Partnerships: sharing skills and collections across the UK

Museums of all sizes and types regularly work in partnership to deliver collaborative projects with other museums, educational establishments, and heritage and community organisations across the country. Many of these partnerships are based around the loan of objects, including from national museums, but others focus on developing new public programming, sharing skills and expertise, education and learning, and working with communities.

NMDC has been actively promoting the sharing of skills and collections between museums, and with organisations outside the sector, for many years.

Museum Partnership Report 2020/21

In February 2023 DCMS published the 4th edition of the annual Museum Partnership Report, which gives an overview of the partnership activities of 22 national museums in the UK. This edition reports on the period 2020/21 and includes the start of and most disruptive year of the pandemic. Although activities for the period were disrupted, meaning that particularly lending activity was reduced compared to previous years, (around 32% decrease compared to 2019/20,) the national museums still engaged in extensive partnership work, including:

  • At least 1.3m people saw the national collection on display outside of national museums in the UK during 2020/21. A significant drop of 94% from just over 22m visitors reported in 2019/20.
  • National museums reported participating in 438 formal networks in 2020/21 an increase of 26% on 2017/18 numbers.
  • 15 national museums supported a total of 66 apprenticeships during 2020/21 on a par with 2017/18 numbers. The majority were in Front of House roles.
  • 90 new activities, events or initiatives were not pre-planned but created in response to the pandemic during 2020/21. Even though many staff were isolating or on furlough.

Outgoing Director-General of the Imperial War Museums Dame Diane Lees reflected on the report and on partnerships more generally with the below statement.

For the past 5 years it’s been my pleasure to be NMDC’s Partnerships Champion. As I reflect on my time working with the national museums in this capacity and look forward to the future, I’m confident that the excellent work of the national museums, and the committed and imaginative national programme managers who drive it, will continue to become ever more strategic and impactful.

They will continue to support, encourage and collaborate with the excellent regional museums across the UK and the huge variety of non-museum organisations they work with – from science centres, universities and schools to charities and community groups – to make sure our amazing national collections are accessible to everyone.

Despite the general population being massively restricted for long stretches of time during the pandemic, museums were still able to share collections with each other, and with a vast array of national and international partners. That at least 1.3m people were still able to see the national collections in the UK outside of their permanent sites is a huge achievement, and 4.6m people saw them internationally. This exemplifies the sheer power of will to uphold everyone’s right to access culture even in times of extreme difficulty.

Lending works and objects isn’t just a transaction, each loan depends on developing a relationship and becoming a partner. Across all kinds of partnership work, these relationships aren’t always easy to form, it often takes time to develop trust and build confidence, to agree ideas, to find partners to work on different projects and to meet the objectives of organisations involved to ensure they each benefit. During this period national museums were still able to make new connections, with 62 new UK partner organisations and 63 new international partners they hadn’t worked with before. While many partnerships are with existing partners, this also shows the successful ways museums manage to work with others over time and to maintain relationships even in a difficult climate.

This latest report is a testament to the deeply rooted role that the national museums play in supporting the wider UK museum sector and their accessibility to all. The wealth of projects that museums were able to continue or that were newly established during the pandemic really shows their intrinsic value to the local communities they work with and to the wide access they can provide through their networks and digital activity.

Museum Partnership Report.

Museum Partnership Report 2017/18

In August 2019 DCMS published the Museum Partnership Report

The report is an overview of the partnerships of the 17 national UK museums, revealing how museum partnerships benefit partners, audiences and wider society and was released in response to the need for National Museums' partnership work to be better understood.

The report demonstrates the vast array of partnership work undertaken by national museums. The broad catalogue of activities captured in the report show museums acting as lenders, borrowers, researchers, schools, universities, advisors, trainers, mentors and experts depending on the needs of their partners. These activities in turn support families, teachers, learners, young people, carers, health workers, Government and other museum professionals.

NMDC's response to the report is published here.

Museums' Partnership Framework

National museums are working, through NMDC, to develop a Partnership Framework to extend their reach throughout the rest of the UK. The Framework was a recommended action from the Mendoza Review of Museums in England (2017) which set out how Government should better support the museum sector, and what actions should be taken by Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund, Local Government and National Museums.

In October 2018 DCMS and NMDC published an implementation plan for the Partnership Framework, this is a working document that will evolve as national museums engage with the rest of the sector to seek ways of increasing their reach, improve communication about what they already do and become more strategic in the way they develop partnerships.

The plan includes:

  • Tri-annual meetings of national museums’ partnership leads to share information and evaluation of partnership activity and discuss action to address strategic needs or gaps.
  • A nominated NMDC museum director to champion partnership working, with the role being taken by IWM Director-General Diane Lees for the first year.
  • Collation of information (primarily through ACE) on the needs of regional museums and audiences to inform decision-making and develop a more strategic approach.
  • An annual professional exchange event, organised with colleagues from across the sector, to network and respond to regional and thematic needs.
  • Annual data collection from national museums on sharing collections and expertise to create an annual report.
  • NMDC’s revised guidelines on lending, being developed in consultation with colleagues across the sector, will also seek to enable more effective, strategic and frequent UK loans.

Read the full document here.

Working with national museums: partnerships and collaboration

It can sometimes be difficult to find the contact details of the person at a national museum with responsibility for managing and developing partnerships. Working with national museums: partnerships and collaboration includes details of the Head of Partnerships (or equivalent) in each national museum, and some information about the sorts of projects that take place to act as inspiration. Working with national museums: partnerships and collaboration.

Museum partnerships

In 2014, NMDC produced this briefing which looks at the breadth and variety of partnerships in which its members' organisations are involved. Museums continue to adapt the focus and nature of partnership working as a way of managing the impact of cuts to public funding and developing greater resilience.

Partnerships: an NMDC briefing outlines the many different sorts of partnerships national museums and Major Partner Museums develop. Thousands of objects are lent and borrowed by museums each year in the UK - lent to places where the object has special significance, or to form the content for a museum or historic house, or for a short period for an exhibition. Loans ensure a much wider audience can see the objects, and this can increase visitors and drive regional tourism. Museums work in partnership to share good practice and knowledge, and on almost every area of museum operations - from acquisitions to learning, volunteer programmes to marketing, and through formal and informal networks about the management of collections.

The briefing can be read here.

Sharing skills and knowledge

National museums and Major Partner Museums work with partners to share knowledge and skills throughout the sector. They participate in networks, such as the Subject Specialist Networks, and run their own programmes focusing on different areas of museum operation or specific parts of the collection. For more information, click here.

In 2011, NMDC commissioned a survey of its members to establish how members share knowledge and skills. This survey informed future NMDC-facilitated activity and a summary of this is available here.

Borrowing and lending objects

Central to many museum partnerships is the borrowing and lending of objects for temporary display and on longer-term loan.

This 2012 briefing, the UK collection, outlines some of the projects, exhibitions and partnerships national museums have been involved in to ensure their collections are seen by audiences across the UK.

Members are keen to lend objects to a greater variety of venues and ensure that the collections are seen by more than those who are able to visit their main sites. Therefore, members support the adoption, where appropriate, of the principles outlined in the Museum Association’s Smarter Loans document. Details of recent loans made by members are available on their institution’s website, along with details of who to contact to enquire about borrowing objects.

Strategic partnerships and collaborative projects

National collections and major museums enter into strategic partnerships with cultural institutions - including museums, media organisations, galleries, heritage organisations, community groups and arts organisations – to deliver collaborative projects which reach audiences beyond those able to visit the museum itself. Museums embrace technological changes and the benefits of working with a broad range of organisations to ensure that the widest possible audience is able to access the collections.

Previous projects

In 2009, NMDC commissioned research into the extent and scope of partnership work between National collections and regional museums. The summary report, National Museums: Working in Partnership Across the UK, included a series of recommendations to strengthen and maintain this activity in the future. Full details of this research project.

Key findings included:

  • Across 16 national museums the total number of projects undertaken with partners across the UK in 2008-9 was well over 1,600.

  • Loan activity is strong, with nearly 80% of survey respondents describing their loan service as good and sustainable.

  • There is good provision for learning, with three quarters of loans and exhibitions in 2008-9 supported by access to specialists in learning.

In 2004, NMDC published National Dimensions, a report examining the many forms of collaboration between national museums and the rest of the sector.  The report, by AEA Consulting, was the first to identify the scale of joint activity underway at any one time. Produced following a series of consultation days around the country, the report looked at different types of collaborations, from one-off projects to long-term strategic partnerships, and included a wealth of case studies covering all major areas of museum activity.  The report acknowledged the need to continue to develop genuinely nationwide access to the national collections and set out a series of proposals aimed at ensuring this. 
Download full report

In 2003, NMDC published Loans Between National and Non-national Museums: New Standards and Practical Guidelines, which aimed to facilitate greater access to the national collections.  More.