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13.30  A Change in the “Who,” a Change in the “What”: On the Material Practices of Museums in Two Cases of Co-Management

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In recent years in the UK, faced with continuing cuts to their budgets, a number of local authorities have been considering new approaches to the management of their museum services. A number are delivering their “core” museum service from less sites than before, resulting in several museum buildings being left surplus to requirements. Others have moved away from direct delivery of museum services, establishing relationships with external organizations to which the responsibility for the service and the building has been transferred. 

This paper will consider this shifting landscape of museum management or “co-management,” focusing predominately on the process by which newly established organizations came to be installed as museum managers, and the initial few months of their work in the museum. This is a particularly fascinating group to study as this is a group of people with little experience of working in a public museum, coming to museum work for the first time and finding ways of “doing” museum work in a time of rapid organizational change and financial constraint. 

As a commentary on two case studies, I study the specific practices that come to light as participants confront the non-routine and unfamiliar work of the museum and local government administration. In examining these situational examples of co-management, my particular focus is on the material processes, accountability regimes and routiniszed procedures associated with museum work, and their potential to actively configure museum practice. Actor-network theory and a relational materialities approach provides the theoretical and analytical tools for this exploration. Three material practices provide the entry point for analysis— although the paper is more interested in the relations in which these materials are entangled and the networks that enable them to take on a material character. 

As a further point of interest, many of these people bring previous political and social commitments with them to these roles. I conclude with observations on the politics of these material practices, reflecting on why it very much matters how these instances of co-management are being calibrated, arguing for the value of an approach which brings the material practices of museum work to the fore, entangled and implicated as they are in these contexts. 

Bethany Rex


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