In Britain about 25 new museums are ``springing up'' each year: That's one every two weeks. ``The great growth area,'' says Caroline Dudley, Museums Officer for this country's Museums and Galleries Commission, ``is in very small museums put together by groups of local enthusiasts. The small village local history society is probably the source of most of the new museums these days.''
There are some 2,000 to 2,250 museums in Britain today. Only about a hundred of these count as large national institutions. And now, Ms. Dudley claims, ``there is a serious worry'' that many of these new museums ``have not got the resources - and are not doing things in the right way - to actually protect the items that they are collecting.''
There seem to be few limits to what people will collect and display in museums: They even hoard computers and objects made of early kinds of plastic. But most local museums are collecting ``domestic by-gones,'' says Ms. Dudley, ``and small archive material: anything from World War II ration books to ... you know. And then there are people who can't resist collecting old typewriters! It's endless.''
So the Museums and Galleries Commission is proposing a ``museum registration scheme.'' (The commission is a ``qango'' - a quasi non-governmental organization - and is responsible for distributing some 5.4 million worth of central-government grants to non-national museums.) The aim of the registration scheme is ``to draw up a set of criteria,'' says Ms. Dudley.
Asked what she felt about a BBC World Service report that the commission was determined to ``clamp down'' on ``fly-by-night'' museums, Dudley said: ``I don't like that description at all, and that's not the purpose of the scheme.... It is an attempt to raise standards.''
The ``main plank'' of the proposed scheme - which must undergo six months' consultation before it comes into force - is to ``ensure that any museum, even if it doesn't employ a professionally trained curator, at least has a formal written link with one.'' Such a curator should have a guaranteed access to the museum's governing body. The scheme also suggests ``guidelines ... as to what a museum can do with its collections'' if it folds up.
A pilot project based on the scheme in the northeast of England has caused local museums to consider such things as the need to have a collecting policy. ``It's amazing how some museums have just been tootling on and have never bothered to give much thought to ... writing down what sort of things it wants, and doesn't want, to collect,'' observes Dudley. Some museums have discovered that, for instance, ``their trustees weren't quite up to scratch.''
In some local publicly funded museums, she says, curators are ``too low down in the pecking order.'' This means that the individual who pleads with the governing committee for more funds is not necessarily the curator, or an expert, who knows what he or she is talking about. ``If,'' says Ms. Dudley, choosing her words, ``that person is someone who is happier running a park or a playground, then it is not entirely satisfactory.''