The long view: a quarterly look at current events
Issue 2: May 2012
Museums’ new relationship with Arts Council England (ACE) offers new funding opportunities. If museums in England are to make the best use of the convergence with the arts, it’s helpful to consider how museums have worked with the broader arts sector in the past.
Museums in England can apply for a range of ACE funds quite separate to ACE’s ‘Renaissance’ funds for museums. ACE’s strategic funds are mainly aimed at arts organisations but ACE is keen on applications from museums with just one caveat - it has to be for ‘arts activity’.
For example, ACE is allocating £45m for touring and says, ‘We welcome applications from museums for the touring of projects which are explicitly linked with arts activity… Collaborations between museums, artists and arts organisations can provide innovative opportunities to tour high quality artistic work to new settings inspired by a range of subject matters.’
ACE has spotted that many museums reach wider audiences than some arts organisations and is keen to involve museums in its work to increase participation in areas where people’s involvement in the arts is significantly below the national average. This £37m funding stream is called Creative People and Places and ACE wants partnership bids that can include museums ‘where they are providing arts based activities and opportunities’. In fact ACE specifically wants to ‘encourage long-term collaborations between local communities and arts organisations, museums, libraries and local authorities.’
ACE gives examples of the kinds of things that might float its artistic boat: ‘projects linked with a strong contemporary artistic vision can encourage people to question and interpret objects in different frameworks, forging exciting links between past and present.’
This isn’t new territory, although the funding streams may be new to museums. Museums have worked with visual artists for several decades now to enhance their programming. As early as 1985 the Museum of Mankind (which at the time displayed the British Museum’s Ethnography collections) hosted Eduardo Paolozzi’s Lost Magic Kingdoms where Paolozzi combined his own artworks with the collection to tease out meanings and add layers of commentary.
There was a flurry of activity in the 1990s, much of it inspired by American artist Fred Wilson’s influential – and political - re-interpretation of the displays at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. He called it Mining the Museum and worked with the whole organisation ‘from the maintenance people to the executive director’ to bring out new stories and offer new perspectives, in part revealing a previously hidden history of slavery.
A key aim of Wilson’s project – and many of those inspired by his work - was to reinterpret the collection and make the collections accessible in new ways. Because of the extensive use of museum objects, the artists had to work closely with museum staff. Inevitably, everyone learnt from and influenced each other.
Now, working with visual artists is becoming common. Many museums have a contemporary art programme: the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum all do. Even the National Trust now works with living artists.
But there is an artistic alternative. Museums could consider any of ACE’s other artforms: combined arts, dance, literature, music and theatre, rather than visual arts.
There are some good examples from the past. In the 1990s, Leighton House hosted a full-scale theatre production based on artist Frederick Leighton’s life. In 2004, London Transport Museum captivated audiences by working with performance poet Abe Gibson. In 2008 Sandwell Museums worked with theatre companies and English Heritage to produce a play, exhibition and schools projects about the social history of local shops.
All of these projects served museum aims by engaging audiences and enhancing interpretation - in arguably a more widely accessible way than some recent visual-art interventions.
The lesson from this is: make sure that when you work with artists they serve your core purpose of improving interpretation and accessibility. And don’t limit your thinking to visual artists; consider the potential of other art forms, particularly theatre and literature.