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Museum of the Year award – part 1


The Art Fund awarded the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow the accolade Museum of the Year award this April. Funnily enough Inspiring Collections reviewed the Gallery back in November last year. The redeveloped museum definitely deserves the accolade with its imaginative use of displays and engaging collections, as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

Inside the William Morris Gallery

Inside the William Morris Gallery

However I also understand the secret of its success is to appeal to its core audience effectively. When I mean core audience I include funders as well as typical visitors. The museum is largely funded by the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which will be pushing a strong learning and access agenda. The other key funder is of course the Heritage Lottery Fund who will be echoing the local authority priorities as well as supporting the care and promotion of an important collection and building. Pleasing your key funders can sometime lead to a virtious cycle of success, although its easy for museums to fall from grace.

My next post will be looking at another Museum of the Year nominee the Horniman Museum & Gardens.

Inspiring Collections on tour in Europe!

The theatre at Fiesole

The theatre at Fiesole

I have just come back from a week in Tuscany, and very nice it was too. The weather made sure I didn’t feel homesick as it resembled a British summer, wet with sunny interludes and mild temperatures. Italy is blessed with an extraordinary cultural heritage. Travelling with a toddler did reduce my time in museums and churches (which have collections that are just as rich as the largest museums), but I did visit a handful.

In particular my experience in Fiesole was a bitter sweet one. For those of you who don’t know Fiesole its a small town in the hills above Florence. The place has been inhabited for centuries and was an Etruscan town before the Romans. As it happens we decided to enjoy the dry spell by visiting the Archaelogical museum which includes an outdoor archaeological site boasted the ruins of a 3000 seater Roman theatre, public baths and temple complex. The setting was majestic and the site was physically accessible with ramped pathways and lifts. Something few UK outdoor archaeological sites can rival. However the interpretation was not so enticing. Much of it was in English (again top marks) but it seemed to replicate the Italian text which focused on archaeological jargon rather than explaining the site to the layman. The attached museum was filled with artefacts from the site spanning 3000 years. Again English text was available but it was densely written and focusing on the individual objects with little or no context. Where were these objects? What sort of people used them? Why are they significant? Unfortunately I left with no answers to these questions. At this point I was starting to glaze over and my accompanying toddler was too, unfortunately his reaction was to reach for one of the 5 foot tall slabs (I think a late Etruscan door post) at that point the room steward leapt out and warned me that this was strictly forbidden. Although entirely reasonable it was the only contact I had with the staff. Unfortunately there was no child friendly activities or interpretation (in any language). So what began as a wonderful encounter finished with a slightly bitter end.

Maybe some lessons we can use back home?

Museums for the future

The Museums Association published their thoughts on where museums in the UK should be heading in a report Museums 2020. Although recent times have proved hard for many museums, it is heartening to see that half the adult population have visited a museum. Although as Maurice Davies of the MA pointed out on his blog that does leave the other half who have not entered a museum! However stuffy or academic some institutions appear to be I can’t help feeling that the future for museums will be bright, even if there are likely to be less professionals around for the forseeable future. Museums deal with the real and authentic, something which the public seem to have a real desire to discover and perhaps even more importantly individuals and groups are keen to get involved in either as volunteers or supporters. Technological and demographic changes do not seem to threaten museums’ prospects, indeed they may even provide a boost. While music shops are losing out people buy less CDs and more downloads and the ageing demographic reduces the popularity of the new and assist the popularity of older acts, for the moment museums continue to attract visitors and volunteers despite these changes.

Volunteering after 2012

London 2012 volunteers: fancy helping out at your local museum?

London 2012 volunteers: fancy helping out at your local museum?

Has the post 2012 Olympic volunteering legacy effected you? No, well you might not be alone. The Public Accounts Committee commented that the popular and well organised volunteering efforts during the London 2012 games could be lost as a lasting legacy to the nation. It was hoped that the 70,000 Games Makers (volunteers) would start a volunteering revolution in the UK. Although the majority had previously volunteered before the Games, there is a fear that volunteering feel good factor will be lost.

Join In has been set up to ensure Games Makers and those inspired to help can volunteer, but it is a sport focused campaign.  Many volunteers in 2012 helped out in roles that were not directly related to sporting activities, from meeting and greeting to chauffering.  I suspect many Games Makers were attracted by the “fizz” factor, rather than the attraction of sports alone.  So it would be a shame to not direct them to other areas of volunteering such as museums and heritage.  Meeting and greeting is an essential component of keeping many museums open.  The sterotypical research role is often a minor part of running a museum.  I can personnally vouch that museums can generate a “fizz” factor for volunteers, especially on event days, when you have a great time helping visitors, at the end of the day you will be wondering how a whole day whizzed by in what appeared to be minutes, although you invariably hit the pillow hard in the evening.

The 2012 Games show that a well run volunteer programme can attact plenty of people to help out.  You need to provide an attractive offer to potential volunteers, provide well structured roles and make sure that everyone is trained up and well briefed.

What price museum professionals?


Museum professional transportation?

Museum professional transportation?

Recently a volunteer at a museum I worked at mentioned in the car park that I must be well paid, I looked at my mid range seven year old car (the national average for a car in the UK) and wondered what he meant.  Although he did have a Y reg Rover.  It did bring home the point that working in organisations that have strong volunteer support, many supporters of museums are not affluent and feel uneasy about professionals making money from “their” museum.  Similar comments have been made to me from elected members who felt that working in museums doesn’t really require a salary, the love of the job is reward enough.  I suspect that most museum professionals do not consider themselves as particularly well paid but some may consider that any is too much already, especially as many people in museums are volunteers.

I could trot out the argument that to ensure the museum sector remains professional there needs to be a supply of paid staff, but doesn’t this imply that volunteers can’t be professional or that the museum community needs to have a socially representative group, and an established career aids this, but then why does the museum workforce remain predominately middle class and white? I still think paid museum work is a worthy profession, but be mindful when some  doubt this.

What are museums for?

Beamish Open Air Museum

Beamish Open Air Museum

What are museums for? For many they just are, they exist, and are part of the local scenery along with the library, department store or theatre. A museum provides a seal of cultural approval for a town or borough or at a tourist attraction for visitors. Recently some commentators and funders have expected more from museums, especially publically funded museums. Perhaps museums should get involved in community cohesion, or help reduce crime or act as agents to assist disadvantaged youth. A tall order if the museum has often only included a curator, maybe an education or exhibition designer too, even harder if your museum is entirely volunteer run!

So what were museums for? Well the original founders of museums in the modern era do give us a clue about why museums were founded in the past.

Ralph Thoresby

Ralph Thoresby

Some museums were established from private collections that had been sourced by individuals who had an almost pathological, or at least obsessive nature.  Seventeenth Collectors like Ralph Thoresby of Leeds or John Tradescant were great antiquarians who had a passion for acquiring objects that helped them order and classify the world. The latter’s collection helped establish the now renowned Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Although many of these museums welcomed visitors they were collections established by and for their founders or benefactors.

Exhibit from the Great Exhibition; the inspiration for the V&A

Exhibit from the Great Exhibition; the inspiration for the V&A

In the nineteenth century there was a move to establish museums as institutions that would educate and better the population. The Victoria & Albert Museum being a great example. It was founded after the Great Exhibition in 1851 to improve the quality of manufactures in Britain, allowing the “use of the collections of both applied art and science as educational resources to help boost productive industry”. These museums very much wanted to educate the middling and working classes in order to improve them.

More recently museums have evolved to preserve cultures or a way of life. The open air museums that were first established in Scandinavia was an attempt to preserve and celebrate disappearing cultures. Many buildings were saved and rebuilt in these museums, but they also recorded social and oral histories of the people who lived and worked in these buildings. From the 1960s and 1970s there was another surge of new museums, often attempting to preserve and celebrate our disappearing industrial heritage, whether it was dockyards, coalmines, railways or brickworks. This wave of museum enthusiasts were also interested in the lives of the workers and families associated with these places. Although the objects remained important, the everyday stories had become important too.

The next time you visit a museum, see if you can guess which type it belongs to?

Arts Council funding for museums

Just before Easter the Arts Council announced awards to 87 museums and galleries that had applied for its strategic support fund for 2013 to 2015. It amounted to over £17 million over 2 years. The grants are aimed at small and medium sized museums, and the individual awards varied from £50,000 to £1 million. Just a few thoughts on the awards;

Good news for all those successful museums in these financially hard times. Many of the awards were granted to partnerships, such as the Jurassic Coast partnership which includes Bridport museum, Lyme Regis museum, Dorset County museum and the County Council. Together with similar successful partnerships over 10 percent of the 1343 Accredited museums in England should benefit from this round of grants from ACE.

It is also interesting that nearly half the awards went to independent museums that don’t get regular funding from government. There were a number of awards to agencies like Culture 24 to develop the Museum at Night scheme and Kids in Museums to support Takeover Day (when children run their local museum).

There were lots of awards for assisting with income generation, volunteering and of course World War One commemorative events. One of the more eye-catching awards is to the People’s History Museum’s “Play Your Part” which aims to get visitors to think about which everyday issues are worth fighting for and how the museum may reflect this in its contemporary collecting.

Its worth looking at the full list, as it gives you a flavour of what English museums are doing at the moment, especially those smaller museums that maybe just round the corner from you!

Aknowledgements to Twentieth Century Fox

Acknowledgements to Twentieth Century Fox

to Bursledon Brickworks

Inspiring Collections will be spending some time with Bursledon Brickworks Industrial Museum. The museum has sucessfully attracted a major Heritage Lottery grant to redevelop the site and increase public access to the one of the nation’s best preserved Victorian brickworks. I will be co-ordinating the development and recruitment of volunteers to the Brickworks.

Bursledon Brickworks on a sunny day

Bursledon Brickworks on a sunny day

The site is much more than just an unique piece of industrial heritage, it is a community space for a growing band of volunteers. The museum attracts a wide range of volunteers from all walks of life. This diversity is something that is important to the those who come to the museum, and without these volunteers the site would not function. It also something we wish to maintain as the museum will be increasing its volunteer workforce over the coming months (if you are interested in volunteering follow this link).

However the museum needs to attract new grants to continue to develop its sprawling site, and also earn income revenue to operate, and pay for all the necessities of maintaining an independent museum that receives no regular government grant (lighting, insurance, heating and so on). This revenue is largely generated on Open Days when the majority of visitors come to the site. Like many heritage sites Bursledon Brickworks Industrial Museum is proud that it provides a social and community asset, but realises it has to keep a commericial mindset to survive.

See you at the next Open Day then!

Anatomy of UK museums

For the general public a museum is a museum, however for those interested in pursuing a career in museums, volunteering or acting as a trustee to a museum it is useful to know a little more about the composition or anatomy of the of UK museum sector.

Museums in the UK can be broadly divided into 3 distinct groupings, local, independent and national.  Traditionally people working in museums tend to remain in one of these 3 groups, as each have their own cultures and career paths.

Local government museums account for over a third of UK Accreditated museums.  They date back to the Public Museums Act of 1845 which enabled municipal boroughs to establish museums, like New Walk Museum in Leicester founded in 1849.  These museums, as part of the public sector, have tried to embrace community engagement with an emphasis on local collections and life long learning.  Many of the professional staff are qualified with post graduate museum degrees and work across a range of disciplines.

looks a bit like a min BM but it is actually New Walk Museum in Leicester

Looks a bit like a mini BM but it is actually New Walk Museum & Gallery, Leicester

The independent museum sector includes the majority of museums in the UK.  These organisations are largely small with few or no paid staff, but a few are larger and employee staff.  They are not operated by the public sector and receive little of no revenue grants from government.  Although they have been around for centuries they proliferated in the 70s and 80s as enthusasists attempted to save the nations’ disappearing heritage whether it was a local building or large objects like the SS Great Britain in Bristol.  In order to survive these type of museums have had to be customer orientated and business savvy, especially the larger institutions which require a significant cash income to operate.

SS Great Britain, a large independent museum in Bristol

SS Great Britain, a large independent museum in Bristol

National museums make up the smallest part of the sector.  They are dominated by the “big beasts” like the British Museum, V&A, National Museums of Scotland etc.  Although professionally run, staff are trained along subject specialisms rather than having a  museum post graduate qualification.  Indeed they can sometimes be seen to be closer to an academic institution than other types of museums.  Some of the less obvious “nationals” include the Horniman and the Geffrye museums, which never the less are still directly funded by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.  All too often the media assume all museums full into the national catergory.  For instance the policy of free admission is only applicable to nationals, as central government only compensates the museums it directly supports.  If you are a charging local or independent museum it is sometimes hard to explain to journalists or the public that 95% of museums are not supported by the free admissions policy.

One of the lesser known national museums, the Geffrye, London

One of the lesser known national museums, the Geffrye, London

This is of course a gross simplification of the museum sector.  The changes to museums over the last few decades have broken down some of these cultural barriers.  Not least with the growth of learning and visitor services in the sector.  But it is still something that those within the museum world should be aware of the 3 distinct types of institutions.

Collections for all

Handling a real object, NHM

Handling a real object, NHM

One of my pet subjects is remembering why museums collect objects.

Although you may think it is obvious, attitudes to collecting and more importantly what museums should do with objects  is a big issue.  The Museum Association definition of a museum from 1998 is ‘… to enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment.  They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.”

Seems simple enough, but plenty of institutions are wary of letting the public too close to those objects.  They recognise that for collections to be inspiring and a source of learning and enjoyment people need to use more than just their visual senses, in particular feel and touch.  They get round this my creating handling or education collections.  These objects are often not part of the accessioned collection, and considered expendable, the “real” collections would be far too precious for public handling.

I find this approach problematical.  Dividing collections into classes (acccessioned and handling), creates a hierarchy of objects.  Not only is it messy, but it also it lends itself to creating confusion among the public.   If you go to a museum and get a chance to handle some real live objects, you would like to think you are handling “museum” objects, its part of the thrill of the authentic.  I have seen plenty of schools sessions were a class of children are told they are about to handle a museum object, and they handle the item reverently, knowing it is precious and valued.   I am not sure they would react in the same way if they were told the accessioned objects were far too sensitive for them to touch and they could only have education collections which were unaccessioned (and thus disposable).

I think this attitude is a hang up from the times when it was acceptable for museums to collect objects and then keep them as far away from the public as possible, occasionally putting them on display.  It also reflects a time when museum professionals were largely curatorial.  Today museums are expected to interact with visitors in a much more dynamic way, and museums now include a much more varied group of professionals including people with backgrounds in learning, community engagement, marketing, retail, design and so on.  Most of those people will be wanting to use the “real thing” i.e. accessioned objects, but in many cases their access will be limited and they will be given handling collections that are not part of the museum collection.

I feel there are ways of safeguarding objects and making them accessible at the same time and treating them all as museum collections.