Excellence, good practice, failure and the McMasters report (oh yea and audiences as well…) Museums Association conference Liverpool 2008

The debate at the Museums Association Conference, Liverpool 2008 about reactions and issues from Brian McMasters report started to define some of the substantial challenges the DCMS are going to have in implementing the recommendations.

On a panel were Mick Elliott (DCMS), Andrew Whyte (ACE), Mark O’Neill (Culture & Sport Glasgow) and Journalist Maev Kennedy. Unfortunately, Brian McMasters was not able to attend at the last minute but was replaced by a colleague who has worked on the report with him.

As the session went it it became clear that there was an undercurrent of fear coming from some in the Museum sector, articulated best by Mark O’Neill, of this all ending up with a return to the kind of elitism that the Arts Council have been criticised of before. Not so, was the reply from Andrew Whyte, this was about professional judgement and there was a need for the sector to trust those professionals who might be in the peer review process to be just that – professional. He also said that is was up to DCMS to balance judgements with measurements, one providing the context for the other.

As an optimist, I am inclined to give him this trust as my concerns from this debate about how DCMS is going to translate McMasters ideas into reality, lie elsewhere.

1) The focus of the debate was on the user (hopefully) being at the receiving end of some sort of excellence in terms of an experience. But for me its not just about considering the user at the end of a piece of work. You need to start with the user at the beginning. If you don’t start here, with can you know what the user might need or care about? How can you assess the potential? How can you assess impact or reach?

2) Good practice is not just something that falls out of the blue, it is learned. So, if excellence is one step up from good practice then one step down from it is failure. However in this session the debate on the value of failure was missed out and there was no talk about what we can learn from failure. This is a area where I think peer review could play a key part, not just to assess excellence or good practice but also failure (and failure as part of the journey all organisations are on towards excellence). If this kind of shift in thinking could be embraced and the understanding of failure seen as a success, it may also help to counteract the fear of elitism that some feel.