The very first Group for Museum Publishing and Shop Management event took place at the British Museum in September 1979, a year after the Group first met. At that time, few museums in the UK had little more than a counter by the main entrance with a handful of postcards and the occasional guidebook on sale. Outside 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 usually curators or museum directors who might, if they felt so inclined, pass the information on to whoever ran their bookstall… 

Changing Times

The late seventies saw big changes taking place in the museum world, including the founding or expansion of numerous independent museums. These smaller institutions were from day one reliant on their shops to provide their primary income 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) and the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. 

Creating a Forum

The Group’s inaugural meeting was devoted to drafting a constitution, which was to remain virtually unchanged for over two decades. The primary object 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’. Founding members included a vintage crop of publishers – Iain Bain (Tate), Michael Hoare (British Museum), Bob Cross (Natural History Museum), Pippa Bignell (Science Museum), Elizabeth Talbot Rice (National Army Museum), Roger Shepherd (National Portrait Gallery) and Trevor Jones (Birmingham Museums). Trevor, our first Treasurer and one of the driving forces of the Group in its early days, developed the first really modern, show-piece shop at Birmingham Museum.  

Leading the Way for Cultural Enterprises

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. The MA looked to the Group for advice and 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 1990s 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! 

Into the Present

The founding Group metamorphosed into the Museum Trading Association (MTA) before finally becoming the Association for Cultural Enterprises. In his ‘View from the Chair’ in the Spring 2002 issue of ‘Museums Trading’, 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 40 years ago and that the Association still aspires to today.

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