Why a museum’s goal should be a diverse, habitual audience

As is not unusual, I’ve spent some of my holiday visiting museums with my family. Two experiences stick out, a trip to the Wonderlab at the Science Museum and a visit to the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. Although as institutions they were like chalk and cheese, we enjoyed quite similar immersive experiences. Both were busy, both engaged my daughters, who much prefer kinaesthetic learning to books and reading, and both had engaging, cheerful and audience focussed front line staff. In the Wonderlab, science was made simple by great explainers and well-designed activities, in the Black Country, history was conveyed by familiarity and not a little nostalgia.

Both charged admission (for a family Black Country, £44.10 Wonderlab, £17.50), and there were plenty of opportunities to spend more in the shops, stalls and cafes.  Most importantly both experiences seemed to be enjoyed by paying customers from a variety of social backgrounds.

wonderlab 17

In the Wonderlab, Science Museum London


In a previous blog I wrote that over the last 20 years, the participation gap in heritage does not seem to have narrowed between rich and poor.

Time to narrow the gaps in Cultural Capital 

At both these museums it seems that admission prices are not a barrier for visitors from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I am a great supporter of free admission to National Museums and there are a host of reasons as to why it is a good thing. However bridging the divisions in cultural capital is not one of them.

Access to, and participation in traditional forms of culture foster entitlement and authority. Those with it are more likely to get the best out of institutions and services. They are better educated and pass those qualities to their children. The power of cultural capital is that it is not recognised directly. You can’t see it like the inheritance of property and it is masked by the language of meritocratic achievement and hard work.

According to the writer Lynsey Hanley

“If you grow up in a milieu of high cultural capital it is second nature to you to engage in arts and culture as they add to ‘the richness of life’: they help you to be participatory, confident, assertive.”

The accumulation of cultural capital, either through educational advantage or geography, in one class is a great impediment to social mobility.


Fun For All at the Black Country Living Museum, Dudley, West Midlands

Derby’s research tells simple truths in order to diversify audiences 

This gap is borne out in our own non-user research in Derby.

Our Audience Finder research puts the number of visitors from lower income backgrounds higher than the regional average. But last year we asked researchers, Bluegrass to conduct some non-visitor research, focusing on low attainment groups and the Asian community in three of the poorest wards of the city. The results were fairly stark

People did not visit because

  • “it is not the sort of thing people like us do.”
  • It was not recommended by friends or a peer group.
  • “We do not have enough time.”
  • “We do not hear about events.”
  • They were perceived as primarily educational experiences.

A large percentage noted that whatever we did to make it more enticing, they were unlikely to come.

Interviewees did note however that they were likely to spend their disposable income on leisure activities such as going to the cinema, eating out, going to commercial festivals and visiting  theme parks.

We used to name those non-participants, ‘hard to reach’. This patronizing moniker suggested that once people understood what we had to offer, they would be sure to come. Our experience shows non-users have much more agency and discernment. Their communities also have high levels of social capital; manifest in close family networks, use of community facilities such as mosques, temples and churches and use of local shops and cafes.

Why we all benefit from a diverse audience 

If cultural organisations don’t narrow the social and economic gap in visitors, institutions will tilt towards elites at a time when we need open exploration and understanding across society. Many of our museums collude in this, through a wilful obscurantism in the way they tell stories or interpret art and material culture.

Having a diverse audience makes great business sense. The most financially successful museums in England such as Beamish, the living museum of the North, Black Country Living Museum and SS Great Britain, have a far wider socio economic demographic than many free museums like my own.

Derby Museums will be participating in an Arts Council Funded initiative led by the Association of Independent Museums to help museums diversify their audiences. I hope our research will be useful in helping other museums to open up and embrace greater social and economic variety.

Our goal should be to increase the habitual usage of museums by everyone.  We can only do that if we lift cultural barriers which sometimes are more perceived than real. Good museums understand that museums visitors are heterogeneous. There must be variety and diversity of human interaction, from that first greeting by front line staff, to the goodbye at the end of the visit; from the food that is served in the café to labelling and interpretation of exhibits. Only then can we truly live up to the Arts Council England’s mantra of “great art, for everyone.”



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If not here, where? – the museum as host in a polarised world


British Values as taught at my daughters’ Primary School in Suffolk

In February 2017, nearly eight months after the Referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the Happy Museum project held an event in Derby Silk Mill to understand why people chose to vote the way they did and to explore the kind of role a museum could play in a society which seems polarised.

Rather than rerun the wherefores of the vote, the event sought to transcend the Referendum and understand competing values within society.

Neuroscientist, Kris de Meyer spoke of how the more our beliefs become entrenched, the less able we are to see others’ perspectives. He likened this to a pyramid – at the top,  two views held may be consensual, but the further external events and factors influence opinions, the further those holding the views drift apart. In the 1990s those on both political right and left held consensual views on issues such as immigration and multinational, pooled sovereignty. By 2016 these policy areas were the most sharply divisive.

Kris explored the notion of cognitive dissonance, a term coined in 1957 by Leon Festinger to explain the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values . He said,

“It has become shorthand for the inconsistencies we perceive in other people’s views – but rarely in our own.

What people are less aware of is that dissonance drives opinion change. Festinger proposed that the inconsistencies we experience in our beliefs create an emotional discomfort that acts as a force to reduce the inconsistency, by changing our beliefs or adding new ones.

… and thousands of experiments have shown that dissonance most strongly operates when events impact our core beliefs, especially the beliefs we have about ourselves as smart, good and competent people

Tom Crompton, is working closely with the Manchester Museum. His organisation Common Cause promotes the notion of values and frames for ethical development and used the Schwartz Values Model to illustrate the beliefs people hold. He noted that the divisions highlighted in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump can be explained by two opposing value systems Cosmopolitan Universalists on one side and more Authoritarian Traditionalists on the other. For examples of importance to the beliefs of the universalists were social justice and equality, to the traditionalists family security, social order and honouring of elders was paramount.

Tom noted that although these differences seem wide in Schwartz’s model, there is another set of values which both cosmopolitans and traditionalist feel are important. This is expressed as Benevolence and includes qualities such as honesty, a desire for true friendship and meaning in life.


Benevolence – Common Ground

Amidst this polarisation museums have a significant role to play. Museums enjoy high levels of public trust. Through our collections and programmes we can take the long view of history, exploring the complex identities of local, national and global citizenship. Museums can be the bridge between opposing value systems, exploring difference but promoting those qualities humans have in common.

Yet even the suggestion of that museums should search for common ground elicits cries of sell-out or even appeasing illiberalism. To some, this might legitimise the tactics of those on the far or ‘alt’ right’ who have no shame in using violence,  fake news and displacement tactics.

Museums are essentially social spaces, where people of all sorts can congregate. They are not neutral spaces, nor can they absolve themselves from complicity in colonialism or embedding privilege. They can however act as a starting point and stand for values which are non-negotiable such as religious tolerance, respect for the rule of law, the rights of minorities. These are the British Values taught in every English primary school.


More British Values as taught in my daughters’ Primary School in Suffolk

Museums can be activist organisations and (to paraphrase Berthold Brecht) be both a mirror to society, and a hammer with which to shape it. But if there is a reluctance to explore values at odds with a dominant cosmopolitan perspective, they will forever preach to the choir.

An English museum director of a large city museum once told me of the tensions of collecting a banner belonging to the far-right English Defence League (EDL) following a rally. A leading local politician (and by association custodian of the museum) had stated that the EDL were “not welcome in the city, and baulked at marking their presence within the museums collections

Rufus Norris and Carol Ann-Duffy’s current play at the National Theatre ‘My Country – a work in progress’ drew on interviews of people from all regions of the UK following the Brexit vote . It seems that the theatre is well-placed to take the temperature of the country; to show where it’s at.

Museums must use their unique qualities as hosts of well-liked civic spaces, their ability to use the long view of history to explain our current position; to show where we’ve come from and where we might go.

Back in 2011 the paper Happy Museum – a tale of how it could turn out all right. noted,

With recent trends seeing city space being increasingly transferred to private ownership  museums are an important bulwark against the erosion of the public realm,

The role of museums as conveners in a contested world is more vital than ever – as places to bridge divisions, if not here, where?



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Brexit – I know I must accept fate, but it’s hard!

Like many of the 48% who voted to remain in the European Union (EU), I was heartbroken by the referendum result last June. The UK joined the European Economic Community the year after I was born. I have never not felt that I have belonged to a family of nations, brought together in the aftermath of a devastating war.

Between Christmas and New Year in 1989 I went on a history and politics school trip to Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg – the three European centres of government. In Strasbourg we met (albeit briefly) Simone Veil, a survivor of Auschwitz and who was by that time a French MEP. Here was someone whose family had suffered inestimably but had worked tirelessly for reconciliation and prosperity.

I had always viewed the European Union with optimism, as a place to do business and to exchange culturally. I was living in Aldeburgh, when it participated in the European Cultural Villages programme in 2003. Fourteen years on I still have a bottle of fairly undrinakable home-made apple Brandy brought by folk from Bystre in the Czech republic  and sold in a the ten-nation farmers market next to the 14th century Moot Hall. Here was a cultural Europe of peoples, co-operating, appreciating each other’s food, drink and music and having fun.

So in the aftermath of the vote to leave I read with interest a range of interviews with cultural professionals in the Guardian. To the person, playwrights, artists, directors they were all based in London. All of them probably experienced similar emotions to me, disbelief, anger, sadness, trepidation.

There was shock and anger in my organisation, Derby Museums. The latter distinctly felt by overseas staff that had worked and paid taxes in this country who were nevertheless denied the vote. I won’t repeat the expletives from the Dutch woman I met at Edinburgh airport waiting to fly south on 24 June. She had lived and worked here for 20 years raised a family and was allowed to vote in the Scottish referendum (voting No) but denied a vote in the EU referendum – “I have given so much to this country” she said.

I had a feeling that the Leave vote would prevail. In June I’d spent an hour or so in Ipswich Town Centre each week, (waiting for my daughter whilst she was at Drama club in the local theatre) in the run up to vote. I’d stand near the Vote Leave stalls in the market square watching the tactics of the campaigners. Carefully they would pick out older and white shoppers, frame the conversation about the EU around domestic issues (no talk of an international, global Britain), concerns about funding for local services and the NHS – before gently noting that immigration might impact on public services. This would light the touch paper – giving people permission to articulate how much their neighbourhoods or lives had changed (regardless of whether there were people different to them living in their locality) and how little control they had in it.

Take back control seems irresistible, if comfort, security and interest in your life by others are in short supply.

I saw hardly anybody in Ipswich market place campaigning to Remain in the EU.

I work in Derby, a city in the Midland’s which voted 58% to leave. Three days before the vote, Labour in Europe hired Derby Silk Mill to hold a rally in support of remaining in the EU. Only a handful of party members turned up to hear Margaret Beckett (former Foreign Secretary) and Alan Johnson (former Home Secretary) make the case for Remain. In the Referendum 57% of voters in Derby decided they wanted to leave the EU. Throughout the old industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the North voters rejected the overwhelming view of left wing political parties which had shaped the society of those areas.

I was angry at the mendacity of politicians who used fear and alienation not just of immigrants but fellow Britons who are – “not like you.” The week after the vote I was in a National Museum Directors Council meeting (perhaps the apogee of the metropolitan elite), around the table many were stunned, incredulous, and fearful that the progressive, rational values of museums might be under threat from an insurgent, nihilist clique who disliked everything we stood for.

I am not part of metropolitan elite. I grew up in small house in Portsmouth, went to university in Wales, began my career in Wakefield; I live in rural Suffolk and work in Derby – I am as a provincial mouse as they come! During 2015-13 I ran an organisation which worked with some of the most vulnerable members of our community… and yet I felt I was being ‘othered’ – out of touch with the ‘real concerns of real people.’

I am still angry. Periodically I’ll watch the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to remind me of a vision I share of an old, but confident country ready to contemplate its past, laugh at itself and be proud of its multiculturalism. Leaving the EU political structure may not change this, but in my view socially and culturally the referendum needlessly opened divisions in our society.

I want rekindle the idealism about the world I felt as a 17 year-old visiting Strasbourg as the Iron Curtain fell. This desire feels very distant. I need help to understand, to listen and feel and show empathy – less ‘them’, more ‘us.’ But rather than dwell solely on things we have in common, we also have to understand, acknowledge and express the differences which contribute to the experiences that shape our decisions.

This Friday Derby Museums will be hosting a Happy Museum workshop to explore the neuroscience and psychology behind the referendum debate and the ways to relate to people who voted differently. The format of the day will allow ample time for discussion, debate and consideration of our role and that of museums.

I genuinely feel the need to change, when I say “its not you, its me.” – but I’m going to have to work on it.



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Class Struggles

Attention to socio-economic division within the UK appears to be en vogue. Whether it’s interest in post-industrial decline, the ‘left-behind’ of globalisation or rising inequality, class is back!

Last year a survey led by Goldsmiths, University of London noted that social mobility in the performing arts was at an all-time low. It found that only 18 % of Britain’s cultural workforce was brought up by parents who did traditionally working-class jobs, as compared to 34.7% in the country as a whole. Only architecture as a profession was more elitist.

In museums, especially at leadership level there are few people from working class backgrounds. Indeed there were more members of the Cabinet of old Etonian David Cameron who went to state school than there are UK National Museum Directors.

It’s not that there are no people from working class backgrounds working in museums, it’s just that many are invisible. At the Museums Association conference in Glasgow this year, Nat Edwards speaking in a session about social mobility, noted that there were plenty of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds working in museums; it was just that many were in front line roles and no-one ever thinks to suggest they might go to a conference.

Similarly, many museums have still yet to broaden their appeal beyond a middle-class, super-served audience. The most recent DCMS Taking Part survey noted that more people than ever were visiting museums – over 52% of the population. However this increase was not matched by a broadening visitor base. The number of visitors from poorer backgrounds is stubbornly refusing to shift. This is despite 15 years of free admission to National Museums and more programmes geared towards inclusion and social and cultural diversity.

The cause of countering apparent elitism was not helped by a recent report for the Scottish Government, exploring the social impact of public services. Museums were classed as ‘pro-rich’ service – primarily accessed by the better off. This compares to children’s social care – a service mostly used by poor people , described as ‘pro-poor’ (interestingly libraries were described as ‘neutral-poor’). This rather clumsy piece of research was not well received in our sector, Alistair Brown from the MA wrote, that the report, “failed to reflect the huge amount that museums do to increase access and to work in partnership with communities of all types.”

Although James Doeser artfully tweeted that

Seems Scot Gov appraised mus & galls according to what they actually do, not what they aspire to do.

With these surveys in mind, it was to my surprise that I read in the Guardian last week that the participation gap between people in rich and poor areas was shrinking dramatically in terms of visiting historic sites. What was the wider heritage sector doing right, which seemingly eluded museums and galleries?

Chairman of Historic England Sir Lawrie Magnus adopted a distinctly post-brexit tone noting that heritage “provides people with a physical link to the past, permanence, stability and sense of belonging. Places with strong, distinctive identities are more likely to prosper than those without.”

On further inspection the numbers are not all they seem (thanks to academics Sue Oman and Mark Taylor who delved deeper in to the report). The definition of visiting an historic place is broad ranging – from a visit to a town and city with historic character to being a paying visitor at a stately home. So doing a bit of shopping in historic York is equal to paying a twenty quid to visit nearby Castle Howard.

However once visiting a town or historic park is removed, the demographics of visitors pattern is very much like those to museums. Indeed the demographics of National Trust member is even more socially exclusive than those visiting museum and galleries.

No matter how the figures are presented there is still a large gap between rich and poor visitors to museums, galleries and historic houses and sites.

There are some notable exceptions to this elitism. In big cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool, local museums have for decades been synonymous with civic pride. Add to the mix free admission and an overt framing as ‘people’s culture’, these museums have genuine patronage from across the community.

Museums such as Beamish and the Black Country Living Museum provide an immersive experience and living history that is a source of regional affection. In this circumstance visitors, many of whom are on very low incomes are prepared to pay £50 for a day out.

Few museums can replicate the Beamish alchemy but there are actions which could be taken to bridge that participation gap.

  1. Accept that despite decades of instrumental funding on targeted projects combating social exclusion, museums are failing to attract poorer visitors at population level.
  2. We need to take a much more direct and long term approach focussing on ‘areas of low participation’ rather than cultural communities (as has been the approach hitherto). Often these groups intersect. The reasons for low participation are a combination of social, economic and cultural factors, often complex and vary from place to place.
  3. Take a more targeted approach to incentivising visitors from localities where there is low participation. Head of Culture in Bristol, Laura Pye in December’s Museums Journal notes that at Bristol Museum to accompany the popular exhibition The Story of Children’s Television, special offers were made available on the back of bus tickets on routes which went through residential areas of people who did not frequent museums.
  4. There is a need for organisations to carry out much better non-visitor research focussing on areas of low participation. All Arts Council NPOs will be required to participate in the Culture Counts surveys which measure impact of culture on place and audiences. I hope that this scheme will identify why people in areas of low participation are choosing not to come to museums.
  5. We should promote programmes for young people which direct focus on social mobility. Inclusion is not enough. The Department for Education has identified six areas in England where there are poor educational outcomes and limited social mobility evident. In Derby Museums a recent programme focussing on students at risk of exclusion encouraged year 10 pupils to develop skills and knowledge in engineering. The experience of working with technicians outside the classroom and with industry partners had a palpable effect on the students. Their teachers noted that their attendance and attention in class markedly improved.

Decline in social mobility in the workforce and a continued domination of well-off people as participants in cultural activity, can’t be good for museums. It seems that Culture is still struggling with class.

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Some reflections on museums and Brexit

The Brexit vote was met with both surprise and denial by many in the cultural sector. The weekend after the vote the Guardian published the reactions of artists and cultural folk (mostly from London) dismayed that their compatriots had voted (albeit by a narrow margin) to leave the European Union (EU).

Many of us in the arts are feeling bewildered, confused and angry. The dial has turned in a way we find hard to comprehend.

This was great fodder for the Right wing press able to thumb their noses at liberal, metropolitan luvvies out of touch with the People.

The outcome may have been a shock to those in London but it wasn’t to me. Three days before the vote, Labour in Europe hired Derby Silk Mill to hold a rally in support of remaining in the EU. Only a handful of party members turned up to hear Margaret Beckett (former Foreign Secretary) and Alan Johnson (former Home Secretary) make the case for Remain. In the Referendum 57% of voters in Derby decided they wanted to leave the EU.

The Referendum laid bare divisions in the UK of virtually every sort, social, economic, cultural, demographic, geographic. There was no single cause; immigration, inequality, the views of White Working class, the over 55s, the post industrial North or the less educated. Indeed, far more well-off people in the prosperous South East voted to leave than those in the North of England.

So now having had a few months to reflect, I think there are three things which museums could do to respond to Brexit. This involves advocating the rebalancing of the cultural economy, stimulating more and deeper participation and strengthening their roles as civic institutions.

 Rebalancing the Cultural Economy

In England, it wasn’t just London which voted to Remain. Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Newcastle, cities with high local GDP, multiple universities and a younger population voted to stay in the EU.

These areas also have had consistently higher levels of investment in a cultural infrastructure which significantly contributes to other facets of prosperity, such as attracting talent and making a place more liveable. The comparison with post-industrial cities like Sunderland, Bradford and even Derby is stark. Whilst Tate Modern opens a new extension, the Museum of London plans a move to Smithfield and £78m worth of investment heralds the Factory in Manchester, cultural organisations in smaller cities are clinging on for dear life, ravaged by cuts to local government.

As civic spaces, museums are well-placed to contextualise complex contemporary issues like globalisation, inequality and migration – issues upon which many based their vote in the Referendum. There are precious few fora where these matters can be broached with respect and mutual understanding – Museums are genuinely safe spaces for difficult conversations. Yet in places where voter’s views were clearly at odds with the dominant political perspective, many cultural organisations are at their most vulnerable. There is an urgent need to rebalance our cultural capital.

Bridging the cultural gap

To be an effective cultural bridge, museums will have to revitalise their own approach to participation.

Over the past 20 years, museums have made great strides in involving the public in many areas of their work. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum programme strongly emphasised the need for community participation to go hand in glove with organisational change – from ‘them to us’. The truth is that most community work is still marginalised and sporadic, subject to temporary funding streams whilst those grass roots organisations who immerse themselves in localities live hand to mouth.

Audiences and communities must be placed at the front and centre of organisations. Strengthening participation should be everyone’s role. Museums must commit to resourcing this work more deeply over the long term.

Museums ought to review their own participatory practice. Community work has often been about characterised by ‘deficit-funding’, helping marginalised communities rather than developing their capacities, capability and agency .

Communities are diverse and complicated. They are muddled and made up of individuals who share, disagree, find common cause or show indifference to each other. Some neighbourhoods are diverse, some are monocultural to the point of exclusion but every local council I’ve worked with has been anxious to promote cohesion above all else. This has led to a Pollyannaish approach to multiculturalism.  The result is an aversion to exploring difference and conflict, and a lack of understanding that communities have multiple identities which overlap or disconnect based on elements such as family, neighbourhood, culture and nation.

Despite notable exceptions, such as National Museums Liverpool, one consequence of this approach has been a reticence to confront adequately Britain’s colonial past. Regional museums in the UK are packed full of collections from around the world acquired during the 19th century. ‘Leave’ campaigners spoke of re forging a relationship with the Commonwealth, perhaps we could start with a wholesale critical evaluation of our imperial collections.

Strong Democratic Institutions

The final challenge for museums is to strengthen their value as civic institutions. The referendum campaign had a deleterious effect on public trust towards institutions, from Parliament to the Bank of England. This was exacerbated by UKIP’s anti-establishment schtick, Aaron Banks dismissal of facts and Michael Gove’s mendacious claim that ‘the British people have had enough of experts’. Nevertheless in surveys museums are consistently seen as institutions worthy of public trust.

The Gulbenkian Foundation’s enquiry into the civic role of the arts is timely. Suggesting new practice in a less hierarchal, more networked world. In this landscape museums with their big buildings and collections might appear cumbersome and unable to change. However in a post-referendum context, when so many voted against the insecurities of globalisation, museums offer a familiar and comforting presence.

Building on this level of confidence, museums can help explore our place in our community by connecting civil society with the civic realm. They must strive to be more open and democratic, viewing the public not as consumers but citizens who can participate in every aspect of making culture. Curators should develop their practice with the public, governing bodies should be prepared to discuss ethical dilemmas rather that hide behind commercial confidentiality. Trust is enjoyed only by public consent.

The narrow Brexit vote won’t bring clarity to our international relationships. That will be years in the re-making. In the meantime, above all public institution museums offer people a reflective opportunity to consider their own place in the world.

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Total Football, Total Museums

I need little encouragement to try and draw parallels between football and museums. The sad death of Johan Cruyff last week, caused me to reflect on the wonderful Dutch team of the 1970s. With Cruyff as captain and under the guidance of manager Rinus Michels, the Netherlands espoused Total Football, a fluid dynamic system which produced some of football’s most sublime moments.

In Total Football no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role; anyone can successfully play as an attacker, a midfielder and defender. Tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer and the ability to switch positions depending on the on-field situation. Players are required to be comfortable in multiple positions. This relies on high levels of technical skill and physical demands on players.

(Read David Winner’s Brilliant Orange for a full exploration of the relationship between the genius of Dutch football, art, environment and concepts of space)

images (2)

So can we create a Total Museum, where every team member is comfortable in multiple roles? A team in which curators can be entrepreneurial and fund-raise, in which business managers could deliver learning sessions, in which conservators can work on the front line and in which the director could serve in the café.

The public must also be part of the Total Museum.

Amongst the original principles of the Happy Museum project is the notion that resilient communities and organisations are ones which learn together. The active citizens of the future will be those who are adaptive, empathetic systems thinkers – precisely the qualities which the experience of informal, non-judgemental and fun museum learning can stimulate.

Moreover (as noted in previous blogs) the most relevant institutions of the future will be those which are open, democratic and which derive authority from the participation of citizens. A Total Museum won’t just rely on the staff being able to do each other’s tasks but will be a genuine network eschewing hierarchies. It will at once enable creativity and collectivism.

So I’m looking forward to the transcendent museum moments to compare with the Cruyff turn, Arie Haan’s 40 yard belter against Italy in 1978 and the first four minutes of the 1974 world cup final when their German opponents first touch was to pick the ball out of their own net.

Post Script

There was a lovely exhibition in Amsterdam Museum in 2012 Johan & Ik a collection of photos and stories of people who had met the great man.

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Avoiding the Strange Death of England’s civic museums

George Dangerfield’s the Strange Death of Liberal England is now somewhat of a trope. The gist of the title is frequently applied to institutions which have declined, unexpectedly at the time, inevitably in hindsight.

I hope the same can’t be applied to the great civic museums in England’s cities.

Dangerfield’s thesis was that in 1906 the Liberal Party in Great Britain seemed at the top of its game. Blessed with a large majority, it was a great reforming government, introducing national insurance, old age pensions and laying the foundations of the welfare state. Yet by 1920 it was a spent force, browbeaten by reaction from the right and usurped from the left by the Trade Unions and the Labour party.

Since 2000, England’s civic museums have prospered on the back of state investment. The Renaissance in the Regions programme and capital investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) enabled both redevelopment and capacity building. In particular the Renaissance programme supported both scholarship and inspired a zeal in connecting with new audiences. Today city museum audiences are more numerous and diverse than ever. Virtually every museum in England has refurbished building and galleries, and more of its collections are available on-line.

Derby Museum at the turn of the 20th Century.

Derby Museum at the turn of the 20th Century.

But the veneer of success is misleading. English civic museums now face similar external disruption to that which challenged the Liberal Party in the 1920s.

During 2010-16 revenue support for many city museums has fallen by over 30%. This has had a palpable effect on scholarship. Curatorial knowledge and experience has declined (the phrase ‘hollowing out’ has been used to describe this). Capacity to engage with new audiences has fallen, outreach has all but disappeared.

But the appearance of success remains. In the last two years four major HLF Heritage Grants of over £8m have gone to major civic museums (including my own).The UK Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in 2015 protected much of Arts Council England’s funding. Yet, at present, HLF funding is primarily for capital work and Arts Council funding to city museums constitutes a much smaller proportion of museum’s overall turnover than that from local councils.

It is central government cuts to grants to local councils which is the biggest threat to local museums. Many local councils have cut discretionary services to the bone already. Some maintain that by 2018-19 they will be unable to provide any non-statutory services at all. The announcement of Lancashire County Council’s proposal to end funding for five museums to make budget savings, is the tip of the iceberg.

Throughout the last five years ministers in Department for Culture Media and Sport have been unwilling to make the connection between cuts to local government and threats to culture. Moreover, Arts Council England has consistently held a line that they will “support authorities which support culture” This is untenable.

The Liberal Party in England declined because it did not embrace the new spirit of radicalism espoused by working movements. Civic museums have consistently been more radical than most. Museums from Newcastle to Bristol and from Liverpool to Birmingham have used their incredible collections of art, social history, archaeology and natural sciences to increase access to learning, promote social justice and tackle the challenges of how we live together in a crowded planet. Liberal England decided to ‘trim to the right’ resisting reform and was ultimately swallowed by the Tory party. It would a huge mistake for our civic museums to retrench to survive – moving to a comfort zone of charging or catering only for existing audiences. They must continue to do the kind of work more commercially driven organisations cannot or will not do.

Our great city collections are second to none in Europe. Few nations outside their capital cities have regional collections to compare to Glasgow, Birmingham or Liverpool. As Ellen McAdam pointed out at the Museums Association conference in 2015, civic collections have their genesis in gifts of 19th century philanthropists who profited from trade and Empire. At the time, civic museums were a means to impress on the public, Britain’s leading role in the world. Today a civic renewal in museums of a different kind is possible. It could be one which helps to map the dynamism of cities and their communities, one which understands our imperial past and projects a progressive view of a networked world.

In order to do this, city museums must be vocal about their public benefit. And this must be urgent because time is running out to develop serious alternative means to fund these organisations.

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