The multivalent future life of The National Gallery

Publication of the latest National Gallery Strategic Plan 2021-2026 will take the organisation through to its 200th birthday. The plan is very much a product of the pandemic, recognising the change over the past year, challenges and opportunities that the gallery has gone through and actions it needs now to mainstream in its operations to thrive into the future.

The Gallery sees itself as embarking on a newly enhanced commitment to engage with the widest audiences globally in innovative ways, and wants to demonstrate how art is transformative, enhancing culture and society. It intends to develop income streams through a range of digital channels and offerings, rework the visitor welcome and orientation in the Sainsbury Wng, and foregrounds the research credentials of the Gallery as a hub for an enhanced and diverse community of practice.

There is much to applaud here, not least the optimistic and engaging tone in which the strategy is written. As a connoisseur of strategic plans and annual reports, there are also some sentences which may baffle and amuse. My favourites for this plan include:

It is this multivalent life, always finding new ways to share our art, that defines the Gallery and will continually redefine it in future.

Strategic Plan, p.5

Multivalent? There’s a word you don’t see every day!.

…we will diversify the social media channels we serve to include programmes we do not already use (TikTok, Snapchat) as well as doubling down on the ones we do.

Strategic Plan, p.10

Doubling down? A phrase with history… but also a gamble.

Mainstreaming & Equality Outcomes at Historic Environment Scotland

HES has just published an update on its work to embed equality and diversity across its operations and activities with data on 2019-2020 and a range of case studies highlighting progress. The main report is web-based with dynamic content (personally speaking I feel a PDF would also be helpful, but I may have missed the link).

The report is good to see, not least the recognition that the organisation is at the start of its journey in comparison to others: a phrase that jumps off the page for example admits that it is still currently a ‘white organisation’ and needs to work to represent Scotland’s society better internally. It usefully considers both the internal and external environments for the organisation.

The complexities of the issues are large and structural barriers to overcome are large, and the report charges its directorates with expectations to address these, and enable the historic environment to work for everyone, and enable all sections of society to engage with their heritage.

The response to the pandemic and the shift to new ways of working with enhanced digital service delivery add a further challenge and opportunity, and will need to be one of the ingredients to address the issues.

I’d argue that further articulation in future also needs to be made around equality and access in the context of chronic ill health disability (beyond typical disability classifications) and challenges of ageing society; financial exclusion and its ramifications for engagement with heritage; and also consideration of specific geographic issues (e.g. urban / rural / island / remote) as they impact on stakeholders in the historic environment.

Big Data for the business of heritage

An opinion piece by Cambridge’s Andy Neely in the FT on 11th February on how Business Schools might engage with ‘big data’ got me thinking about this beyond education in relation to the business of the heritage sector in wider society.  There is much technical discussion around data within heritage, but this tends to focus on asset datasets themselves, rather than the users and consumers of heritage.  Big data allied to everything from website visits, social media tweets, likes, reviews and commentary, through to monetary transactions, movements of people and health statistics all may reveal something about our ‘engagement’ with aspects of the historic environment, outwith our understanding of the traditional touchpoints. I have not come across anything yet which has applied this thinking beyond evaluation methodologies, such as Culture24’s action research or download statistics for heritage-related apps – but would welcome feedback if there are good examples which demonstrate the sector making meaningful use of a potentially rich resource.  I can’t help thinking that typical big data foci – such as those outlined in the Policy Exchange report on opportunities for the public sector – could be usefully levered into the services of heritage management and enhancing our understanding of how we use, protect and promote the historic environment, demonstrating its impact across a broader range of civil society concerns.