One of the best ways to approach developing international projects is not to do it alone. Aside from the clichés of “a problem shared” and “two heads are better than one”, it can be a great way of reaching larger audiences, being more ambitious, and being a more compelling proposition for funders. A consortium approach ensures the workload and the pressure on collections are shared, lessons learnt and good practice can be spread across the group, and efficiencies of scale can be realised.
The basis of almost all international partnerships is to find something the institutions have in common – be it collections, people or place – or, alternatively, to identify something special an audience in the UK or abroad would not otherwise see or discover. So, bearing that short formula in mind, which UK organisations could you form partnerships with and how might it work?
It may be unlikely that museums or the general public in the country you want to work with will be very familiar with your museum. However, they may know the county or city where the museum is, or the artists, people and historical events represented in your collection.
Ask the neighbours
Local partnerships – a consortium of museums, galleries or arts organisations in one city or county – can be an effective basis for developing international partnerships. Taking advantage of the fact that the artists represented in their collections were more internationally recognisable than their individual institutions, the Greater Manchester Museums Group partnership provided the basis for museums in that region to tour their art collections overseas. From an idea that grew from the many West African textiles in Manchester galleries, and historic links between West Africa and Manchester, We Face Forward was a showcase of exhibitions and events across nine cultural organisations in Manchester in 2012, featuring 33 artists from 11 West African countries.
Who else has a collection of…?
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke and The Wilson in Cheltenham all have collections of ceramics, and they used this common specialism to jointly develop a partnership with ceramists in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen and the twocities gallery in Shanghai. The result of the partnership was Ahead of the Curve, an exhibition that toured to Bristol, Cheltenham, and Stoke.
An international project may be developed as a consortium, and it may be the case that other members of the consortium are based elsewhere in Europe. This would work particularly well if you have an unusual collection or if there are comparatively few museums like yours. The larger European Open-Air Museums (including Beamish) have formed a network, supported by European funding, which allows them to share information, manage staff exchanges, and look at addressing specific audience needs, including considering how best to welcome visitors with dementia. Meanwhile, curators from five European collections with significant holdings of photographs of indigenous Australians, including those at the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, worked together with the Monash University in Melbourne and the University of Western Australia in Perth, to develop a close relationship with source communities in Australia.
Who can do the things you can’t?
The Ironbridge Institute is a partnership between Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust and the University of Birmingham, formed for the purpose of delivering graduate teaching and research about world cultural heritage. It utilises the collections, curatorial expertise and management of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ironbridge, with the academic expertise of the University; and thus allows both organisations to develop international projects with partners they otherwise may not be able to work with.
Tips and a checklist
- Work with partners with whom you have something in common. Start small, discover how well you work together and then develop more ambitious projects if it is a success.
- Discuss what each partner wants from the international project and agree what you wish the outcome to be.
- Assign responsibilities for each element of the project.
- Make sure risk is shared by all partners, and also the credit for success.
- Develop a budget and timeline, but build in plenty of contingency.
- Have a partnership agreement, just in case anyone loses sight of who is doing what and why.
Katie Childs, Policy and Projects Manager, National Museum Directors’ Council