A future for regional museums? The Courtauld Institute of Art, March 2015

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.

How do you save a museum?
How do you save a museum?

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.

 

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A future for regional museums? – Courtauld Institute of Art  

 

7 comments

  1. really interesting piece – there is hope!
    The Powell-Cotton Museum was a seriously failing museum that has turned itself around after being on the verge of closure. As you say, it needed quick fixes as well as long term change.
    Today I use the failing years to teach museum studies students how being business like and unsentimental has kept the museum going for all those who love it!

    • Hi Inbal, Thanks for your comments, much appreciated. I think if we use the experience and teach others at least something good will come out of it. Perhaps I need to go back to uni and learn bit more 🙂 Tinc

  2. I think this is really insightful. I haven’t visited Bromley Museum (since all the fuss about its potential closure, I thought of doing so next time I’m in London) but I wondered if what you describe might be the case. Certainly I can think of other London borough museums that have become utterly frayed and irrelevant (bit of pottery, odd dinosaur bone, someone’s stove from 1950) and getting most of their visits from schoolchildren – who are admittedly probably having quite a good time because they’ll be Doing A Project or Drawing a Picture or at least thinking what they are going to write up when they are back at school. But probably of little interest to anyone else. In better times, I’ve also seen museums come back from this (Islington springs to mind). And I think the plans for embedding Wandsworth Museum into the vibrancy of BAC sounded an altogether different kettle of fish to replacing a museum with a case shoved in a library, and that the museum and the innovative performance at BAC could very well feed off of each other in a wholly positive way. Quite what will happen what with the fire, I’m not sure, but it sounded like a really promising plan.

    One excellent piece of advice I came across in some museum talks a while back was ‘to survive, make sure you’re talking to, and a part of, your community’. Whether or not the council thinks the money is there, if the community is on your side, quietly axeing cultural services becomes much more difficult. After Derby Silk Mill was so successful as a community restoration project, there was genuine public outcry when the Council tried to cut the budget.

    It sounds to me like Bromley Museum is absolutely worth fighting for – I think it would be a tragedy if the oldest building in the borough got sold off for yet another development for the wealthy. *If* it survives though, perhaps these events won’t have been a bad wake up call for how to do things differently. When asked, almost all communities want history spaces – but they need also to have a sense of ownership from it also being a place where they get to do stuff that they want to do. Which might be a bit different from the stuff you initially had in mind. Places like Beamish and the newly reopened Whitworth as well as Derby have pointers for how to go at this, and you should possibly talk to the Happy Museum. But the thing to do first is make sure the idea of the museum itself is saved, and it sounds like the local MP is up for that. Good luck!

    • Hi Kate, Thank you for your comments, they are really useful and helpful, not only to me but I hope others in the same situation. You are absolutely right community is key and the community does not know enough of the museum. Community groups are gathering round but mainly history/culture based which is not always enough. I have another blog to write on the situation and interaction with the council, I think I need to step away from it a bit so I don’t get too emotional. The future is worth fighting for but I am not sure what exists at the present is. I wish it was easier to get behind one issue but there seems to be so many aspects to the debate. I wrote to my councillor who never replied. I also wrote to the leader of the council who passed on my concerns to the councillor with portfolio for Renewal and Recreation who again did not reply. I am not sure it made any difference. They need to make savings and there seems to be little movement on that basic principle. Maybe the letters helped in getting a delay of the final decision. They have given a 3 month reprieve for more consultation but it feels like an empty process and they have not changed their minds.
      Thanks for the kinds thoughts they are much appreciated. Tinc

  3. Thank you for posting this. As an employee of two small regional museums facing financial difficulties, I found it thought-provoking and cathartic. One of my organizations is part of the municipal government, while the other is an independent non-profit. Both charge admission by suggested donation. I’ve often thought (erroneously) that independent museums can have a tougher time keeping their doors open because they have to generate their entire operating budget from scratch, unlike government-run institutions which receive at least some funding from taxes. However, as you’ve demonstrated with your own institution this is clearly not always the case when governments and elected officials deem cultural services non-essential. I wish you the best of luck with keeping your museum open. Sadly this is a problem we are struggling with everywhere, even in the world’s richest countries.

  4. Hi Ashleigh,
    Thanks for the comments. It is interesting to get the perspective from the two, independent and council run. It is a challenge we all face. All council museums should be asking that question, how would we cope if we lost 30% of our funding, what about 50%, what about the whole lot? Having that conversation right now might make a difference in the coming months. I hope the museum will end up being more than a display case. Tinc

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