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.

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