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Cornwall Museums Partnership

We need to talk about Partnerships

Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

This week I’ve had two emails about partnership working in the museums sector. One reminding me to fill in an Arts Council England survey and the other from the National Museum Directors Council. Both are about the developing Partnership Framework for national museums emerging from the Mendoza Review recommendations.

As CEO of Cornwall Museums Partnership, I’ve spent the last 5 years of my museum career testing, coordinating and thinking about partnership working. I’ve learned a few things about working collaboratively in the museums sector. About what works and what doesn’t. This post offers some reflections on partnership working, from things I have, mostly, learned the hard way.

  1. People make partnerships, not organisations. Partnerships are about relationships and these take time to develop. Successful partnerships are built on trust, mutual understanding and a shared sense of purpose. I have never known a successful partnership to be conducted via email. They need genuine conversations and people who are prepared to visit one another, to have first-hand experience of each other’s museums and the places in which they operate. Good collaborative working emerges from multiple touch points between organisations, including buy-in to collaboration from the top (board and Director level). It needs people to behave like humans and, before they do anything else, have a meaningful conversation/s.
  2. The deficit model of partnership working is disempowering. Starting with the assumption that one organisation has the expertise/ resources/ networks to solve another’s problems is the wrong place to start. I don’t know about you, but I have never found one-way relationships to be particularly satisfying. A more productive and creative place to start is to ask, ‘what are the opportunities we could seize together?’. My observation is that the most fruitful conversations start with a focus on strengths not weaknesses; instead why not ask, ‘how can museum partners use their respective strengths to be more than the sum of their parts?’
  3. Expertise and scale are not inextricably linked. It is as unhelpful for colleagues in national museums to assume that they have all the expertise to ‘fix’ regional museums’ problems as it is for people working in regional museums. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with smart, creative, innovators in every kind of museum. According to the ACE survey ‘Some non-national museums will be facing challenges with digital technology’. A colleague from a national museum recently emailed me and asked me to send them a fax. Enough said.
  4. Partnership working is as much about the ‘how’ as the ‘what’. I’m currently reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. The basic premise, that our ability to be productive ‘knowledge workers’, is shaped by the way we work strikes a chord with me. If we are really serious about driving the sector forward, then we need to think about how we are working not just what we are doing. This is absolutely the case with partnership working. If we follow Newport’s theory, hastily filled out surveys and Friday afternoon email responses (or ‘non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks often performed while distracted’) are unlikely to form the basis of a good strategy for partnership working. What he calls ‘shallow work’ is likely to produce shallow strategy. To quote Nina Semczuk we are ‘shuffling papers instead of laying the bricks to build a house’.

So, with that in mind here are some suggestions from me. Some things we might try to help us create lasting and fruitful collaboration…

  1. Get out of the office. Forget touring exhibitions, how about touring museum directors? I’m not sure if any national museum directors have been to any museums in Cornwall recently. Maybe on holiday. Similarly, I suspect some regional museum directors are better than others at proactively making contact with national museum directors. Seriously, people need to talk to each other. Could NMDC meetings be held in regional museums from time to time?
  2. Exchange staff. Could we offer staff exchange programmes to build a working knowledge of regional/ national museum practices, systems and priorities in our museums? Could national museum staff spend some time working in regional museums? Could regional museum staff join national museum teams on international visits/ touring exhibitions as part of a CPD programme?
  3. Host away days. We are interested in the way Derby Museums Trust talk about their partnerships and so we’re holding our board away day there next month (thank you Tony Butler). Could national museums provide free or subsidised venues for regional museum away days? Could opportunities for knowledge exchange be built in to these visits?
  4. Share networks. How might national museums share some of their contacts with regional museums at a distance from London? Which networks could be of mutual benefit to national and regional museums?

When it works, collaboration is a joy. Here at CMP, we firmly believe that collaborative working provides fertile ground for innovation and creativity. And if you’d like to work with us, pick up the phone, we’d love to have a conversation.


Emmie Kell, CEO –

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