Skip to content

2013 museum review

How was 2013 for you?

For UK museums 2013 was a mixed bag. But among the gloom of austerity, many museums, especially the independent ones, strove for success. The new Mary Rose ship hall reopened in Portsmouth Historic Dockyards. 30 years after the Tudor warship was raised from the seabed, the ship and its contents got a state of an art museum to welcome visitors and show off the fabulous collections. The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow won the Artfund Museum of the Year award, proving that local authorities can nurture artistic and historic gems. Visitor figures showed a general rise in 2013, exemplified by the success of the London Transport Museum, Bursledon Brickworks and English Heritage attractions. Many of these sites succeeded by accessing income from grant funding bodies including the Heritage Lottery, especially as the latter has had its income increase following the completion of the London Olympics (which the Lottery subsidised).

London Transport Museum saw a 50% increase in visitors in 2013

London Transport Museum saw a 50% increase in visitors in 2013

On a negative note the funding for public sector museums continued to fall in 2013, indeed it looks like the arts sector is in anything being hit harder than average. Museums are a discretionary service and unfortunately are proving a tempting target for cuts. Although there were no high profile closures, many museums have had their budgets cut, staff numbers reduced, in some cases with the increasing use of volunteers. Croydon Council sold part of their Chinese Ceramic collection, realising over £8 million, although at the cost of being expelled from the nationally recognised museum standards scheme, Museum Accreditation.

Some public sector museums have decided to join the independents to reduce the impact of the ongoing austerity, which is likely to continue for the rest of the decade. Somerset and Hampshire councils are both committed to creating Trusts for their museums. Even English Heritage is likely to be transferred out of the state sector.

What will 2014 hold for museums? Well expect more launches and high profile exhibitions with the commemoration of the First World War. Some museums will no doubt face closure as the cuts continue, while other museums will be increasing their income generation.  Expect more shops, cafes, venue hire and even object sales.

Happy New Year.

Can museums make money?

money museum
Last week Hampshire County Council announced a major capital programme to transform its country parks. The aim of this investment is increase the income potential of its park estate, enabling the countryside service to be operationally cost neutral by 2018. This got me thinking can museums ever be truly cost neutral or even make a profit?

The traditional answer is no.

The big museums and galleries like the Tate, British Museum or Science Museum receive large government grants, which provide the majority of funding. Some independent museums are able to survive, even thrive, without significant public funding revenue grants. However one of the key elements of a museum is its displays and collections. These costs, even for independents, are partly met by occasional capital grants, normally coming from public aided bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Keeping and caring for collections is not a cheap outlay and few organisations with significant collections have been able to make money from them. The museum sector is uneasy about the commoditisation of collections. Were not collections donated to museums for the public benefit rather than corporate income? That conversation is definitely another blog post.

Nelson. Navy, Nation; A review of the new National Maritime Museum exhibition


Nelson, Navy, Nation: the story of the Royal Navy and the British people, is the new permanent gallery about the Navy during the long eighteenth century, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar.  The gallery is almost hidden away in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  It is sandwiched between older galleries on the second floor of the museum.  The discrete location contrasts with the grand atrium that greets visitors when they enter the building, Greenwich’s answer to the British Museum’s Great Court.

The gallery progresses chronologically, although it is heavily themed around topics, such as Joining up, Rank & Responsibility and Below Decks.  The traditional oblong gallery space is broken up with displays, graphics and cases, providing a change of pace for the visitor.  The interpretation is restrained and the museum has refrained from providing copious amounts of text on walls.  The gallery walls are used to display blown up prints of period illustrations, while objects pepper the gallery.  A maritime display normally requires the “worthy but dull ship models”, but in Nelson, Navy, Nation they are used to complement the story without boring the casual visitor.

Although warfare and weapons are covered it is not all ships and battles, rare eighteenth century illustrations of Jack Tar, the ordinary seaman, are displayed, with glimpses into everyday lives onboard and on leave, with accompanying audios of sea shanties to get you in the mood.  Life may have been dangerous, but apparently Royal Navy sailors were better fed than the average worker at the time.  My favourite object must be the ship’s biscuit, looking surprisingly like an over sized digestive and none too bad for being 200 years old!

Naval officers, who only made up 1% of the crew of a Ship of the Line are as you would expect well covered in the gallery with their high status objects including furniture and paintings illustrating their homes and cabins.  Large oil paintings of notables like Captain Bentinck can be found located in side alcoves off the main gallery.  These explore the lives of Officers, enabling smaller objects to be intimately displayed but providing enough space to take in the 6 foot sized painting, giving you a feel for some of the officers who served and profited the nation.

The mix of collections varies from display cabinets with a group of small objects covering a single theme such as Joining Up, including letters, prints and medals to large paintings of maritime scenes.  I liked the way Pocock’s painting of Plymouth Dockyard was accompanied by a smaller topographical illustration indicating where the dry dock, ropery and saw pits were located, not necessarily obvious to the uninitiated.

The museum has attempted to keep the visitor’s interest by varying the light and space, with enclosed darker areas emulating below decks of the Captain’s cabin, and airy spaces with lit canvas like ceilings mimicking the deck of a RN ship, wood flooring adding to the effect.  New technology has been used although it rarely amounts to true interactivity, images projected onto walls and mini film provide useful context about the Navy’s interaction with the Georgian nation, touching upon some of the darker aspects of the Navy, such as discipline and punishment.  Traditional labels are clear and not too texty, and apart from a few fairly legible, even in the low light areas

The long timeline display in the middle of the exhibition, takes us from the Battle of Barfleur in 1688 depicting English and Dutch ships fighting the French, all the way through to 1805 with the Battle of Trafalgar, where again British warships are fighting. the French.  The timeline uses a variety of objects including large paintings from the era and even a carronade encased in a plastic case mimicking a gun carriage.

Further along is a small seated area allowing visitors to watch a short animated film exploring the symbiotic link between nation and navy.  The wealth of eighteenth century Britain depended on a growing overseas trade which paid the navy.  Without the revenue from a growing empire, the navy could not be paid for, and without the navy, British trade could not be protected from piracy and rival powers.

The tone of the exhibition changes as we approach the age of Nelson, the displays focus on the dominant personality of the era, and the gallery changes from a social history of the navy populated with little known commanders becoming a celebrity show.   The great man looms out, with star billing lavished with prominent show cases, containing his love letters, a lock of the admiral’s hair, macabre blood soaked breeches & stockings and the jacket Nelson wore when he was fatally wounded on board The Victory.  The final displays look at the nation mourning their hero, with a large case of Nelson memorabilia that rivals anything that Princess Diana’s death could inspire.

In the heart of the exhibition we find a large touch screen monitor that allows the visitor to explore some of Nelson’s key conflicts.  The space that this monitor takes is a little wasted as you are limited only to view the battles, albeit allowing the user to zoom in and out, but unable to explore Nelson’s tactical genius.  What made him such a successful naval leader?  How did he defeat opponents in such a crushing way that none of his predecessors were able to achieve?  The gallery does not really provide a clear explanation but to be fair the whole exhibition concentrates on the social history of the navy rather than a military history of naval conflicts.

Although the exhibition does not attempt to use radical display techniques it does allow the objects to come to life with restrained displays that provide a variety of interpretation techniques that help the visitor understand such a massive subject.  Personally I would have preferred to see the space dedicated to the large audio visual displays to encourage more interactivity.  The gallery succeeds in telling the story of the navy at large as well as the personal stories of the officers and men, providing pride of place to the star of the show, Nelson.

Inspiring Collections picks 5 museums to visit

Not necessarily my favourite museums, but all well worth a visit


Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields, quirky virtually no interpretation, but so atmospheric


Vasa Museet Stockholm, a seventeenth century warship amazingly preserved superbly displayed

Sir John Soane Museum London, a Georgian Aladdin’s’ cave just a stone’s throw from Theatre land

Cold War Museum Bentwaters, this volunteer run museum hidden in rural Suffolk has a touch of the X Files

Mussenden Temple, Northern Ireland, not strictly a museum but just an amazing setting

Museum & Ethics update

Last month I blogged about the Museums Association (the trade body for UK museums) disciplining Croydon Museum over the proposed sale of some of its valued ceramic collection. Before action could be taken the museum’s governing body, the London Borough of Croydon, resigned their Museums Association membership. Virtually all publically funded museums are members of the Association, and only a handful of museums have been ejected or resigned before being expelled, as was likely with Croydon. The impact is mainly reputational, however Croydon may face more significant sanctions from the Arts Council who manage museum Accreditation, the nationally recognised museum standard scheme. Losing this status could effect future grant funding awards. Although at the moment the Arts Council have made no public announcements to date.

Museums & Ethics

Money is tight for some museums, and in some cases it is tempting to sell off some of the collection. Croydon Museum is planning to sell off some of its valued Chinese ceramics. This has caused some concern within the museum world including the Arts Council. Croydon is an Accredited Museum, which means it confirms to national standards over the care of collections, public services and good governance. For the public it provides quality assurance, for instance you can expect any objects you donate to the museum, don’t end up being sold at a later date, or at least not until due process has taken place. The sale of museum collections should only be considered carefully and, if it does occur, should benefit the museum or public.

Riesco china from Croydon

Riesco china from Croydon

In this case the Museums Association feels that the planned sale has not been undertaken with the best of intentions and may breach museum code of ethics. Croydon could be ejected from the Museums Association, which would only be third organisation in over 100 years!

This does raise the issue of when a Local Authority feels that the actions they take, in this case selling part of the collection, may adversely effect their museum, but feel that benefit to other services are more important.
Although running a museum is not a statutory obligation it does confer moral and ethical responsibilities. Obligations that Croydon may not have been fully aware when they considered their sale?

In Charity We Trust


Although the average museum visitor may not have noticed, there are an increasing number of local authority museums which have become charitable trusts. They include medium and even large museums and museum services have transferred from the public sector. York, Sheffield, Luton, Birmingham and Braintree. Perhaps it’s a bit of an anorak point, and why would anyone, apart from the staff, be interested in a change of governance? In most cases the major funder remains the same local authority, the buildings and collections often still belong to the same authority.

So what changes? Well for starters charities are more tax efficient. Trusts potentially can attract more external funding. The main business of a Museum Trust is likely to be a high priority for the Trustees. This is not necessarily so for Councillors or senior officers of a local authority who may have more pressing concerns such as Social Services, Highways and Waste Management, all of which have far more resources allocated to them than even the largest of museums. It also provides more flexibility in relation to employment practices. New staff often receive less generous remuneration when they join these Trust, especially with regards pensions.

So why have not more public sector museums moved to Trust status before? Well between 1975 and 2005 around 30 organisations transferred.

Moving to Museum Trusts:
Learning from Experience, MLA 2006

This trend seems to be quickening in the last decade. The pressures on government funding has meant the status quo is becoming increasingly untenable. However there are risks; leaving the safety of local authority means that you are partly on your own. Will the new Trustees take their responsibilities seriously? The failure or success of a Trust Chief Executive is far more important, than a Head of a Museum within an authority. Finally trusts can be vulnerable to subsequent reductions in public sector grants, especially as redundancy costs will full on the Trust rather than the public sector.

The role of the volunteer curator

Most museums are volunteer run. That means all the people you see “working” there are volunteers even the ones “working” behind the scenes such as trustees and even curators. However in the public sector the position of the curator is very different, nearly always a paid role, and often an important one within the museum. This status appears to have come under threat with the increasing use of volunteers. The Museums Association has recently headlined the recruitment of an unpaid volunteer curator with the London Borough of Newham. The role in question required the person to “work” 2 days a week and have professional qualifications. Maybe not unusual in the independent museum sector, so why the fuss and why now?

To understand why the MA is raising this issue, you need to understand that the UK museum sector is divided into separate groups each with completely different cultures and attitudes. The MA represents the public sector, and in particular the local authority element of the museum community. Within this part of the sector the volunteer has played a subservient and minor role with the curator ascendant. The issues raised by the growth of unpaid curators are valid and serious; including concerns about the growing deskilling of the profession, exploiting young aspiring curators as well as creating an exclusive workforce that only affluent museum workers who can afford to volunteer.

However these issues have been largely ignored while they remain relevant to the independent sector. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the MA to take a closer look at the whole museum sector and see how volunteers operate beyond the public sector as well as within?

Museum of the Year Award – Part 2

The Horniman Museum and Gardens made the short list for the 2013 Art Fund Museum of the Year award. Although the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow pipped the south London museum, it is well worth a visit. The Horniman is a bit of an oddity which makes it all the more endearing. Funded by central government, located in south London suburbia and containing an eclectic collection of natural history, musical instruments and anthropological material and of course the museum’s very own overstuffed walrus! Although not really a true national institution it feel more like one than a local museum.

The Horniman Walrus

The Horniman Walrus

When I visited the museum the recent major refurbishment was impressive and the galleries felt very modern with large and striking showcases, especially in the musical galleries. The obligatory café was a welcome treat, but the real highlight were the gardens which overlook central London and the battleship silhouettes of Dawson Heights. The outdoor musical instruments worked really well with visitors, and chimed well with the museum collections inside.

Resilience in Museums

Arnos Vale

Arnos Vale

With news of more public sector cuts impacting museums next year it is pleasing to hear some good news stories within the museum world. The Association of Independent Museums conference in Manchester this month showcased two examples of organisations bouncing back. Cogges, a historic farm in Witney and Arnos Vale Cemetary in Bristol both were closed to the public 4 years ago. These two sites were revitalised by their respective local communities. A core of active Trustees and a band of volunteers enabled Cogges & Arnos Vale to reopen and survive. Indeed the Bristol cemetary won the English Heritage Angel Award in 2011. Although their respective futures are not guaranteed, a combination of local committment, commercial acumen and success with grants provide an inspiration for us all.