Single council for library and museum a flawed idea

Wed, Nov 28, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:Our National Museum and National Library are custodians of our inheritance from the past and this role needs the protection of autonomous governance structures which take fiduciary responsibility for the institutions and shield them from irresponsible interference.

The announcements by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan of changes to the organisation of the national cultural institutions have attracted a good deal of criticism and rightly so.

Not all of what he announced is bad – much-needed resource-sharing and other co-operation are welcome – but it all has an undesirable centralising tendency and efficiencies could be achieved in other ways. Institutions with strong governing boards have for a long time engaged in co-operative work as a matter of course.

The announcements end a period of uncertainty that arose while the issue of amalgamating the National Archives and National Library was thrashed out. This half-baked proposal was dropped and the Minister has announced that he will extend the governance model of the National Archives to the National Museum and National Library.

But not quite, because he intends to abolish the separate governing boards of the library and museum and replace them with a single advisory council of nine members for the two institutions with particular responsibility for fundraising and international relations.

The problems with this model are that it excludes arm’s length governance of the institutions and deprives them of a necessary buffer and of independent advocacy in relating to government. It also leaves unanswered the question of why the boards are to be abolished after only one full, and one partial, term of office.

Making them “independent” fails to address the needs of the institutions for regular renewal – and that is precisely why independent governance structures of high quality are needed. It is not, as the Minister claims, a reform; it is a reversion to an older and discredited pattern of overseeing the cultural institutions.

The Minister’s plan seems to discourage wide-ranging critique and advice by the advisory council; it also shows profound ignorance of how fundraising works. Fundraising has become a highly professional activity and government agencies are not best placed to attempt it because patrons often say that government should support its own. Board members can be helpful in making contacts, but any approach to private or business sources must be made by those who can speak for the institution and demonstrate and have the capacity to fulfil their obligations – usually the director and the chair of a governing board.

The chair of an advisory council shared by two very different institutions will not bring the coherence of identity with which approaches must be made and will not speak for the institutions.

Aspirations to source significant funding for our institutions on the American philanthropic model often floated are so unrealistic as to be foolish. Fundraising in Ireland is hard work and the returns are generally modest.

International relationships are important and if a board member has some special knowledge, then it can be helpful (as in the case of Dr TP Hardiman at the Chester Beatty Library, whose world contacts were of great benefit) but most linkages are peer-to-peer.

The Minister is silent on the continued representation of the founding bodies of both the museum and the library on his new advisory council – the RDS and the Royal Irish Academy. It is the independence of the members nominated by those bodies that allows for the informed analysis and critique that boards and institutions badly need.

It is also a matter of good faith – promises were made when they relinquished their collections and these promises constitute critical trustee relationships which it is neither wise nor just to extinguish. There is likewise no consideration of how a council of nine members can adequately reflect the range of responsibilities of the two institutions – consider the National Museum’s bundle of duties to geology, zoology, archaeology, history, ethnography, folklife, decorative arts, documentation, conservation and education, display and public communication, not to mention fieldwork.

The National Library’s functions are as varied. This advisory council is a poor concept and service on it is likely to be one long cycle of frustration and embarrassment for its members.

Having failed to make the case for merging the National Archives and Library, the proposal for the museum and library looks very like an attempt to salvage some quango-culling brownie points from the wreckage.

It is a proposal that appears downright irrational because the library and the museum are even more unlike in their functions and operations than the archives and library. It makes no sense on cost grounds since service on the governing boards is pro bono.

Why then is the current agenda being pursued? Is it change for change’s sake? Has the Minister concluded that he and his officials are best qualified to run these complex institutions more directly themselves? Is there some other agenda to do with the distribution of staff numbers in Government departments?

It is difficult to answer these questions. Let us exclude the first as unworthy. The second is unlikely because the staff of the department, despite their many virtues, simply lack the skills, experience and special knowledge needed to manage organisations as complex as the National Museum and National Library. The third remains a possibility but, if true, would represent a breathtaking degree of cynicism. So what is going on? It is time that the Minister justified his decisions.

Michael Ryan is an archaeologist, former director of the Chester Beatty Library and past president of the Royal Irish Academy. He was keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum from 1979-1992.

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