11 May

What the election result means for museums: Five more years preoccupied with money worries

Maurice Davies

When the election result came in I was working in Vienna, a monument to imperial hubris, if ever there was one. Vienna is a city rather used to its grandeur having passed, so it proved a suitable place to think the implications of five more years of civic decline.

I turned to the Conservative manifesto section on culture and found it gave little away. The proximity of George Osborne’s constituency means a bizarre preoccupation with Labour heartland Manchester, mentioned twice in the single paragraph on ‘our world leading museums, galleries and heritage’. Away from the Northern Powerhouse, there’s the previously announced Stonehenge road tunnel and new concert hall for London (£300m and counting, apparently); and of course the obligatory commitment to free admission to national museums.

Sadly, there’s nothing new at all. No ideas, no understanding of potential, no enthusiasm and no sense of direction.

The only phrase that sounds remotely like policy is the intention to ‘enable our cultural institutions to benefit from greater financial autonomy to use their budgets as they see fit.’ That is: ‘We’re going to cut off your limbs, but give you the freedom to acquire your own choice of prosthetics.’

Money worries will dominate the next few years. There will be more job losses, more freelancers and further downward pressure on salaries and fees. In contrast, the growth of apprenticeships and the hunger of fee-driven universities will train ever greater numbers of people to work in the shrinking sector. All of this is unlikely to contribute to workforce diversity, or to a radical, progressive generation, determined to challenge and change museums.

For many local authority museums the position is this: move to trust status, but unless by a miracle you can negotiate a long-term funding agreement, you’ll be financially largely on your own in three to five years. Former local-authority museums in wealthier tourist centres might thrive. York Museums Trust now describes itself as a ‘cultural business’ rather than a cultural service – and has announced admission charges for its last remaining free venue.

Smaller ex-local-authority museums might thrive, too, in this case by changing to a very low cost, community focused, participatory model – constantly fundraising and making best use of volunteers: more like an independent museum, in fact.

Independents are used to standing on their own feet and will continue to do so. But many rely on some public money or other support, like peppercorn rents or 100% rates relief, and will struggle if that reduces, especially if they are financially weak.

And what of the great civic museums, until recently seen as the backbone of UK museum provision. Manchester’s, evidently, will survive (especially as several are in the cash-rich university sector). But the future for Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle, for Coventry, Bradford and Sunderland is hard to fathom. Will local and national government really let them decline back to their state in the 1980s? I fear some local-authority museum trusts will go bust and hand back the keys.

In spite of 30% cuts, nationals are maintaining a successful public face, retaining opening hours, free admission and tantalising exhibition programmes. But more cuts will bring one or two to the brink. They will threaten introduce admission charges (and may do so) and, as in Scotland and Wales, it is likely that an England national or two will close a branch or two – or perhaps shut one day a week. Against a background of austerity and devastating cuts to social care and, now, even schools, this won’t seem shocking to the public. There will be little media fuss.

Finally, sales of collections will become more common. Thoughtful independent museums will realise it’s sometimes sensible to sell a few things to strengthen their balance sheets. Some local authorities will be so desperate to meet the needs of their struggling communities they will force sales from their museums’ collections.

Most of the UK’s museum collections were built up when we were a great imperial power. Perhaps the Tories quietly recognise that. However, and unlike Vienna, the Tories appear to believe our reduced economic and political importance mean we can’t quite afford museums any more. How wrong they are.

22 Apr

Match the museum to the rhetoric

Maurice Davies

I attended my first MuseumNext conference in Geneva and it made me realise how much museums still need to change.

The conference was inspiring, even to an old cynic like me. It was forward-looking, optimistic, even idealistic. Speakers and delegates surveyed possible futures without fear, seeing endless opportunities to engage more people more deeply. It was a hugely refreshing counterbalance to recent backward-looking, almost fearful events in the UK, like Future Curator at the British Museum and Does the Museum Just Preserve the Museum? organised by Cambridge University Museums.

In part, of course, it was because many of the museums represented aren’t facing the terrifying level of cuts in public spending that we are in the UK. But it wasn’t only about money. MuseumNext revealed a hunger to change museums to make them better for their audiences. The key phrase was ‘disruptive change’. (For all that I liked its idealism, Bullshit Bingo is an easy game to play at MuseumNext.)

I had expected the conference to be dominated by designers and digital people, but it was much broader than that. There were many interpreters, youth programmers, exhibition makers, HR people, marketers, chief operating officers and directors, although rather few curators. Most of all, there were what could be called museum entrepreneurs, some from museums, some from private companies and some from charities and foundations, all of them bursting with ideas and schemes to keep making museums better, from MuseumHack’s lively ‘renegade’ group tours featuring gossip and games, to Stephen Feber’s bold but eccentric vision of museum as interactive Amazon warehouse.

For a brief few hours in the conference room, it was easy to imagine museums are already transformed. But stepping out into Geneva’s spring sunshine was a useful corrective. The city has two shiny new museums: the Ethnography Museum and the Museum of the Red Cross. At MuseumNext, both of their directors said all of the right things – about community, engagement, participation, contemporary relevance and so on. But the realities proved different.

The Ethnography Museum’s changes cost over £40m (This is wealthy Geneva, rich at other cities expense: a place that specialises in incubating money that should be paid in taxes elsewhere on the globe.) For their £40m+ the good citizens of Geneva and the world have got a smart, neatly installed and well lit subterranean gallery that is, well, a little dull. The museum has been at such pains to democratically de-exoticise the ‘other’ that it makes the strange seem pedestrian and ordinary, when surely a key purpose of ethnography is to render the familiar strange.

The new Museum of Ethnography in Geneva.  £40m+ and a bit dull

The new Museum of Ethnography in Geneva. £40m+ but a bit dull

And for a museum about people, it’s oddly depersonalised. It reports it undertook extensive consultation, but includes no voices other than those of the curators and a couple of carefully selected artists. The opening temporary exhibition on royal Mochica culture in part of what is now Peru, features gorgeous objects and spectacular settings, but the didactic interpretation is too worthy and lacks a sense of passion. The experience of visiting falls well short of the director’s ambition and the general ambition of MuseumNext participants.

I enjoyed the Red Cross Museum more. Also housed in a basement, it took the brave, some might say foolhardy, step of commissioning three separate architects to design its three main thematic galleries. Best is the one about the Red Cross’s work to reunite families; it taught me lots, moved me and gave me hope. That’s the best feature of the Red Cross Museum: in spite of addressing the most ghastly episodes of inhumanity, it gives a sense that people, individually and collectively, can move on positively from the most horrific experiences imaginable. I will remember the quiet dignity of the former Guantanamo detainee and the once displaced Rwandan schoolgirl, who says she is now a ‘happy’ grown woman, for a long time.

Some of the 6m record cards used to connect families with WWI prisoners of war.  A symbol of hope at the Red Cross Museum

Some of the 6m record cards used to connect families with WWI prisoners of war.
A symbol of hope at the Red Cross Museum

I also enjoyed the temporary exhibition on art and non-violent resistance, from Houston’s Menil collection. Again, it gave hope and a sense that exceptional individuals do make a difference.

Sadly, the gallery, by the respected Japanese architect Shigeru Ban on disaster preparedness, is a childish disappointment. And the museum’s greatest failure is to give a very low profile to current humanitarian disasters – an omission especially disappointing viewed through the lens of MuseumNext’s passion for connecting with people’s contemporary concerns.

In museums we clearly need some ‘disruptive’ change to move us on from, or to at least add to, our core centuries-old technique of displaying old objects in neat rows, often untouchable, behind glass. Above all, we need to connect our collections and displays with the world.

27 Mar

Textbooks v Tweets: Museums’ Cultural Challenge

Maurice Davies

Last week I heard a whole bunch of things that made me understand the cultural challenge facing museums. First, after finishing my stint teaching on the Oxford Cultural Leaders programme I stayed on to listen to Keith Ruddle of the Said Business School talk about what he calls ‘adaptive leadership’.

Adaptive leadership is needed in organisations and situations that are highly complex and unpredictable, perhaps because significant things (say, levels of public funding or climate change) are completely outside the organisation’s control. Every challenge is new and leaders inevitably won’t know the answers to problems. Rather, the job of the leader is to encourage and support the whole organisation to explore new ways of working so that the inevitable changes are constructive.

Most museums need adaptive leadership, but are perhaps more comfortable with its opposite: technical leadership, or the efficient direction of tried and tested processes. That’s fine if your aim is to produce relatively fixed, complete, repetitive things that don’t change very much or very often.

But the unchanging museum or exhibition, seen as complete on the day is opens, is increasingly outmoded, as I heard at an enjoyable talk by up and coming French museum designer Adrien Gardere. He is rapidly becoming the go-to guy for high profile museums. He’s done the Louvre at Lens, the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo (tragically blown up by terrorists) and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (which I reviewed here). He’s working at the Met and the Royal Academy – and MuReNa in Narbonne, which wins my prize for the most bat-shit crazy and wonderful museum proposal of the decade so far.

At MuReNa, Gardere is working with the UK’s Fosters architects to design an installation of moveable, massive carved Roman stone blocks. They will be displayed on racking, alongside avs, and regularly rearranged using forklifts! So much for permanent displays…

Image credit: Foster and Partners

Image credit: Foster and Partners

I also went to a debate about how much museums are changing because of cuts.

By the end of the week I wanted an idea that could bring all these insights together. Luckily, on Friday night I came across a piece, written in 2013, by Katharine Viner the newly appointed Guardian editor. Brilliantly, she observes “A newspaper is complete. It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, changed, moved, developed, an ongoing conversation and collaboration. It is living, evolving, limitless, relentless.” She’s talking about the need for newsprint journalism to change, but she could be talking about museum curation.

In the 21st century, things are increasingly fluid, provisional and relative; the process and the conversation is more important than the result. Nothing can ever be seen as complete or finished, and taking part matters more that observing.

But in this world of social media, museums are still trying to write textbooks!

Devising new models for today’s fragmented, flexible, ever-shifting culture is surely the biggest challenge facing museums.

12 Feb

The end of permanence: Are museums still for ever?

Maurice Davies

Leicestershire County Council has confirmed it intends to close Snibston, its largest museum, on 31 July; it will be demolished, replaced with housing and, possibly, a small museum on the mining history of the site.

The closure plans have been met with energetic local protest, and professional condemnation.

Unless the council has a rethink, Snibston will be the most significant museum closure from public-spending cuts. So far, closures have been limited to far smaller museums, such as ones in London boroughs. And museums have been surviving far better than libraries – over a hundred of them have gone.

So what does it mean when a major museum closes?

First, it reminds me I’m getting old. I remember when Snibston opened in the early 1990s, and even hazily remember a party there, when the Museums Association conference was held in Leicester.

More seriously, it demonstrates that museums are not always, in the words of the ICOM definition, ‘a permanent institution’. That might not be a bad thing. Aiming to exist for ever is quite a burden; it can lead museums to respond too slowly to changing demands as they perhaps think a little too much about the supposed needs of the future as opposed to the needs of today.

Thinking shorter-term than ‘permanent’ can be liberating, allowing museums to experiment and take more risks.

Certainly, it would be good to shake off the curse of the ‘permanent’ display (where permanent means ‘a decade or two’ rather than ‘for ever’). Permanent displays take years to plan, design and construct – and often feel dated on the day they open. Something easier to change and update, more fleet of foot and less, well, permanent would be better in many cases. Tate Britain demonstrates the benefits of regularly changing ‘permanent’ displays, even for a national collection.

And perhaps collections are becoming a little less permanent. Back in the early 1990s when Snibston opened, disposal was unusual, even frowned upon. Now, it’s standard practice to review collections and remove the less significant material.

Sale of collections is also becoming slightly more common. While controversial, when done responsibly it is perhaps less damaging to museums than once anticipated.

The long-term fate of Snibston’s substantial collection is not yet clear and the costs of dealing with it properly will be substantial. Perhaps, eventually, some will be sold. That may shock some people, but it may be better than keeping things in store for decades, unseen and unused.

Snibston’s closure is sad, and will be a substantial loss to the local area. It should make us think about whether museums are becoming less than permanent and whether that might be a good or a bad thing.

15 Jan

Roll up, roll up. Get your lovely collections here! What museums might learn from street markets

Maurice Davies

Sometimes using analogies can help us think about our work. Herbert Coutts, who used to run the city’s museums in Edinburgh, once pointed out that if museums were indeed society’s new temples or churches (as many argued they were at the time) then the onus on curators was great, because it made them society’s new priests.

21st-century priests do not, I expect, spend much of their time researching and analysing the scriptures. They are busy planning and delivering church activities, fundraising to repair the roof or build a small extension, sitting in meetings with other community organisations and, probably most importantly of all, helping improve individual lives – giving a little help and hope to the lonely, the destitute, the ill and the bereaved. Modestly changing lives is what society expects from its priests.

If they are lucky, our priests might find a little time, probably during the evening (if they are not called away), to think a little about the next day’s sermon, largely drawing on knowledge they acquired from study many decades ago.

They in a small way help to care for and preserve religious knowledge and values, and they communicate that to their core audience. That’s usually on a Sunday morning, when most of their audience has turned up primarily for reasons that are social, rather than spiritual.

Not so different, perhaps, to the lot of the curator.

But museums are no longer seen as churches or temples. Rather they are seen as the forum or the agora: a central public gathering place, usually including a market, where people come together for a variety of reasons, perhaps attending simply because it is there. Once there, they might participate in shared activities, be exposed to new ideas, or experience goods presented in the market.

If the 21st-century museum is the agora, then perhaps curators are akin to market traders – gathering together things to meet people’s needs and desires, entertaining them, stimulating curiosity and animating a public space.

The market trader uses their skills and expertise to select the goods and present them to the people. Many of the goods are known and expected – safe and familiar. But from time to time there, the market trader challenges with something new in an attempt to expand the audience’s horizons.

Recently I was in the market in Hatfield, a down-at-heel place patronised mainly by a mixture of white working class people and overseas students from the University of Hertfordshire. I was queuing up and, to my slight surprise, heard the elderly white woman in front say ‘Oh, I’ve forgotten the sweet potatoes.’

Evidently at previous encounters at the veg stall, or perhaps with a cookery programme on TV, our elderly lady’s curiosity had been piqued, her tastes had been challenged and now her experiences were enhanced. The stall holder had performed her curatorial duty. She had introduced her audience to something new.

In the proper 21st-century curatorial manner, note that her focus had not been directed towards studying the wide variety of species of sweet potato, towards writing papers about them for other market traders or (heaven forbid) painstakingly recording details of each sweet potatoes in her stock control system (or, heaven forbid even more, travelling to international conferences to compare approaches to digitising records of sweet potatoes). Our market trader knows that the heart of her job is to engage her audience with her objects.

There is probably much else to learn from market traders in terms of low-cost operation, surviving and thriving in the face of globalised competition, changing focus to respond to new audiences (I expect many of the stall’s original sweet-potato purchasers were overseas students) and coping with the whims of local authorities.

I expect by now you get my point. The heart of the museum’s task is simple: to communicate with a wide audience about its collection; and the heart of the curator’s job is to engage people and modestly improve their lives.

This is an extract from a talk given to the conference Does the Museum just Preserve the Museum?