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Anatomy of UK museums

February 11, 2013

For the general public a museum is a museum, however for those interested in pursuing a career in museums, volunteering or acting as a trustee to a museum it is useful to know a little more about the composition or anatomy of the of UK museum sector.

Museums in the UK can be broadly divided into 3 distinct groupings, local, independent and national.  Traditionally people working in museums tend to remain in one of these 3 groups, as each have their own cultures and career paths.

Local government museums account for over a third of UK Accreditated museums.  They date back to the Public Museums Act of 1845 which enabled municipal boroughs to establish museums, like New Walk Museum in Leicester founded in 1849.  These museums, as part of the public sector, have tried to embrace community engagement with an emphasis on local collections and life long learning.  Many of the professional staff are qualified with post graduate museum degrees and work across a range of disciplines.

looks a bit like a min BM but it is actually New Walk Museum in Leicester

Looks a bit like a mini BM but it is actually New Walk Museum & Gallery, Leicester

The independent museum sector includes the majority of museums in the UK.  These organisations are largely small with few or no paid staff, but a few are larger and employee staff.  They are not operated by the public sector and receive little of no revenue grants from government.  Although they have been around for centuries they proliferated in the 70s and 80s as enthusasists attempted to save the nations’ disappearing heritage whether it was a local building or large objects like the SS Great Britain in Bristol.  In order to survive these type of museums have had to be customer orientated and business savvy, especially the larger institutions which require a significant cash income to operate.

SS Great Britain, a large independent museum in Bristol

SS Great Britain, a large independent museum in Bristol

National museums make up the smallest part of the sector.  They are dominated by the “big beasts” like the British Museum, V&A, National Museums of Scotland etc.  Although professionally run, staff are trained along subject specialisms rather than having a  museum post graduate qualification.  Indeed they can sometimes be seen to be closer to an academic institution than other types of museums.  Some of the less obvious “nationals” include the Horniman and the Geffrye museums, which never the less are still directly funded by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.  All too often the media assume all museums full into the national catergory.  For instance the policy of free admission is only applicable to nationals, as central government only compensates the museums it directly supports.  If you are a charging local or independent museum it is sometimes hard to explain to journalists or the public that 95% of museums are not supported by the free admissions policy.

One of the lesser known national museums, the Geffrye, London

One of the lesser known national museums, the Geffrye, London

This is of course a gross simplification of the museum sector.  The changes to museums over the last few decades have broken down some of these cultural barriers.  Not least with the growth of learning and visitor services in the sector.  But it is still something that those within the museum world should be aware of the 3 distinct types of institutions.

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