There is a certain irony about going to a debate on the future of regional museums in the heart of London. The Courtauld Institute of Art have put on an impressive array of speakers to take a timely look at the crises in regional museums. The debate is organised to coincide with ‘Cotton to Gold’, an exhibition at Two Temple Place, that showcases the best of art and artefacts from Lancashire museums and fits with their remit to highlight regional collections in the capital.
It is early evening and I have to knock on the door at Somerset House to gain admittance, it feels as if I am about to enter the inner sanctum in search of answers. An exclusive world of museum decision makers is laid before me, I feel like a novice acolyte attempting to discover the mysterious workings of the museum world.
I am searching for answers. To me this idea of regional museums under threat is one I struggle with. My museum, where I volunteer, is in Greater London, the same London allegedly awash with money, the same London that gets the bulk of Arts Council funding. Yet my local authority museum is at risk of closure. Bromley Council want to make all staff redundant, sell the medieval Priory building that houses the collection and put a display case in the local library.
We have managed to delay the decision but I don’t know what the next steps are when faced with a requirement to be ‘revenue neutral’. What does that even mean? How can you expect to remove all funding in one fell swoop and ever hope to have any kind of service. Well I guess you don’t, what you get is a display case and that is not a museum.
So I have come to hear: Paul Greenhalgh, Director, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich; Ellen McAdam, Director, Birmingham Museums Trust; Sarah Philp, Head of Programmes, The Art Fund; Sharon Heal, Director, Museums Association and Piotr Bienkowski Independent Museum Consultant. I want to know what the answers are – How do we save regional museums? How do we save Bromley Museum? Where do we go from here? What is to be done?
Sharon Heal uses words like honesty and transparency. Who can deny we need those? We also need cold hard cash but that is harder to come by. She tells us we are in a crisis but there is room for optimism and hope. Some museums will close and some will stay open. There are more cuts to come and it won’t get any better. There is no sugar-coating this bitter pill. I know if we keep the wolves at bay in Bromley they will still be outside the door ready to pounce.
She goes on to tell us philanthropy is not the answer, we are all doing more with less, what we do need is new ways of doing things. She mentions resilience (over used and misunderstood), new business models and the Museums Association ‘Transformers’ programme-supporting staff to bring about change. In the case of Bromley where there will be no staff, that is going to be tricky. Does doing things differently mean running a museum purely with volunteers? This is something I am struggling with. Partnerships and collaborations, nationals sharing loans and expertise all sound great, but they also sound time-consuming, long-term plans.
I find Ellen McAdam fascinating to listen to, she paradoxically inspires me with talk of failing Birmingham museums who do not meet the need of a young and culturally diverse population. She sees the problems but grasps the challenges, she sees the opportunities. She is not thinking just on how to get more from the current audience but the massive scope to expand to new visitors and be relevant to this new visitor. Tapping into a relationship with Birmingham University, generating income streams from taught courses sounds a natural step to reach this younger demographic and help plug cuts in public funding.
Paul Greenhalgh disturbs me deeply by talking about university research assessment and HEFCE funding. I spent nearly six years working on the Research Assessment Exercise and the Research Excellence Framework at the London School of Economics, impact case studies are all too familiar to me. I never dreamed when I left that world behind I would be sitting in a lecture theatre hearing how this route could be a potential golden egg, funding for museums who align themselves with university research.
Quality research evidenced in impact case studies is certainly an idea, but one that could only every play a bit part. Prising funding from the grip of university departments who face their own income shortfalls would always be tricky and a route founded on a continually shifting assessment system that makes no guarantees for the future.
Sarah Philp, refreshingly takes a change of tack and talks of collections not fixed, but mutable and changing. We are so busy scrabbling for answers we need to think about the future of these collections and the future of curators too. The future of regional museums has to be rescued but it has to be shaped as well. Again I hear the words collaboration and partnership. But the reality of this suggestion is opened up in the Q&A session at the end. A good partnership has to provide something for both parties, takes a minimum of a year and a lot of bloody hard work to get it off the ground.
This suggestion, these holy grail answers I seek are all long-term, I need something now. A desperation is bubbling up in me. I want a take away, I need an immediate satisfying junk food fix. But there is none, I know in my heart of hearts a quick fix would do no good. But what I don’t understand is how Bromley Museum can go from the brink of submitting an HLF bid that would have created something so special to the brink of collapse in the space of 6 months. This is what scares me, the speed of decline. Where are the safe guards against this? What stops museums crumbling in the blink of an eye?
At the beginning of the debate the Firstsite gallery in Colchester, put into special measures by the Arts Council, was mentioned. Perhaps this is what Bromley needs, a team to step in, detached, unemotional but professional, who understand the realities and can advise on the options.
Finally Piotr Bienkowski talks and I have a bit of a revelatory moment. He plays devil’s advocate and deliberately provokes by suggesting not all museums should stay open. If they are failing, they have been failing for some time. Look at museums in crisis and you will find fundamental issues with inherently weak governance and no clear understanding of the finances.
Suddenly my rose-coloured glasses slip from my face. My emotional attachment to Bromley Museum is severed. All that I love about Bromley, the staff, my volunteer home, my escape from the daily realities, they are not enough anymore to prevent me seeing my museum is failing. What feels like to me a rapid decline is nothing of the sort. It is a decline that has been going on for years. It is Bromley Council neglecting a building, neglecting staff, neglecting a collection, neglecting their local history, year after year after year.
I worked as a volunteer on the HLF bid over a year ago, I spent weeks interviewing families and carrying out questionnaires. 90% had no idea Bromley Museum existed. I ignored this, I thought my job was to go out and spread the word. I have worked many Saturdays when visitors have been few and far between. Still I have chosen not to see. I have looked at the good stuff, the education sessions, the passion of staff and refused to see beyond.
I think I have failed, I should have been looking at all that was wrong not be blinded by all that I felt was right. So what is the answer?
I wish Bromley Museum could have had an independent ‘health check’ years ago. We needed debate on change and resilience well before we got to the edge of the cliff. I believe it was Paul Greenhalgh who said “keeping the door open is a job for all of us and something we should do together”. He is right of course, but we still need to know how to do this.
As I leave the debate we hear of another museum on the verge of closure. Bromley Museum is not the only one and it won’t be the last. Whilst I have learnt a lot and been given a huge amount to think about, I was naive to think I would find immediate answers and quick solutions. If anything I feel empty. The debate has given me an answer of sorts. It has made me look at the reality in the cold light of day. It was perhaps what I needed more than any soundbite solutions.