2018 is a big year for the Horniman Museum and Gardens, based in South London. In the summer their new World Gallery opens showcasing 3,000 extraordinary objects. Whilst there is the excitement of new beginnings, there is also the sadness in May of saying goodbye to their remarkable Chief Executive Janet Vitmayer CBE, who has steered the museum for the last 20 years.
I have a long association with the Horniman Museum, my Dad took me as a child and now I regularly visit with my own children. Five years ago, when I began blogging, I visited press previews of exhibitions, enjoying ‘Romania Revisited’ and the river paintings of Kurt Jackson. There have been fantastic family exhibitions such as Robot Zoo, Plantastic, Dinosaurs and I even created a Lego homage to curator Paolo Viscardi for their Extremes display.
For the last four years I have worked on their Access Panel, helping to make the museum more accessible for families. We have, in the last year or so, worked as community curators choosing objects for a display that will be part of the new gallery. It has brought me into contact with staff across the museum and I have enjoyed seeing how one of my favourite museums works behind the scenes.
I thought I would take a chance and see if Janet Vitmayer would allow me to interview her as she counts down the months before saying goodbye to the Horniman. I was hugely honoured she agreed and I spent a most enjoyable hour quizzing her on a fascinating career in museums. The questions touch on topics from challenges in the museum sector, to women leaders in museums and remembering the Horniman Museum when she first became Chief Executive in 1998. I hope you will enjoy the fruits of those conversations as much as I enjoyed my time asking the questions.
Q – What was it like when you first started at the Horniman?
“It was physically incredibly different and it had just begun to make that transition from being a GLC (Greater London Council) / ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) run museum to an independent charitable trust. It had made a really good transition but was still finding its way as a new type of charity.”
“Some of the legacies were still there, both good and bad. What I saw as the good legacies were an incredibly strong learning service. The ILEA had invested in really good teachers here, it had a deep and really cutting edge education service for schools. Things like the handling collection were built up by those teachers, it is one of our huge assets now around 3-4,000 objects. The schools service was brilliant.”
“The ILEA had built some very unprepossessing buildings, some classrooms that were quite sad. While it was great to have proper spaces to teach in they weren’t particularly inspiring. The handling collection was only for schools and in roller-racking hidden away so in holiday time there wasn’t wide usage.
I felt there was lots of latent potential, a good legacy, but it needed moving on.”
“The other big thing that hit me between the eyes was when Frederick Horniman gave the gift of the museum and gardens, if you look at the original deed, he says very little other than he wanted the museum and gardens to be treated as a unity.
Over the last 100 years, the LCC (London County Council) and then the GLC had evolved the running of the gardens into the parks department and the museum had become part of the education department. It had really lost its connection. You couldn’t see the gardens from the museum at all. The vast majority of people who visited the museum never went into the gardens.”
“Frederick Horniman was such a wonderful, generous, insipiring man. To be able to recreate the essence of his mission, the heart of what he was after, creating a unity, I have found that very pleasing over the years.”
“There were two main areas of interest, the physicality of the place and the things which were itching to grow and be made more of. Then looking at the staff, the nature of the people, what roles we had and evolving that over time to allow us to do what we wanted to do. The nature of how we wanted to work across learning and curatorial, bringing things together which takes years and years. When it works it is very stimulating, but it is not a quick fix.
The Hands on Base is the end result of that thinking. That was my feeling, having the right staff to then evolve it into what it is, has been crucial. For me it has been more about seeing the direction of what we could unleash.”
“Horniman’s founding vision was so inclusive, there is something about that which has always seeped through. It is heart-warming to have that evolution in the modern world of his original desire.”
Q – The Horniman Museum is a very popular destination for families, was that the intention?
“I remember a seminal moment, a friend who had twins said she wouldn’t come to the Horniman because of the double buggy and of all those steps. It was hugely physically difficult to get round the museum and that stuck in my mind. I had young children when I started, my daughter was one, my son was four.
Physical access for everyone was important to me, it wasn’t just about access in a wheel chair or buggy. When I had the opportunity to think about access and what we could do with the new Heritage Lottery Fund, physical access was very high on my list.”
“The 2002 extension really broke the ground for families. The design need to connect the old and the new with flat access throughout. That was a real break-through for families, the second was uniting the museum and gardens. It allowed families to visit differently, there was space outside to run around and a museum to look at and engage with. That is the point visitor numbers began to soar, from that extension.
There have been a series of evolutions from 2002 which did the basics, in 2006 we re-did the aquarium, the music gardens was in 2012. Always with the ethos of access, physically and intellectually. The aquarium also caused a big rise in visitor numbers.”
“One of my great joys in life, is that we put in things like low level hand rails for children. Every day I see children going down the stairs holding on to the low level hand rails, and I hear people saying “Oh, look, there is a hand rail for you.” In the toilets we insisted on having low level sinks for children. Those sort of touches mean a lot to families.”
Q – What are the challenges going forward for the museum and the new Chief Executive?
“The gardens are interesting. In 2012 we finished the next bit of the gardens, the music area and animal walk. We have just opened the Butterfly Garden. It is very much a work in progress, as all museums are, it never comes to an end.”
“We did a piece of work recently with the trustees about the vision for the future. A fresh pair of eyes, which is what we will get in the New Year with a new Chief Executive, is really important. My eyes were very fresh when I came here, I saw all of these things, all of the potential and it has taken me about 20 years to get there.”
“We have only just begun to really use the gardens and develop them. It is enriching. The whole idea was to not overly control people but to enrich the space. We have so many skills here, so many interesting people doing interesting work. We want more of it at the front, for people to enjoy. Things like the medicine gardens are still very popular.
The gardens and how they work together with the museum are really important.”
“As the world changes around us there will always be new things to consider. The collections are so fantastic, I don’t think we should ever forget how extraordinary they are. Digital is one route into that but how we work into the future with those collections, how we involve people whether it is local communities or academics we have much to gain from working with them.”
“There are still things I have not done. There is something I can’t believe I have not succeeded in!
I will give you one thing that drives me bananas! Outside the tower entrance there is a little fountain, there was a statue on top of it that got stolen in the 1960s. Firstly I was desperate to get water back into it to make it a fountain again. So I managed to get someone to do that all though it is the most pathetic dribble. Every day I go past it and think “How have I not managed to do that!” I would have loved to have commissioned a sculpture to go on top but it has never been a priority.
It might have to be a note in my desk drawer to the new Chief Executive – Please sort out the fountain!”
Q – Looking to the future of the museum sector – What are the priorities? What are the challenges?
“The one thing I feel about the museum sector is, it is so varied, I have been a trustee of various institutions, for me the joy of museums is each museum developing and expressing what it is and what it can be, with and for other people.
You don’t ever want a ‘one case fits all’ approach, the places are so different, the collections are so different and resources. Those that really thrive are true to themselves. What exactly is it your are, you have, you want to be, your community wants you to be.”
“I have never been comfortable with a single approach. The thing you cannot afford is not to know who you are there for, what the best fit is. That can change across time quite radically but if you don’t know that then you are on a hiding to nothing.
You cannot afford to take your eye off that aspect and get too inward. One of the keys is understanding what you have, who you are and where you are. Really engaging the people who can get a lot out of your collection.”
Q – As a female leader in museums did your appointment back in 1998 feel like an important moment?
“To be honest it didn’t feel like a big step, I have just been so lucky with the people I have worked with, like Mike (Michael Houlihan) the previous director who was so supportive. My first chair was also very supportive.”
“There are issues for women, had my previous boss not been so supportive and other people not encouraged me I might have thought – “Can I really do this?”
One of the problems that is well documented for women, is that they will look at a job, say there are ten criteria, I can only do eight I won’t go for it. A man will be able to do three or four and still go for it.
As women we are very self-critical and therefore limit our possibilities.”
“One really positive thing I got involved in afterwards was the Women Leaders in Museums Network which I chaired for a few years. A lot of that is about supporting each other and looking at these issues and inviting people to talk about them.
There are sub-groups called ‘CCC’ (Confidence, Choice, Connections) which work regionally to help young aspiring women in the museum sector. I have interviewed a number of women who have mentioned these groups have given them confidence to develop and apply for roles. I think these networks are worthwhile and important. That wasn’t around when I made my decision to go for the Horniman role, I was just lucky I had a supportive environment. ”
Q – If you weren’t at the Horniman Museum where would you have liked to work?
“I always thought I would go back to the Imperial War Museum. Just because that is where I started and history is my thing. I just loved the collections. As time has passed my fit here has been so good for me personally it has been a perfect blend of my values and my enjoyment of a great variety of collections and disciplines.”
Q – If you could take something with you from the Horniman Museum collections what would it be?
“I have a number of favourites but something that means a lot to me is the robber crab (Coconut crab) that sits outside my office.
The reason is that, most days as I sit here working, there is someone outside standing right there and you hear “Oh my, have you seen this?”, “Come and look at this!” and then someone else turns up and says “Oh no! Have you seen the size of this?”
There is this complete gobsmacking astonishment and wonder. That, in the end, is the story every day that reminds me of the power of objects and the fantastic impact they have.”
“The other thing is David Attenborough made a programme about robber crabs and he has been an inspiration to me. At certain openings at the museum he has said things that have set my mind on fire about how special the Horniman Museum is. How we are one of the few remaining truly universal museums and we could still tell these stories of all aspects of the whole world around us.”
“Also Frederick Horniman’s original natural history passion and desire is there in one object too.”
“The crab has it all, the contemporary public, David Attenborough and Frederick Horniman all rolled into one. I don’t really know how much better it gets!
“I might ask for it when I go but I won’t get it!”
The Horniman Museum has a special place in my heart. As the World Gallery opens in the summer and I will celebrate the work of the Access Panel in playing their part, it offers me a very small glimpse into Janet Vitmayer’s world.
The enjoyment of working with dedicated passionate staff, the pride of being a part of an amazing museum with stunning collections. Also the sheer joy of sharing that with everyone who visits, young and old.
I have to say a huge thank you to Janet for finding the time for this interview. I wish her all the very best for the future and I celebrate a 20 year legacy at the Horniman Museum that I have no doubt Frederick Horniman would have been very proud of.
Janet Vitmayer to step down as Horniman Chief Executive –https://www.horniman.ac.uk/get_involved/news/janet-vitmayer-to-step-down-as-horniman-chief-executive