Why the Imperial War Museums’ Archive Award Matters


The hard-fought defence of the Imperial War Museum’s library and related facilities from planned cuts will prove meaningless if public accessibility is not maintained and developed by IWM. The Museum’s mission statement of telling the story of the causes and consequences of conflict cannot be met unless archives are not only preserved but promoted through library and research services that enable public access to both archival material and supporting non-archival collections.

The recent accreditation of the IWM archive by the UK Archive Service Accreditation Committee not only vindicates the efforts of staff and other campaigners but can be used to protect the archives from new threats, such as any plans for re-location of collections to IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire.

The award of the Archive Service Accreditation makes IWM only the second national museum to be accredited, alongside the V&A, since the standard was introduced in 2013. It confirms IWM’s suitability as holder of certain public records. Not only does the archive award recognise good practice in archive services management but also serves to encourage and support improvement, including helping archive services “adapt and respond to user needs and interests, and develop their workforce.”

Recognition of IWM’s archive standards vindicates the efforts of staff and campaigners who fought tirelessly to save the reference library and related services from cuts during 2014/15. IWM’s library collection includes the War Memorials Archive, First World War Women’s Work Collection, War Office and Ministry of Information collections. These books and ephemera collections likely constitute archives under the Society of American Archivists definition. Moreover, the non-archival – or “non-core” library material shed light on the archival collections, thus their availability also plays an important role in public accessibility of the archival material.

Following major government cuts to the Museum’s grant, in 2014/15, IWM proposed to close its library, dispose of the majority of its 300,000 item collection, end important educational services, cut 60-80 jobs and close the educational/research Explore History facility at IWM London.

An astonishing figure of nearly 21,000 people signed an online petition to save the IWM library and other services, following a campaign lead by IWM library staff and the Prospect union. As a result of public pressure, the Government pledged £8 million over four years to safeguard the immediate future of educational facilities and IWM backed down from its most drastic moves, offering a reprieve to the library. Instead reduced services were imposed, including, a reduced Explore History service with closure on weekends, a reduced Research Room service, an end to the telephone collections enquiry and booking service and some job cuts to library staff. IWM finally backed down from its proposal to charge for access to the Research Room.

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Petition to save IWM Library and services (Prospect union)

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Prospect union members campaigning to save IWM Library (loveimperialwarmuseumlibrary.wordpress.com)

Following the IWM Library campaign victory, Prospect union negotiator, Andy Bye struck a note of caution: “The huge publicity as the election looms has contributed to this climb-down. However, the long-term future of the library’s collections is still not guaranteed – the status of 240,000 library items has been changed so they are no longer part of the core collection. The devil may be in the detail and our members will continue to be vigilant about protecting this national resource.”

Like all museums, IWM has auctioned off “un-accessioned” and “duplicate de-accessioned” items in its collections, including books and ephemera. In “exceptional cases” of “last resort” IWM is permitted to dispose items for principally financial reasons if criteria are met.

Reduced services, such as an end to the telephone collections enquiry service that received some 22,000 calls a year, has reduced the public’s access to IWM’s collections. The latest threat is possible re-location of parts of the collection to IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire, 10 miles outside of Cambridge, where new a new £2.1 million archive storage complex is planned by IWM. These plans have been prompted by proposed new WW2 and Holocaust galleries as part of phase 2 of the IWM London regeneration project.

Even if only “non-core” items of the collection are re-located to IWM Duxford, the effect will be to reduce accessibility of core archival material, as non-core items play an important role in shedding light on archival material.

The latest project to develop new galleries could mask a major re-location of parts of IWM’s collections and staff, undermining public access – just as the fanfare, in 2014, of new £40 million WW1 galleries overshadowed drastic plans to end library and related services. If “non-core” library items are re-located, for example, the future of IWM London’s library staff must be questioned. This in turn raises questions about the future of the educational drop-in Explore History service and, even, the Research Room, which are both operated by senior library staff.

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Research Room, IWM London

To continue to meet the standards of its new accreditation, IWM must consider how re-location of any parts of its archive or complementary items from the collection will affect the public: “The archive service demonstrates a good understanding of the needs and interests of the community it is established to serve. It has plans in place which detail the actions that are being taken to meet stakeholders’ access requirements and to continuously improve service provision.” [Requirement 3.2, Access Plans and Planning Requirement].

Any drastic re-location of IWM’s archive or complementary items may undermine accreditation standards, notably the duty to document plans “to continuously improve access and engagement in response to the identified needs and interests of its community. The plans are actively implemented and reviewed.” [Requirement 3.2.3]

Job cuts or re-location threaten the requirement that the archive service has a workforce “appropriate in experience and numbers to carry out the service’s responsibilities and plans.” [Requirement 1.6, Resources: Workforce]

The acquisition, appraisal and deaccessioning of archive items must be “holistically connected and clearly linked to the organisation’s mission statement.” [Requirement 2.2, Collections Development].

The accreditation standards, particularly with regards continuous improvement of accessibility, are in direct conflict with archive service reduction prompted for any reason, be it requirements of new exhibition space or government funding cuts. How these conflicts are to be managed is not discussed in the accreditation guidelines, except that in three years’ time, IWM will have to show to the assessor “progress against required actions or improvement actions outlined in the feedback to their initial application.”

Campaigners and staff opposing changes to education and research services which disrupt public access and the Museum’s ability to fulfil its public mission can hold IWM decision-makers to its new archive accreditation.

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The Falsity of Museum Neutrality

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Code of Ethics launch by the Museum Association, 2016 (Museums + Heritage Advisor)

In a recent speech, Dr David Fleming, President of the Museum Association, discussed the ethics of museum funding and partnering. He recognised the ethical responsibility of museums in making such decisions – and decried the falsity of the claim that museums are neutral.

“I have to say, I often despair at the frequency with which museum professionals state that we are somehow ‘above’ politics and we occupy a Neverland where we all deal in an absolute truth. This is either naiveté of the first order or it is far more sinister than that.”

Dr Fleming gave two examples of decisions made by his own institution, the National Museums Liverpool (NML) where he is director. It was important, he said, for staff to “stifle any personal view” – though, he recognised that they will unavoidably play some part.

A political party with “a whiff of racism” successfully hired a conference space from NML. Dr Fleming argued that, as the political party did not reject democracy and the deal could be done on a purely business footing, with no association with NML – it should not be spurned.

On the other hand, the hiring of an exhibition from another museum that was funded and named after a company involved with a military railway in a conflict zone was aborted. NML found “an appropriate route that did not compromise our reputation”.

In both decisions, Dr Fleming admits that, however much he and his colleagues tried, personal views necessarily affected the outcomes. “Pretending to be neutral is unethical; pretending that the museum has no bias and contains nothing other than scholarly expositions is unethical.”

The Museum Association’s Code of Ethics for Museums rejects the idea that museums should be neutral. If personal views of staff should be “stifled” the institutional code of ethics should be positively upheld. The Code of Ethics requires museums to support issues such as free speech, non-discrimination, public engagement, public benefit, accuracy and, in relation to funding and partnering, editorial integrity.

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For a museum to resist influence and promote “editorial integrity” it must have positive institutional ethical values and must certainly not be neutral. Without editorial or intellectual independence, it fails its public service duty. Specifically, it can no longer “(e)nsure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum.” (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.7). Nor can it fulfil its duty of providing and generating accurate information (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.4).

Not only must museums have Ethics Committees advising their decision-makers, as the NML has, but, also, a clear statement of ethical values. Most museums endorse the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics but, I believe that more institution specific statements are required, addressing ethical issues in their subject matter.

Moreover, rather than estimating public perception and just worrying about their reputation – museums should directly involve the public in their decisions.

This way, ethical decisions of funding and partnering are not mainly decided in a murky mixture of personal staff views (and it’s not the cleaning or security staff’s views that usually creep into the decisions) and estimates about the public reaction – but, also, a clear and considered internal ethical assessment.

If the Science Museum accepts oil company, BP, as a sponsor can it remain editorially independent and uphold its ethical views? Or, what about when the Imperial War Museum accepts donations from the Ministry of Defence and arms manufacturers? Perhaps, it is possible, but we certainly cannot know unless we know what their ethical views are and how they make each particular decision.