New beginnings

I haven’t updated this blog for over a year – very remiss of me.

At the end of last year I left the Museum of East Anglian Life after nine fantastic and exhilarating years to take up a new challenge. I joined Derby Museums Trust in January as its Executive Director, swapping the open air for a fascinating set of museums situated in a city renowned for invention and manufacturing.

Derby Museums Trust was established in late 2012 and is one of a number of former local authority run museum services in the UK, whose management has transferred to an independent charitable trust. Trust status has also been adopted by other cities such as Birmingham and Sheffield. All these former publicly governed organisations are working to behave more entrepreneurially, to diversify their income streams, to spread risk and to, hopefully, become more financially resilient.

It remains to be seen whether museums like the ones in Derby will have the breathing space to develop new sources of income to replace public funding quickly enough before the full impact of cuts are felt during 2015-18.

Derby Museums has some fantastic assets. Appropriately it has the largest collection of works by the artist of the British Enlightenment, Joseph Wright of Derby. It is Designated as a collection of outstanding National importance. Wright’s work, whether showing philosophers lecturing on the wonders of the Universe or depicting the early days of industrialisation, represents a spirit of experimentation and curiosity with which Derby Museums and the city itself would like to be associated. This is borne out in the exciting Re:Make project we have embarked upon at Derby Silk Mill on the site of the world’s first factory. Here we aim to redevelop the former industrial museum with groups of makers, artists and members of the public. Their collective knowledge and talents will be used to co-produce a new museum.

In addition Derby Museum also runs a gem of social history museum, Pickford’s House, the home of Joseph Pickford a Derby architect who lived there in the 18th century. This museum has great potential to explore the notion of home to a changing and diverse community in the city.

Although I’ve swapped the country for the city, growing for making, I aim to adopt many of the values developed through my previous work in Suffolk and through the Happy Museum project. I believe the best museum is a place of encounters. Somewhere people can be active and be creative, form new friendships and look at the world differently. Derby Museums will show the best of these qualities.

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The “Fan-owned” Museum

For my sins I am a Portsmouth Football Club supporter. Last month following the club’s relegation to the fourth tier in English football and having been in Administration for three years, the club was bought by its fans. Portsmouth (Pompey) is the largest club in English football to be fan owned.

Promoted to the premier league in 2003 it had successive overseas, owners, eager to cash in on the boom in English football. The club grew unsustainably  buying players with huge wage demands but unable to host crowds of more than 20,000 in a dilapidated stadium. The club could not generate the income needed to pay its bills despite cash from a generous SKY TV deal. Owners came and went, buying the debt and stripping assets. The club’s high point came in 2008 when it won the FA Cup.

Two years later Pompey were relegated, having been deducted 10 points for being in Administration. Two more periods of administration led to two more relegations. So by the end of 2012/13 they ended up in the old fourth division, with no owner and no players of note. However throughout these tribulations there was one constant, the loyalty of the fans to the club.

Last season Pompey consistently had the highest attendance in League One, despite finishing bottom. A mass appeal to buy the club was supported by rich and poor alike (although three wealthy fans led the campaign). Underpinning the campaign was support from the City Council who recognised the importance of the club to the local community. They loaned the Portsmouth Supporters Trust and a local developer the cash so they could buy the freehold to Fratton Park, the club stadium.

Play up Pompey

Play up Pompey

Supporters were able to buy shares at £1000 each and shares can be held by consortia of fans. Though not wildly democratic, fewer shares will mean the governance of the club will be more manageable. The fans won’t pick the team, but they’ll hold the management directly to account, especially in areas around ticket pricing and the behaviour of the club within the community.

Fan owned football clubs have many guises ranging from mass membership organisations like Barcelona, where to the chairman is elected by the members, or the model more common in Germany where the fans are majority shareholders. In Germany, Bundesliga tickets are far lower than in England, yet their clubs like Shalke, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich have outperformed English teams recently.

Portsmouth FC start the 2013/14 season in the fourth tier of English Football and with a handful of players. Supporters are realistic that a swift return to the Premier League is unlikely. Fans realise they won’t get much, if any return on their investment – but they know that it’s their club.

There are many museums are facing similar threats. With unsustainable growth, costs quickly outstripping ability to develop assets and direct support from both the state and philanthropists declining, could ‘fan owned’ museums emerge? Fan ownership would make for a more engaged role for the users. It might democratise the museum, make it more participative and more mindful of the trends and concerns which affect their communities. Fan ownership might create a more habitual and demanding visitor, influencing its operations, from the food in the cafe to admission charges. If visitors have a stake in the finances of the museums, they’ll be more aware of the limitations and possibilities of the organisation.

On the other hand might fan ownership make the museum more conservative in its programming, playing safe to please its shareholders. If taken at face value, the recently commissioned public attitudes survey commissioned by the Museums Association, suggested that public think that the museum’s priority should be the preservation of heritage and education. Activities such as promoting well-being and social justice were less of a priority.

Public funding is in short supply and the government is pushing museums to attract philanthropists. But should our museums tilt toward mass ownership, rather than rely on the largesse of a handful of rich benefactors. Given the choice of a museum like Portsmouth or Chelsea, I know which I’d prefer

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A few reflections on social and tech innovation #museumnext 2013

I expect most people who got to conferences find some excuse to bunk off, check out the town, or go shopping. But I’ve just returned from Museum Next in Amsterdam. It’s the largest gathering of museum folk interested in technology and innovation in Europe and each session provoked me to think differently about my work in museums.

Previously I’ve been suspicious that the attraction of technology is just the pleasure it gives rather than the good it can do. I’ve also been concerned that social and technological innovation in museums was estranged from each other.

Technology in the children’s discovery centre on the Stena ferry from Harwich to Hoek van Holland

By social innovation I mean the way we find new ways of organising to develop human relationships, strengthen communities and promote social justice. Some within the community development sphere worry about social and economic exclusion from digital culture and its potential to alienate individuals and atomise society.

But I sense that, rather like the well-being and environmental agendas explored in Happy Museum, Social and digital innovation are converging. Rob Stein from Dallas Museum of Art talked about social capital metrics to measure effectiveness of a digital strategy. It seems that we’ve both been inspired by the work of American sociologist Robert Puttnam. Trish Brown described the VLOG project at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. These are video blogs by participants using American Sign Language. Trish said that “we should remain true to our inclusive practice as well as our excitement as to the possibilities of technology.”

In Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Art (KMSKA) the Jongbloed programme inspires creativity in 16 to 24 year olds through a peer-led flexible volunteer programme.  One group went away to summer camp to immerse themselves in the work of Flemish Expressionism before working with a tech developer to create the Permeke app

Finally Oonagh Murphy noted the modest investment of two 3-d printers in Newark Museum, New Jersey had a transformational effect on the way children learn about culture and technology. As nascent technology, 3-d creates objects very slowly.  The process of learning how to code means children develop a relationship both with the museum and each other over a long period.

The language of digital vaunts connectivity and collaboration both technically and in the human sense. This, as much as anything else should spur the museum world view innovation and co-operation as the norm. Digital is more than a tool, it democratises material culture placing it more centrally in the civic realm. The Rijksmuseum ‘fully open’ Rijkstudio inspire citizen curators, assembling personalised on-line collections or even gifts. This further emphasises that this art belongs to and helps shape the nation.

A few weeks ago the Happy Museum Project opened applications for the next round of commissioned projects to help re-imagine their purpose. We want to support “sustainable museum practice which fosters well-being which doesn’t cost the earth”. We’d love to love to see proposals from museums wishing to explore how the virtual and flesh worlds can collaborate to further help people connect.

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Independent Museums, Financial resilience and Social impact

This missive was published in the Association of Independent Museums bulletin in February 2013

Despite profound economic challenges, it seems that the last 12 months have witnessed the most lively debates about the behaviour and purpose of museums for many years. The government is trying to convince the sector that Philantropy can be developed outside London, big cities. Many National or large metropolitan museums have championed the cause of social justice, supported by the Museums Association. Bodies like the Collections Trust have promoted the idea of the Commons as means to share ownership and access to cultural heritage both in the virtual and flesh worlds. For its part AIM has set out its vision for a resilient sector based on independent governance and entrepreneurialism. The title for next year’s conference Money That’s What I Want, is assertive in emphasising the need for income generation.

There is a danger that independent museums miss a trick if they focus solely on business development based on financial growth and think less about the social impact of their organisations. I’m not talking about large scale instrumental programmes which were rolled out across the nation as the last government encouraged museums to solve a range social ills. There are small scale interventions which civil society organisations make every day, which to make their communities a better place.

Civil Society is characterised by voluntary action undertaken by citizens independently. Two centuries Alexis de Tocqueville described after he explored the United States ago it was ‘the free voluntary associations which strengthen civil society by creating habits of the heart.’ Typical organisations might be local development trusts, food co-operatives or even museums. As the state shrinks under the Coalition Government these bodies begin to play an increasing role in bridging social capital within communities.

Alexis de Tocquville

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The majority of independent museums were founded by collective action, by volunteers who wanted to preserve what was special about the place where they live. Studies show that communities with higher levels of cultural participation and decision making have higher levels of well-being.

The Happy Museum project has funded several independent such as Godalming Museum, the Garden Museum and the London Transport Museum. They are developing creative projects alongside other community groups. It’s precisely because people working in these organisations be they staff or volunteers, have strong social connections that their museums are at the centre of local society. Museums, particularly independents, can be beacons of social innovation, inspiring people to co-operate and collaborate to solve problems and to strengthen their communities.

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Why local museums should ask big questions

Last week I met with Stephen Aguillar-Millan a future consultant. He described himself as a Futurist (though I think not in the early 20th proto fascist art movement sense). His organisation the European Futures Observatory  undertakes a range of projects that examine various aspects of the future.

We met the day George Osborne’s admitted that the UK austerity measures will continue into 2018.

Stephen believed that most organisations plan for a future which they assume will not be different from the past. He cited a number of local economic strategies which assume that once austerity is over, economic and social life will return to the more benign state of ‘before the cuts’. This attitude is widespread, though not exclusive, within the public sector. Often the impetus for radical change is not felt until it’s too late and then draconian cuts are the only option. Would anyone working in the public sector in 2008 have believed that it would have shrunk by a third by 2012?

Public organisations struggle to prepare the public for change. The political expediency of the electoral cycle means that politicians will shy away from big decisions anything up to a year before an election. Moreover they struggle to create the space for conversations or debate. Public meetings are sparsely attended, consultation exercises are only ever on specific issues and are viewed by the public as re-enforcing decisions which are already taken. The local press with its eyes on short–term sales is never really able spell out the complexities of big problems. At the same time local authorities are mindful to keep good relations with the local media and thus try to manage the news in a way made palatable for the public ear. In Suffolk last year, discussions about the future provision of public services in the context of lower levels of spending was reduced to arguments about libraries and lollipop ladies.

The West faces unfamiliar social and economic challenges from the rest of the world. Whilst globally, climate change and increased population will mean that resources will not be abundant in the way we are used to. I can’t imagine a future where we in the UK can have it all.

The challenge for policy makers at all levels is to find the space to ask big questions and involve the public in problem solving. Here museums have a great opportunity to play an important role. As institutions they benefit from high levels of trust. They are perceived by many (just like libraries) as neutral spaces which encourage debate. Most importantly they are places where people meet, socialise and connect with others.

So what big questions should we ask of ourselves and how could museums use their collections to continue the discussion?


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Museums “social and digital innovation – bedfellows too often treated separately” Reflections on Museums of Ideas event Octo

Mia Ridge’s recent post about the Museums of Ideas prompted me to finally finish this post

I’ve been reflecting on the splendid Museum of Ideas event at Museum of London Docklands.  Skilfully curated  by Museum iD, it brought museum thinkers from the US and the UK and mixed social media and social innovation. A rapt audience listened how to hardwire innovation in the Cooper Hewitt and Dallas Museum respectively and to Lisa Junkin whose spoke of interpreting the contested histories of gangs in Chicago

As Georgina Young observered in her insightful tweet “I loved the combination of social and digital innovation – bedfellows too often treated separate”

In was privileged to be able to indulge another audience to the merits of the Happy Museum project. A key influencer in my thinking was the work of the American Socialogist Robert Putnam whose Bowling Alone highlights the decline of social relationships and networks in America over the last 50 years. He describes an atomised United States  where…

“we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbours less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues”.[1]

Rob Stein from the Dallas Museum of Art asked me whether I shared Putnam’s view (articulated in Chpter 7 of his book) that technology was partly responsible for a decline in Social interaction. Putnam noted that communities with high levels of newspaper readership were more likely to have stronger community organisations. He believed that the internet and plethora of TV channels meant that people consumed their news and knowledge of the world in their own homes rather than with others. Bowling Alone was published in 2000 several years before the explosion of social media, which enabled new ways of building social networks.

Many social media connections are made after connections in the flesh world. MEAL’s Facebook groups have grown following community events. The UK Traveller community has embraced facebook with gusto. In a community with traditionally low levels of literacy the informal medium suits and keeps large families, who are often dispersed, together

Mia Ridge (whose post earlier this week prompted me to finish this piece) quotes a Salzburg Global Seminar in 2011, noting that: ‘technology is a tool, not an objective, and that the creation of increased public value is the end goal. Identifying stakeholders’ needs means addressing human relationships, a sense of organization, and an intellectual construct to shape information and access’.

A digital divide is more likely a result of economics and geography than generational. The £40 a month I pay for my iphone is a luxury that not everyone can afford. And great swathes of the countryside have inadequate broadband or 3G coverage (we are eagerly anticipating 4G in rural Suffolk). Designing universal programmes because 50% of the population has smart phones is a bit like designing an education system solely around the aspiration that 50% of children will go on to university.

Overwhelmingly new technology is a source for social good. The rise of blogging, twitter and citizen journalists helps hold the rich and powerful to account. In the developing world mobile communications have revolutionised connectivity. Anyone visiting East Africa will be struck by high level of mobile phone usage. I travelled through Kenya a few years ago and in almost every village main street there three facilities , a grocers, a bar and a mobile phone credit store.

Digital technology is a brilliant tool for social innovation Its also exciting in its own right and museums might be mindful that they don’t just marvel at what technology can do and continue to ask how it can be used for social good

[1] R. Putnam, Bowling Alone New York 2001 frontispiece

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Museums – from Civic Institutions to participants in Civil Society

I followed with interest, last weeks debate at the Social History Curators Conference in Cardiff last week – Are visitors the new curators? Sharon Heal has since given a good account of proceedings.  I agreed with ‘floor’ which rejected the motion, not because I think communities shouldn’t co-create museum activity but because I’m not sure most museum’s institutional values enable co-production, however progressive their leadership.

A museum’s view of communities as active partners depends on whether they see themselves primarily as civic institutions or part of civil society. I’d define the Civic Realm is ‘the local state’ comprising of organisations and institutions governed by political representatives. Here citizens participate in groups like local health boards, school governing bodies and perhaps in a museum’s case, user panels. This is great, but ultimately these bodies are appointed by and under the control of the local state.

By contrast Civil Society is characterised by voluntary action undertaken by citizens independently. Two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqville famously described a thriving United States characterised by ‘free voluntary associations which strengthen civil society by creating habits of the heart.’ Typical organisations might be local development trusts, social enterprises, faith groups or co-operatives. As the UK state shrinks under the Coalition Government, these bodies begin to play an increasing role in bridging social capital and tackling inequalities in communities.

The distinction between the civic realm of the state and the civil realm of the citizen is important. I’ve experienced a view articulated by Laurence Demarco a few years ago that there is a powerful lobby within the statutory sector which believes that anything organized in our communities outwith their control is potentially dodgy.

Notwithstanding the most progressive of founding values, all civic institutions are the reflection of the dominant political or social order. I feel uncomfortable when I see a museum indulge in civic pride to the extent that they seem to be hand maidens for the local tourist board or when they appear to be a little too aligned to a governments desire to foster national identity.

Instinctively I prefer the approach of Sue Clifford the founder of Common Ground who noted in an interview in the Ecologist (Local Heroes: Sue Clifford & Angela King The Ecologist Paul Kingsnorth 01/12/2006)

Letting people define for themselves what’s special about a place, and what matters about it… That’s the key. Government agencies and large bodies can’t stand this. They want to define things; they want to keep tabs…  only ordinary people can make ordinary places matter.

In contrast to the defined structures and layers of accountability of the local state, civil society is a muddle. It comprises of groups of people, sometimes sharing, sometimes opposing, sometimes indifferent to each other. It is a space organised by the habits and intelligence of collective action.

I don’t believe that a small state is the primary means to increase freedoms and resilience of communities. Civil society doesn’t operate in a vacuum and is strengthened by a state which trusts it as an active partner. Likewise the state alone can no longer tackle pressing social and environmental challenges, like child poverty, alone. It needs co-operatives, campaigning groups and collectives to deliver at local level.

I do believe in order to treat communities as active partners civic institutions like museums should learn behaviours from civil society. This requires systemic change; opening up governance, allowing self-actualising networks to replace structures and strategies, stimulating social innovation and collective intelligence rather than tried and tested methodologies. If museums use all these assets to create inventive and imaginative programming they’ll then  place their institution within the hearts of their communities.

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