What is a national museum policy and why this moment to address it?

Vanda Vitali, Ph.D.

In the Fall issue of the Muse, I suggested that any crisis, including our current multidimensional one, should not be wasted and should be used as an opportunity to advance some fundamental issues and create new paradigms to respond to new times.

Those that follow CMA advocacy activities would have seen our increased communication to the Ministry of Canadian Heritage, as well as to other influencers and decision makers, pleading for the development of a new national museum policy as one of the key deliverables that our membership expects and urges the Ministry to produce.

So, why is a national museum policy important?

A national museum policy sets out a strategic vision for all types of museums as social institutions that provides directions to increase the impact and sustainability of the museum sector.

More specifically, for Canada, a national museum policy would aim to preserve and maximize the content of collections to tell the story of Canada, inclusive of its many cultures. A strong, refreshed national museum policy would allow for the further digitization of collections to empower greater collaboration and sharing of Canada’s cultural heritage.

A strong national museum policy is also vital for ensuring a sustainable, inclusive future by addressing key societal issues including environmental sustainability, truth and reconciliation and social cohesion.

Furthermore, museums help educate all Canadians, including young people and families, while also encouraging a culture of innovation through research and collaboration. An updated national museum policy would help enhance public participation.

A national museum policy also helps guide the workforce toward the development and implementation of best-practices.

A refreshed national museum policy would help ensure the financial sustainability of the sector, and would increase its resiliency to meet future challenges, expected and unexpected.

Finally, an updated national museum policy would position the museum sector for success by directly aligning our work with the priorities, challenges and opportunities of the Canadian society as put forth in government policies and initiatives.

This vision expressed in the national museum policy would be achieved regardless of organizational scale or governance model of museums by advancing the above-mentioned goals and working in partnership with institutions within and beyond the cultural sector.

An updated national museum policy is a living document, built on principles, and would evolve with our society and the role of our many museums in it.

Much is known about the importance of the Canadian Museum sector. The most recent Government of Canada Survey of Heritage Institutions (2019), states that museums and galleries alone generated over $1.6 billion in revenue in 2017; there were over 49.3 million physical visits to museums and galleries and 173 million online visits. There were also over 100 thousand school group visits in 2017. In 2015, the workforce included some 21 thousand full and part-time employees and some 82 thousand volunteers.

Additionally, a Value Study of GLAMs in Canada was recently released indicating that Canada gains nearly $8.6 billion a year in economic benefits, in addition to a myriad of social advantages, from the existence of non-profit galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs).

Much is also known internationally about the importance and contribution of an up-to-date national museum policy. Approaches to national museum policies vary from one locale to another, but the overall goal of a unified approach to, and usefulness for, the sector is undeniable.

For example, France, which benefits from having had a ministry of culture that has unified, protected, and guided the museum sector for decades, has extensive and elaborate policies that cover a full range of activities and responsibilities. This includes specific attention and support for the role of museums, the management of collections, exhibitions, museum infrastructure, educational initiatives, and more. Their national policy has been continuously evolving over the years, thus representing an extensive set of principles and guidelines.

Other countries which have developed national museum policies have taken a less elaborate and more summative approach.

Scotland, for example, created an inspirational, high-level vision for their museums. The national strategy for Scotland’s Museums and Galleries sets out a compelling and inclusive vision for all museums and galleries across Scotland, a vision that is firmly in-line with their government’s ambitious program for Scotland as a whole.

Whichever approach we choose in Canada, it is vital that we focus on our common goals in order to maximize the impact of museums.

A lot has changed in the more than 30 years since the Canadian national museum policy was last updated, and the Canadian museums need and deserve a national museum policy that is a true reflection of contemporary Canada. This time, now, is especially ripe for developing a national museum policy that would focus on protecting, celebrating, and advancing Canada’s cultural heritage. M

More information on museum support in France can be found at https://www.culture.gouv.fr/Nous-connaitre/Organisation/La-direction-generale-des-patrimoines/Service-des-Musees-de-France. Additional information related to Scotland’s policies can be found at https://www.museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk/media/1094/going-further-the-national-strategy-for-museums-and-galleries-in-scotland.pdf.