Bromley Historic Collections – the demise of a museum, November 2016

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Bromley Museum at the Priory, Orpington. Closed Nov 2015.

New displays at Bromley Central Library November 2016

One year since Bromley Museum at the Priory was closed by Bromley Council. One year since all staff were made redundant. Over a year since I stopped volunteering in my local museum. A promised display to be based in Bromley Central Library from mid 2016 is finally here. I find myself standing with local residents, ex-museum volunteers and champions, councillors, the Mayor of Bromley and Lord Avebury to ‘celebrate’ its opening.

I didn’t really want to come to be honest. I visit the library fairly frequently to get books with my young family, I had seen the displays going up. I am completely biased, I have unequivocal views on this display. I may be in the minority, I may be completely wrong but for me this is not something to celebrate. 

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Upstairs in the Library the displays do look good.

To write one more blog, to be fair, I thought I would come and have a proper look, listen to what is being said before I commit pen to paper. The council make no pretence at this being a museum. Now re-branded as ‘Bromley Historic Collections’. There are three display areas; a temporary display that will change I believe twice a year (which we had to fight for) – the current exhibition is on Bromley’s Great War; a display on the history of Bromley – themes include creativity, industry and tradition. Then upstairs on the 3rd floor in the local studies section a display of the John Lubbock Collection. Friend to Darwin, the politician and banker was also a scientist and a collector. His archaeological and ethnographic material is on permanent loan from the Avebury family including some particularly fine Ernest Griset paintings.

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Ernest Griset paintings.
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Pacific Atol by Ernest Griset. This painting was likely commissioned by John Lubbock for Charles Darwin to commemorate Darwin’s trip around the globe aboard the Beagle.

Bitterness to one side, the displays look good. How can they not compared to the Priory Museum displays that hadn’t been touched for years? Of course I can quibble that object panels with numbers have limited use if objects themselves are not numbered. Objects are listed which are not on display and there are only three objects you can interact and get hands on with.

Children always want to touch and interact 3 objects and some drawers are all they have.

When I spoke to one of the other volunteers who I had worked with on the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) bid to create a better museum based at the Priory, she said we have to make the best of it. We have to try and make it a success, we could, after all, have ended up with nothing. But when all around is shiny and bright, when everyone claps and congratulates themselves on a job well done, why do I feel so empty?

I am grateful that there are objects on display, I am grateful that something of Bromley Museum’s collections remain even after rationalisation of the store. I am grateful that the objects on display are more accessible compared to the Priory and I concede more people will see these collections.

But for me it is not enough to be grateful, I am too close to this process of dismantling a museum that has been in existence for 50 years. What hurts is we were so close to getting the HLF bid that would have secured the Priory’s future. The themes used for display in the library are the themes originally intend for the re-display of the museum. Walking around tonight is a huge slap in the face, it is a sign of what could have been, it is a glimpse of a future that has been taken away.

A nice display is not a museum. There are no museum staff, there are no volunteers, there is no sense of community, there are no events, no craft activities for families, no outreach, there is no community work, no sessions for the elderly, no work with those suffering with dementia or depression. No work experience, no talks, no sharing of objects from other museums, no hands on sessions, no tours, I could go on.

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Mayor Ian Payne calls this innovation.

The Mayor in his speech called the displays ‘exciting and innovative’, he called them ‘wonderful’. There is nothing innovative about what I see tonight. The council needed cutbacks, the council needed to save money and they have. From the money they have saved in closing the Priory they have spent the merest fraction on this display.

What this actually is, is money saving, it is retrenchment, it is small minded. As I sit upstairs in the library to write this blog outside where the John Lubbock collection is, I was going to write how no-one will come upstairs to visit the Local Studies section. It has always been a rarely visited area of the library. On the opening night I heard the Mayor reassuring Lord Avebury that lots of people visit this part of the library. That is not true.

2016-11-14-11-44-24But as I sit here for an hour I finally see two people go in to look at the collection. I can’t tell you how pleased it makes me. Many Saturdays I volunteered at Bromley Museum at the Priory and I admit the visitors were few and far between. John Lubbock was a fascinating man, we are privileged to have his collection. I love the guest book on display from his former home at High Elms that lists – Alexander Graham Bell and Alfred Russel Wallace as visitors.

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The guest book from High Elms where John Lubbock – Lord Avebury lived

I am so pleased that these two have visited, but I am angry too. I am angry because Bromley could have done better than this, Bromley could have made something really special and worthwhile that would have been for the generations to come, to help create, and foster a real sense of community and pride in our shared history.

A month or so ago banners hung from every lamp post in Bromley advertising the new display, if only they had done that when the museum was at the Priory, it would have really benefitted from the advertising and support. Now those banners have been taken down, nothing outside the library promotes what is inside. When the novelty of this new display wears off, what will encourage people to return and keep visiting? A fairly uninspiring corner that will change twice a year?

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The temporary display area.

You know, I feel so flat. It would be easier in a weird way if they had just closed the museum and not bothered with the ‘Bromley Historic Collections’ display. It is easier to rail at that injustice, but this is harder to complain against. There is a new display, here are objects many people in Bromley have not seen before and they are more accessible. I guess it comes down to what you think a museum is and should be.

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One of my favourite objects a aircraft propeller tip carved into a photograph frame, marking the Royal Flying Corp becoming the Royal Air Force in 1918.

A museum tells the story of our past but it has just as important a role collecting objects that represent our here and now. Our history is being made every day, that is the trouble with a historic collection, it closes the door on our past, it bookends it. How do we understand who we are now, how Bromley is now, how it is changing all the time? Who collects for our future? Who cares for our past? Who meets us, here and now, in friendship and provides a welcoming space?

These photos are what Bromley Museum at the Priory was to me –

I will finish with some photos that sum up my feelings, kids crammed in, filling every space in a hands-on history craft session, and a hands-on display session with objects from the collection. Compare it to the bright shiny displays with nobody in. That is why I can’t celebrate this, that is why every time I pop in to renew my youngsters story books my heart breaks a little more.

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A family session at the Priory
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Volunteer led hands on with the collection.

Well done Bromley, you did what you set out to do, you closed a museum and you saved money and we are all the poorer for it.

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I have written a number of blogs on the closure of Bromley Museum which you can read here – https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/category/bromley-museum/

I have also written a piece in the Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2016/mar/26/volunteers-museums-job-cuts-community

3 comments

  1. I went to Bromley, probably for the first and last time in my life, to see the museum after you’d blogged about its impending closure. And it was so obvious that the Council should have been thinking about how to renew it ten, possibly even twenty years ago when it wasn’t up against a wall with budget cuts. I’ve seen other museums where the pressure to improve or close has had a positive effect – Wandsworth Museum was pretty dismal when I visited in 07 or so – now it’s part of Battersea Arts Centre and though I haven’t visited, it sounds like a brilliant opportunity for the museum to inhabit a lively space, draw more audiences and even be the source for some of BAC’s theatre. Crucially, the move sounds really creative and not like a distraction or a plaster over a cut.

    In Bromley though, I agree with you that process failed. The building it was housed in (the oldest in the borough) was an astonishing and numinous thing to find at the end of the high street – not to mention the gardens. It could’ve been used to house so much community stuff and weave the museum collections into everyone’s lives – as obviously worked with the children’s sessions you show. It’s really upsetting that all that possibility has passed out of the community’s hands.

    Mainly, there’s nothing for it but to be very sad. But if there’s a retrospective lesson, particularly for local museums, it’s to be better at admitting that a space is unvisited and out of date, and try to transform before the cuts merchants turn up. I think communities increasingly need real world spaces that they have a relationship to – somewhere they can hire for a yoga class, hold a local campaigning meeting in, and – yes – go to with their nipper to glue shiny bits of paper together based on history collections. Possibly even wifi spaces for the increasing tribe of people working on the move. If we’d been better as a sector at saying ‘we need to look at this’, I suspect we wouldn’t be in the hole with regional and local museums that we so often seem to be now.

    But mainly, I wanted to say, thanks for covering what happened at Bromley so comprehensively, I think if you hadn’t, the whole sorry business would have been forgotten and lost. I know there’s only a tiny consolation in that.

    • Thank you very much Kate for your comments they are very much appreciated. I hope there won’t be more museums in 2017 that have to go through this process but sadly I think there will be. Tinc X

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