The museum sector in Romania: structural issues and first thoughts about the relationship of practice to policy

When thinking about practice and policy, one side of the relationship seems to be rather obvious; that is the impact of policy on practice. Policies set the limitations and scope for cultural projects and influence the cultural landscape on a broader scale (the number of institutions and projects and their financial backing, which type of projects are typically realized by independent actors, state-run institutions or commercial corporations etc.).

But the other way round – how the practice of cultural operators, which depends on the way they deal and innovate structural issues in the cultural sector, influences or grounds public policy decisions – is not so easy to grasp. Thus, my own understanding of it is a work-in-progress itself. The most important aspect to note here seems to be that the cultural sector is not static, but subject to constant changes – factors such as dedicated professionals pressing for innovation or an increased demand for certain cultural offers, but also more general developments like globalization or new ideational discourses in civil society can push the field into a new direction. When public authorities are confronted with a changed status quo rendering their policies incomplete, ineffective or pointless, they might put change on their agenda.

To get a better idea of these dynamics, it is an integral part of my project to learn as much about the cultural sector in Romania as possible. As far as the museum world is concerned, my first interview partner, Alexandra Zbuchea, proved to be an extremely helpful contact for exactly the kind information that I am looking for. She is a specialist in museum marketing and consults museums on their communication strategies, but she also has an academic perspective on the matter, since she is the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Management at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest. In addition to that, she is also a member of the board of the National Network of Romanian Museums.

So, on a rainy day in Bucharest, we met in a café and talked over coffee and tea. Our conversation touched on a variety of topics, some of which I will explore further in later blog posts. In this post, however, I will reflect on what I have learned from her about the current challenges Romanian museums face: legislation, structural problems, but also (and this is probably the most important part): visions for the future.

Legislation

Museums, unless they are private (and there aren’t many of those in Romania), fall under the legislation for public institutions. The law, Zbuchea explained, sets strict rules for museums: Hiring qualified personnel, for example, can prove tricky, because there are fixed prescriptions regarding the education and degrees an applicant must have so they can be eligible for a specific post. Furthermore, only those types of positions that are specified in the museum law are allowed. Those include managers and museologists, of course, among others, but to hire a person for PR, for example, they have to be called ‚referee in PR‘ and it will be a position that isn’t paid very well. Thus, many museums collaborate with external experts who are working under a different kind of contract.

The wages are notoriously low, too, which means that those with high qualifications don’t usually choose to work in a museum – unless, of course, they are extremely dedicated to the field. But these people exist, and they are the driving force behind innovative changes in the museum scene: Zbuchea pointed out that there was a new generation of dedicated, mostly young, visionary professionals in museums who are consequently advancing to management positions.

Innovation, though, is in some cases curbed by the complicated nature of the current legislation: I learned that the implementation of new projects is in some cases a rather cumbersome undertaking for museums, not only because the laws are restrictive, but also because they are often perceived as restrictive. For example, Zbuchea told me that it was common for museum staff to not even begin a new project because its legal status seems too iffy, complicated or impossible at the outset. This seems to call for cultural policies that allow museums to operate more flexible. It might also be useful – and this is my own opinion – to accompany legislative reforms with a communication strategy aimed at presenting the changes in a way that makes it clear to museum staff that their work has been made easier: to tackle not only the legislation itself, but also the perception of it.

Strategic approaches to museum management

A recent reform introduced by the Ministry of Culture requires directors of museums to deliver an annual report on their strategies and achievements. The procedure is, as Zbuchea elaborated for me, as follows: The directors are graded based on their strategy, and if it is deemed deficient, their contracts won’t be renewed and the director’s post will be opened up for candidates who can provide a better one. However, it is not guaranteed that the directors will actually implement the strategy that they declare. But, and this is why Zbuchea evaluates the Ministry’s approach as positive, it pushes museums to move in the right direction.1

Future visions

What will the future of Romanian museums look like? In this regard, Zbuchea sees inevitable changes: The trend is to become more dynamic and more open to unconventional collaborations as well as to move away from a collection-centered approach to a visitor-centered approach. Museums won’t solely focus on showing exhibitions any more, but they will actively take part in public discourse and facilitate debates. They will do so by offering a creative program of lectures, workshops, concerts and performances to accompany exhibitions. The question, as Zbuchea put it, is not so much whether this development will take place, it is rather how fast it will unfurl, especially given the increasing demand of audiences to see exhibitions of this new type.

Comparative observations

Since I am new to Bucharest and my background is in Berlin, some of the things I learned about Romanian museums truly surprised me. One of them was the difficulties in finding qualified staff – when I was at the beginning of my undergraduate education and doing a summer internship at a the Museum for European Cultures in Berlin, I was told that if I wanted to pursue a career in this field, I would be expected to have the highest qualifications possible. Job openings in state-run museums are rare in Germany, and the competition is fierce. My guess is that the museum sector enjoys a somewhat better reputation in Germany – working in a museum is regarded as rewarding because one gets to work on intriguing projects and isn’t bound by profit interests as much as in the free market. The wages are low, too, and many contracts run a limited time, but for those who graduated with a degree in the humanities this is an already well-known reality. And, unfortunately, it is prevalent all over the cultural sector.

A second important difference is that Germany was the only country in the EU that didn’t cut the expenses for culture after the financial crisis hit Europe, but instead even slightly raised the amount. This doesn’t mean that cultural institutions are swimming in money – the overall expenses are still relatively low as they are. But the cuts that worked Romanian museums over didn’t plague German museums as much. This, of course, points to the grave economic disparities within the EU.

What I could definitely relate to my experiences in Berlin as a similarity are the future visions Zbuchea told me about. One of the institutions that has been most active in this regard in Berlin is a museum that is closely affiliated with minority subcultures, the Schwules* Museum that has roots in the gay community. In a collaboration with the German Historical Museum and with financial backing by the state, they launched a multi-location exhibition about LGBT history & present last year that included performances, lectures and other events as well as a multimedia guide that sent visitors by public transport to historically interesting places in the city. This shows that the development towards a visitor-centered approach is clearly a European-wide trend, and in Berlin, small museums like the Schwules* Museum are trailblazers. The demand seems to be high, since the above mentioned exhibition achieved a vast visitor turnout and an overwhelmingly positive press response.

Conclusions

Based on what I have learned from this interview, I am taking away many new insights but also a lot of questions that I can further explore in my project. I have gotten the impression that many innovative changes are happening in the museum scene right now, and that they are mostly driven by dedicated individuals. The question for me, then, is: How can cultural policies facilitate this process? How can legislation become more flexible, and will there be higher wages for museum staff? Sustainability seems to be a key issue here, which means making sure that innovation doesn’t stand and fall with the investment of individual people. Currently the Ministry of Culture is working on a new cultural strategy for Romania, and I am interested in learning more about what this will entail for museums in this respect.


1. However, the system does raise questions about workers‘ rights for me, since five years are not a long time in terms of job stability.

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