A colleague recommended I attend an event ‘Aiming for Excellence,’ run by the London Museums Group. Intrigued by the title alone, I gladly accepted on the assumption that it would pose some very interesting questions about what we’re striving for…

Judy Willcocks, Head of Museum at Central Saint Martins, opened the conference with the London Museums Group (LGM) Annual General Meeting. The LGM is a peer-to-peer help network, which represents all London museums, and those who work in them. It is open to paid workers, volunteers, freelancers, from curators and cafe staff to directors and documentation assistants. It’s worth mentioning also that membership is free.

This event was part of a series, which takes each of the Arts Council’s strategic goals as a starting point, and what they mean for the sector. Goal 1 emphasises the need for excellence in museums, but what exactly does that mean? The event sought to address the various questions about aspirations of the sector, strategies put in place to achieve key goals, and the standards against which work is measured.

John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Museums at Arts Council England Museums, spoke about excellence and audience. John drew on his last 9 months in post visiting various museums and presented on the ones he likes and why. Museum in Oxford, Manchester Museum, Chiltern Open Air Museum and The Mary Rose Museum all got a mention; for various reasons including being playful, creating conversations, community engagement and use of drama. John took the viewpoint that excellence is defined by audience and the local community. He concluded that it’s not the Arts council’s role to define excellence rather to nurture and support excellence.

Dr Bernadette Lynch, Researcher, Consultant and Lecturer titled her section: What use ‘excellence?’ Challenging the use – value of notions of excellence in the arts and heritage. Adopting a more critical approach Bernadette presented excellence as a continuous debate. She referenced the term ‘marketplacification’ coined in Robert R. Janes’ book Museums in a Troubled World. Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? London & New York: Routledge. 2009.  She pointed out that more and more emphasis is placed upon entertainment and consumption resulting in commoditisation. Also the alarming tendency to fixate on the end product such as an exhibition, artist or community to be sold.

Bernadette highlighted the importance of building excellent partnership and working with people. She spoke about Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s (PHF) work looking at role of museum and putting people at the centre; seeing if Museums can transform themselves and make a sustained difference. Her summary report Whose cake is it anyway?, published by PHF, provides further insight into a collaborative investigation into engagement and participation in 12 museums and galleries in the UK.

Hughie O’Donoghue, Artist and Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 Coordinator spoke about excellence as a moving experience using the Summer Exhibition as an example of something compelling. He referenced art historical milestones including Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain voted as one of the most influential works of art by curators. Along with Claude Monet’s site specific Water Lilies who is now commoditised as a painter. Hughie argued that artist’s must be true to themselves in order to achieve excellence.

Geoffrey Colman – Head of Acting, Central School of Speech and Drama suggested it is the responsibility of the cultural sector to have an impact on people – true learning, art and excellence. Since they set the agenda, the 5-year strategies and national objectives. He referenced Foucault’s panopticon and continual watch as risk adverse audit mechanisms of institutions now being the measurement of quality. He argued beauty is defined by emotion, sense and response.

Various interesting questions were presented to the panel following the presentations. I felt Kids in Museum’s comment nicely summed up the key message of the day which was the “place of excellence is in the conversations that take place” necessitating that both the institution and audience are in a constant dialogue in order to keep excellence in check.