Policy & research

Why the law needs reviewing to better support museum collections

We’ve written to the Law Commission to communicate the urgent need, and sector-wide support, for its project looking at museum collections. Emma Hutchins, Art Fund’s policy manager, explains why now is the time for this review.

Collections are an extraordinary resource for museums. Drawing on their collections, museums can engage and inspire audiences, bring stories to life and preserve our rich history for future generations. One estimate puts the number of objects held in collections across England and Wales at 200 million. Managing these collections is an essential part of what museums do.

Art Fund has long supported museums to develop, understand and manage their collections. From our funding for acquisitions to our support for the museum workforce, we want to ensure that everyone has access to great art, and that includes making sure it is managed effectively.

There are some cases where managing collections is tricky. For example, a museum might want to display, transfer or dispose of an object in line with its policies and the Code of Ethics. There could be many motivating factors; it could be that the object doesn’t fit with its core collection, or the object might be better suited to or cared for in the collection of another museum. In many cases, this will be straightforward. But if the owner or the donor of the object is not known – because of poor historical records from the time, perhaps – the museum can find itself up against a complicated legislative environment and facing significant legal costs to navigate it. As a result, it might not be able to display, transfer or dispose of the object as it would like, and the object remains static in costly storage.

For some museums, the legal landscape is such a barrier that they can’t even consider doing anything with the object, and can’t develop their collection as they’d like. We believe the law in this area needs to be clearer so that it might better support museums in managing their collections in such cases.

As museums recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic, they need certainty in managing their collections and unlocking their potential in order to engage audiences. That’s why we’re joining with other organisations that support museums to call for the law to be reviewed, and to start exploring where improvements might be made that would provide a clearer legal framework for museums managing collections.

We’ve written to the Law Commission to show that there is urgent need, and sector-wide support, for its project on museum collections. The project, part of the Commission’s 13th Programme of Law Reform, identified issues in dealing with objects, especially for local authority museums and certain national museums. But the project has not yet started, and won’t until resources allow. We hope that by showing the difference it could make, we can strengthen the case for resources that will get this project off the ground. You can read our letter to the Law Commission here.

There won’t be an overnight fix; when started, the project would take two to three years. But we are seeking to make a long-term impact on the way museums manage their collections and help provide sustained support for museums in serving their essential purpose.

If you would like to find out more about our work in this area, please contact programmes@artfund.org.

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