I am actually quite angry at myself for coming to this London Borough of Bromley executive council meeting. I said I was done with Bromley Museum – what will be will be. But I can’t keep away, I know what the decision is going to be, but sometimes you have to bear witness. You just have to hear the words said, you might be raging inside, but the time for making a difference feels over to me. At least for the kind of museum I have in mind, the kind of museum I was working towards over two years ago.
The deal is done, the vote is unanimous, Bromley Museum will move from the Priory in Orpington, a lovely medieval building (in need of tlc). The fate of the Priory is still in the balance, local community groups are still working on an arts and heritage centre. Good luck to them, they are going to need it.
The ‘new’ Bromley Museum is two small permanent exhibitions located in Bromley Central Library, and a small section for temporary exhibitions to be changed twice a year (and we had to fight for that). The permanent exhibitions will be ‘Bromley Revisited’ – the story of Bromley’s past, and upstairs in the Local Studies area a display of the John Lubbock collection. No staff will be in this ‘new’ museum, the Council says they are losing two staff. It is in fact three, the museum assistant went travelling just before the Council began consultation. So no museum assistant, no education officer and no curator.
The council have used an independent report by Fourth Street (commissioned by Historic England) to bash us over the head, the Priory is not a suitable location for a museum, it needs a lot of work and it is not very accessible. To be fair you don’t need a report to work that one out. Location, location, location. Many museums exist in difficult locations, but I can be pragmatic. As much as I love the Priory, I can see the sense in moving the museum to central Bromley. The library already has a lot of footfall. At no point does a report on location explain to me why we no longer need any professional staff.
In fact in that reports it makes it clear the successful elements to a local museum –
“Evidence from nationwide museum surveys demonstrates time and again that the key factors in attracting repeat visits are: new capital development; programming (i.e. special events, exhibitions and activities); and special promotions.”1
With no new staff, using existing local studies staff, I am not sure how they can fulfil these requirements in the ‘new’ museum. Exhibitions, even temporary ones take a hell of a lot of planning and work. Local studies staff are not used to displaying museum objects and the museum is losing the expertise of a museum curator, museum assistant and education officer who knew and understood the 20,000 objects in the collection.
In my last post, my hazy love for the Priory was cracked and broken, I could see the museum wasn’t working. I know things have to change and savings have to be made. I don’t want an impossible dream. But what I didn’t expect is all the work we did as part of the Heritage Lottery Bid to be used to beat the museum down. Statistics are bandied about, how the public view the provision as ‘weak’. I am angry because certain statistics are looked at and others are glossed over.
It is not mentioned that around 300,000 people live in Bromley. Only 670 people did the online survey in total. 70 of those had never been to the museum before and another 75 visited over 5 years ago. Not all the respondents felt the provision was weak, but it feels like the council have taken the data they want. I didn’t work so hard on the consultation for that information to be used as an excuse to close the museum. That was a consultation on the future of the museum not on the destruction of one. It hurts that the woman in charge of the HLF bid which failed is now working for the council systematically tearing down the museum.
At no point in any council meeting, have I heard them say staff were doing a good job, the best they could under the circumstances, with minimal support and limited budgets. I feel so sorry for my colleagues, but feeling sorry for people doesn’t make a difference to budgets and council decisions.
Councillor Peter Morgan says it will be a ‘museum not a museum service’. Local archives staff in the library will look after the store, permanent exhibitions, possible temporary exhibitions and potentially train volunteers. There will be no education service, an education pack will be developed. There is vague talk of volunteers delivering education sessions, who is going to train them I wonder? The local studies staff are supposed to do all this on top of their normal duties? Bromley Council is already in the process of getting rid of staff at six libraries across the borough and letting volunteers take over. Library staff are striking, they fear for their jobs, how long will they even be there? Staff are stretched already, how are they suddenly going to have the time and expertise to take on 20,000 artefacts?
A question is asked about whether archives staff have training in looking after artefacts. Councillor Peter Morgan tells us artefacts are artefacts and they are quite capable. I say, archives are paper artefacts. Paper is not pottery, it is not bone, it is not wood, it is not textiles. My blood boils. How do you argue with someone who fundamentally doesn’t understand what a museum is or what professional staff do.
Ah, but we are going to digitise the collection for all to see, they say. I say, you digitise it, more people want to see it. How do you facilitate those visits when the store is 5 miles away. You send volunteers? Who is responsible for locking up and correct handling? You send staff and they lose a day of their time travelling backwards and forwards. What if the object is too big to bring to the library, do they sit in a cramped store all day so a researcher can work on saxon graves or roman pottery? You can’t tell me this decision will not affect access to the collection.
Councillor Peter Morgan tells us the ‘new’ museum will be accredited by the Museums Association. I am not sure if he knows what that involves,
To be Accredited, museums must:
- meet the Museums Association’s 1998 definition of a museum (‘Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society’)2
Who is collecting? Who is safeguarding? Who is making objects accessible? All the answers I hear from the council are light and fluffy, there is no substance to them.
There is concern over who will actually visit the ‘new’ museum, how do we count visitors in open library spaces. Councillor Peter Morgan tells us it is easily done, but he doesn’t have any specifics on that. He obviously hasn’t read his own commissioned report –
“This problem of how to accurately count visitors in and out of a free-access environment is endemic in the museums sector.”3
I am not sure I trust this man and his assumptions and assertions.
The leader of the council, Stephen Carr, tries to soften the blow, he tells us this is the best of both worlds, revenue saving and museum provision. I am sorry, no, it really isn’t. It gives you revenue saving, it does not give us museum provision. I don’t want to be bitter, I don’t want to be angry and sad about this. Many museums run with volunteers it is true and they do a fantastic job. But there needs to be support and there needs to be trust. My trust has gone, it just got up and walked out the door.
I am hit left-field by a completely new suggestion that we get rid of the John Lubbock Collection, loaned to Bromley by the Lubbock family. This jewel in Bromley Museum’s crown, this nationally important collection. Councillor Nicholas Bennett shocks me, he argues that we don’t have any relationship to this collection, he only lived at High Elms for short while. If we are going to go down that route we should get rid of David Bowie’s jacket and chuck out Hanif Kureishi’s signed books too. H.G.Wells, (Bromley born) (we have his tooth, yes his tooth)? Never heard of him.
Where has this sudden desire to get rid of the John Lubbock collection come from? I can only assume that it is because on this topic the council has taken the most flak from national heritage bodies over recent weeks, because it is of national significance. Councillor Nicholas Bennett tells us this collection is replicated in other museums – the British Museum, the Museum of London, why do we need it? I think he needs to read this great blog by Mike Pitts on the 20 Ernest Griset paintings commissioned by Lubbock in 1870. These paintings recently exhibited at Wellington Arch as part of a rather aptly titled exhibition by English Heritage – “The General, the Scientist and the Banker: The Birth of Archaeology and the Battle for the Past” are –
“..a wonderful early experiment in archaeological reconstruction illustration, are little known, and need researching – along with their creator.”
There are 20 Griset’s in existence, 19 in Bromley Museum’s care, the other one? Well you can always pop to Australia to see that. The collection is special, it is important, not one voice said we must keep this gift from the Lubbock family.
I hate this blog, it is bitter and angry and it is not me. You know what? The ‘new’ museum I am sure will look very nice, the Priory could end up as an arts and heritage hub. Volunteers could be involved, local studies staff could well find the time to do their day jobs and still run a bite-size Bromley Museum. The Lubbock Collection could be safe in Bromley’s hands. I could be so wrong about all this. Then one day when there is a bit more money a new ‘real’ museum could happen, it could, it really could. But will it?
This is where it comes down to trust, trust that Bromley Council are doing the best they can with what they have got. Do I have that trust? The final story I will tell in this blog is of my final day volunteering at Bromley Museum. I decided to have a look round the whole building, in the loft, in the basement, all those nooks and crannies. Soak up the history of the beautiful Priory building.
Orpington Library shared the Priory with Bromley Museum from 1959 to 2011. The library went in 2011, 4 years ago. Everything went, no storage at the Priory, no staff visit. What do I find in the basement? Library stock, newspapers, books. Sitting, moulding away, the pipe leaks, the water drips onto carelessly left library remains. It makes me incredibly sad to see this neglect, this lack of care. For many months there has been a skip outside Bromley Museum. Do I trust them? When I see this? When I listen to councillors who see no need for professional staff, who don’t understand what a museum is, who want to get rid of collections and rationalise what little is left? No, there is no trust.
All I can do is hope for the best. When I got home from the meeting, my daughter, still awake with sleepy head asks me… “The museum mummy, what is happening?” What do I say? “They killed the museum we love for money, love.” Or do I tell her, “There is always hope love, one day we will get the museum back.”
The poet Adrian Henri in his poem ‘Death in the Suburbs’ began his verse with the line below, he wasn’t wrong it has already come.
“The end of the world will surely come in Bromley South or Orpington,”
1 – Priory Bromley: HLF bid review and information for prospective owners, Final Report, Fourth Street. May 2015, page 23.
2 – Arts Council England Museum Accreditation website accessed 12 June 2015 http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/supporting-museums/accreditation-scheme/how-do-i-apply/
3 –Priory Bromley: HLF bid review and information for prospective owners, Final Report, Fourth Street. May 2015, page 19.
4 – Ernest Grist in London, Digging Deeper, Mike Pitts, accessed 12 June 2015. https://mikepitts.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/ernest-griset-in-london/
You can read some other blogs on this issue from –
@lovebrownsigns “The bell doth toll for the Bromley Museum” http://www.followthebrownsigns.com/2015/06/the-bell-doth-toll-for-the-bromley-museum/
@downeopc “Hands on…. but not at Bromley Museum” http://downeopc.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/hands-on-but-not-at-bromley-museum.html