History of ACE
The History of ACE
The very first Group for Museum Publishing and Shop Management (as it was originally called) event took place at the British Museum in September 1979, a year after the Group first met. At that time, strange as it may seem today, national museums apart, few museums in the UK had little more than a counter by the main entrance with a handful of postcards and the occasional guidebook – if one existed – on sale. Outside of London it was extremely difficult to ascertain which museums were already developing their ‘bookstalls’ or publishing activities. The only way of reaching museums was through the monthly Bulletin, published by the Museums Association and circulated to members – who were, virtually without exception, curators - or direct to museum Directors who might, if they felt so inclined, pass the information on to whoever ran their bookstall …
The late seventies saw great changes taking place in the Museum world. They saw the foundation or expansion of numerous independent museums which from day one were reliant on their shops to provide one of their primary income streams and were amongst the first organisations to set up separate trading companies, covenanting all profits to the running of the museum. It was no surprise that some of the most highly regarded and innovative museum shops in those early days were to be found in the independent sector – Gladstone Pottery Museum, Quarry Bank Mill (now National Trust), Beamish, Crich (the Tramway Museum) or the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.
Most of the inaugural meeting was devoted to drafting a constitution for the Group. This was kept as simple as possible – ten clauses fitting onto one A4 sheet – and it remained virtually unchanged for over two decades. The primary object as laid down in the constitution was ‘To provide a forum for discussion and exchange of ideas and information between members of the museum profession involved in any aspect of publishing , shop management, or related activity .’ One must remember that, although the aim was for an organisation closely related to the Museum Store Association in the US to which virtually every museum store belongs, the situation in the UK was markedly different. Virtually all museum trading in the UK, to the extent that it took place at all, was still in the hands of publishers whereas in the US the two functions - publishing & trading - always were, and still are, considered to be quite separate and few, if any, museum publishers in the US subscribe to MSA. In the UK the days of the marketing men and women and the great entrepreneurs such as Nicky Bird, at the V & A, were yet to come. Instead we had a vintage crop of publishers including Iain Bain (Tate), Michael Hoare (BM), Bob Cross (Nat. Hist), Pippa Bignell (Science Museum), Elizabeth Talbot Rice (Nat. Army) Roger Shepherd (NPG) and of course Trevor Jones at Birmingham. The latter, first Treasurer and one of the driving forces of the Group in its early days, developed the first really modern, show-piece shop in the provinces at Birmingham Museum.
Because the two functions were so inextricably mixed ‘trading’ and ‘publishing’ were given equal weight from day one and every effort was made to ensure that the Group’s various activities reflected a fairly even balance between the two. As time went on the balance tended to shift away from publishing, but it still does require a forum and will hopefully still continue to retain its place in the Group even if not reflected in the new name ….
From its inception it was recognised that if the Group was to have any credibility it must retain a close relationship with the Museums Association. To that end it affiliated to the Association and the MA looked to the Group for advice and for participation in training seminars on a wide range of subjects such as the design of museum shops, copyright issues, publishing for children, photography and photographic libraries and archives. It was at the Group’s initiative that the annual Gulbenkian Award was first made in 1991 for the ‘Best low-budget museum publication,’ and the Association’s series of ‘Museum Puzzle-Picture books’ and BBC ‘Zig-Zag’ and ‘Watch Workshop’ picture books first came into being. During the early nineteen-nineties the Group was working closely with the Museum Training Institute towards the establishment of National Vocational Qualification Standards and from the earliest days the Newsletter – forerunner of Museum Shop & Publishing News (later to undergo another title change to Museum Trading ) – published a broad range of authoritative articles such as ‘ The Small Museum’s Publishing Function (1979), ‘Catering improvement and profit’ (1982),‘ Product development in a small museum’(1991) and ‘Dealing with bomb threats’ – the latter as relevant today as when first published in 1992!
It was, and remains, a matter of great regret that the Group’s flagship enterprise – the Museums & Galleries Book & Gift Fair - ran for only eight years. The eighth and last fair was held at the Festival Hall in May 1989, opened by the then Chairman of the British Tourist Authority. Although a great success the organisation and logistics were such that it proved impossible to find anyone prepared to take on the task of organising the event in future years and so it died an untimely death.
The foregoing paragraphs provide a brief summary of the activities and aspirations of the Group for Museum Publishing and Shop Management during its first twenty years of existence, before it metamorphosed into the Museum Trading and Publishing Group, the Museum Trading Association (MTA) and, finally to the Association for Cultural Enterprises (ACE). In his ‘View from the Chair’ in the Spring 2002 issue of ‘Museums Trading’ entitled Raising our Profile, Mark McVay wrote that ‘The aim of MTA is to encourage excellence in cultural trading……To achieve this aim we must raise the profile of our organisation and demonstrate that we can speak for the industry as a whole’ - sentiments close to the hearts of the original founding members a quarter of a century ago. Let us hope that the new name does act as a catalyst, bringing in more members, leading to a greater sense of cohesion between the varying groups in the heritage sector and hopefully to the much sought after and elusive sponsorship. It’s sad to see the word ‘Museum’ disappear from the logo, but in this day and age in commerce there can be no standing still. Hopefully the close link with the Museums Association can still be retained, after all, what’s in a name?
Co-founder with Iain Bain (Tate Gallery) on 28th June 1978, and first Chairman of the Group for Museum Publishing and Shop Management.
Oxford April 2004
The first Trustees (Newsletter No1 in 1979 )