mapping Museums team has used and is greatly extending that data on unaccredited museums, and will be publishing lists of museums in general, not just those that meet professional criteria.


© Fiona Candlin November 2017

Research Process

Defining Museums

Since 1960, which is the starting point for the Mapping Museums research, UK museum professionals have used five different definitions of museums. It was surprisingly difficult to track down this information so in this post I provide a list of past museum definitions and a brief commentary about their relevance to the Mapping Museums research.

The definitions developed or adopted by the UK Museums Association and agreed at the Annual General Meeting of that date are as follows:

We define a museum as an institution where objects relating to the arts, sciences or human history are collected, adequately recorded, displayed, stored and conserved, and are made available for the research and for the instruction and interest of the public or, in the case of some specialised museums, of a restricted public. (1971)

A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of the society and its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment. (1977, ICOM definition)

A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit. (1984)

Museums are for people to explore and learn from collections for understanding and inspiration. To do this, a museum collects, safeguards, researches, develops, makes accessible and interprets collections and associated information, which it holds in trust for society. (1998)

At present, two definitions are in common use. The 1998 definition is used in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and in the accreditation scheme, whereas Scotland generally adheres to the current ICOM definition, which is:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment (2007).

The introduction of definitions helped shaped the remit of museum surveys, and hence past and current conceptions of the museum sector. In the next few posts I’ll be discussing what kinds of venues were routinely included and excluded from official reviews and surveys. Here, however, I want to make a few brief observations about the definitions noted above and how they relate to the Mapping Museums project.

All the definitions state that museums are ‘institutions’, which suggests that the organisation has established procedures and practices, and that it is or will be of long-standing. It can also imply that the museum is contained in a building. The ICOM definition refers to a ‘permanent institution’, which further underlines notions of longevity. However, equating museums with permanent institutions is problematic for organisations that do not have a long term lease on their property, that are housed in fragile premises, or are run as pop-ups. Hence the definitions tend to exclude venues that are new, are not financially secure, or have a more experimental form.

With the exception of the most recent ICOM formulation, the definitions also place a high degree of emphasis on objects. The 1971 rubric specifies that museums keep objects relating to the arts, sciences, or human history, terms that are replaced by ‘material evidence of man and his environment’. This patriarchal formulation reduces humans to ‘man’ (in the singular) and claims a possessive relation to the natural world (‘his environment), as if the world was primarily a context for man’s existence. This definition, in turn, was superseded by the phrase ‘material evidence and associated information’, which recognises that museums may also collect various kinds of archival and documentary material, not just the objects that go on exhibition. In its most recent iteration, the UK Museums Association refers to ‘collections’, a more general and hence inclusive designation, but one that has prompted us to ask: what constitutes a collection? How many objects are required for a collection? Can a building or an archaeological site comprise a collection?

Other points are worth making. The 1971 definition does not require museums to be accessible to everyone, whereas later definitions put a high emphasis on public access and benefit. In 1977 ICOM requires museums to communicate and in 1984 the Museums Association has decided they must also interpret, terms that simultaneously reflect and promote the move from museums being relatively inward facing and functioning as storehouses and centres of research to museums being outward facing and actively engaging audiences. It is also notable that until 1998, the Museums Association definitions make no reference to governance. The issue of whether a museum is run as a business, has no formal structure, is in private hands, is a not-for-profit, or established as a trust, is irrelevant to whether it is considered to be a museum. This particular aspect of the newer definition has real consequences for small independent museums that have been set up on an ad hoc basis, or provide employment for its founders or owners as it means that they officially cease to qualify as museums.

Above all, it is important to note that definitions change. I stress this point because, in the course of collecting data for the Mapping Museums research, various professionals have queried and, on occasion strongly objected to us collecting information on museums that fall outside of the current definition. Yet no definition is set in stone. They do not encompass some universal truth or essential quality. Rather, each definition have been introduced and written in particular historical, cultural, political, and economic circumstances. For example, the Museums Association definition of 1998 was devised in response to the policy directives of the New Labour government and to demonstrate that museums could have a role in the wider public sphere. No doubt the definition will change again, and indeed representatives of ICOM will discuss that possibility at the Defining Museums conference in St Andrews in November this year.

A related point is that multiple conceptions of museums are in circulation at any one time. For this reason I applaud the 1971 rubric because it begins with the phrase ‘We define…’, the implication being that this is our definition but there are others. That open-handedness is lost in subsequent definitions, which present the characteristics of museums as being matters of fact rather than as one possible conception among many. It is time to revise that position.

© Fiona Candlin October 2017.