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)

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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.

Posted in football, museums, well-being and happiness | 7 Comments

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.

Posted in civic realm, Derby, museums | 2 Comments

The Post-Capitalist Museum and Derby Silk Mill

I have only a rudimentary grasp of economics but I am thoroughly enjoying reading Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism

His provocation is that capitalism is broken. Cycles of boom and bust punctuated by state bail outs are unsustainable. Soon the state will be milked so dry that it won’t have enough capital to patch up the system. Bail outs transfer money from the poor to the rich, which eventually makes our society so unequal that social conflict will become inevitable.

But from the wreckage of a system built on unsubstantiated credit, a new economy can emerge. One based on information technology which is open-sourced, home-made and shared. This sharing economy is not made of controlled platforms like Uber or Airbnb, but of co-operatives sharing non-market goods, time banks and LETS currencies. It’s an economy based on sharing of knowledge skills and information.

In showing how we have got here, Mason traces the trajectory of the western economy over 300 years of waves, first promulgated by the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff. His near contemporary Joseph Schumpeter noted in the 1930s that the period of disruption preceding each wave is characterised by innovation and fizzing entrepreneurial activity.

It’s these waves which pricked my ears because they refer to many of the most important things we value in the collections at Derby Silk Mill.

Put simply, the first industrial wave was characterised by the Spinning Jenny and water power, which moved the production of cloth from looms in weavers’ cottages to the first factories (Mason directly refers to Arkwright’s Mill in Cromford founded some 50 years after Derby Silk Mill further down the Derwent Valley).

prospect of derbyc1725

The Prospect of Derby c.1725 features the original Silk Mill

The second wave was caused by the disruption brought about by the age of steam. This increased productivity and distribution, but also heralded a fateful reliance on carbon to fuel the economy. In the early years of the 19th century Derby Silk Mill eschewed water power and moved to coal. Derby itself, set in the middle of England, became a centre for the manufacturing of locomotives, an industry which still exists 175 years later.

The third wave was brought about by growth of communications technology, with radio, television and the radar, and personal mobility such as the motor car and bicycle.

By the 1960’s a fourth cycle began, spurred by the main frame computer and jumbo jet engine. Information and people moved more freely and quicker than ever before. Dominating the ground floor of Derby Silk Mill is the RB211 jet engine which certainly disrupted Rolls-Royce in the 1970s. The cost of its development nearly bankrupted the company and it was saved only by nationalisation. Yet the prototype RB211 (the engine that powered the Boeing 747) was the precursor of the now ubiquitous Trent engines which have underpinned the great success of Rolls-Royce over the last 40 years.

1 RB211 Engine 2

A bit of the Rolls Royce RB211 engine in Derby Silk Mill

Mason notes that we are now in the midst of a Schumpeter-style disruption between a fourth and fifth cycle. The end of the fourth cycle is characterised by ‘info-capitalism’ where the price of goods and services are arbitrarily costed by corporations like Apple (he gives the example of the 79p people pay to download a track on ITunes which neither reflects neither the cost of materials nor production of music).

The closed nature of information and technology cannot last forever, nor can the hierarchal nature of capitalism. New generations of users, networked as never before, view file sharing as second nature. They are used to not paying for art or music, and when they do it’s to not receive information, such as an advert free subscription to Spotify!

Concurrently, the disruption is also characterised by a financial crisis heralding the beginning of the end of an oil economy and the noticeable effects of climate change. Bail outs and climate mitigation will change the way the state supports its infrastructure.  Austerity impacts not just welfare but all aspects of civic infrastructure from parks to libraries, museums and galleries. There is a danger that at some point the state will be so small, it won’t be able to withstand another financial crisis.

So in a museum which exemplifies the last 300 years of capitalism, could our approach offer a glimpse of the future?

A post-capitalist economy, Mason argues, is based on open-sourced technology and the exchange of non-market goods like care, ideas and creativity. The Silk Mill’s workshop is full of equipment which stimulates creativity and learning. The public can learn new skills and make things using a Raspberry Pi, CNC router, 3D printer, laser-cutter alongside more traditional tools and techniques. Volunteers have made museum display cases, designed a mobile kitchen and told new stories about Derby’s cultural heritage. They have encouraged and looked out for each other as part of a collective enterprise.

Volunteers participate and co-produce with us on an informal give/get basis. They give time to hack fixtures and fittings and solve problems for the museum, in return they use the equipment or develop skills for their own endeavours. For example, one volunteer uses the workshop to develop his ideas to make bespoke skateboards, in return he teaches coding to year 8’s from the local high school during our Wednesday afternoon Code Club.

It’s not just the making of the museum which is open sourced, there is also a knowledge exchange. We propose a crowd-sourcing of knowledge and experience around collections. This, curated by the museum,  stimulate further dialogue with audiences and enhance understanding of objects, narratives and place. Curation becomes the assemblage of the interaction of the public not just the interpretation of knowledge by the institution. This is real public history.


Sourcing ideas about plan for Derby Silk Mill

In the museum space we’ll enable an ‘open’ access to collections to visitors. All of our collections of industrial and social history will be openly accessible in ‘display storage’ with additional digital access through3D scanned collections. The code could be made available to the public who could then 3D print their own version of the object.

This level of participation should help stimulate a new kind of civic institution. Most museums’ relationships with their visitors are transaction based. Customers pay an admission fee for an experience which is primarily didactic. If, as Jon Alexander from the New Citizenship Project contends, we see visitors not as consumers but citizens then the museums of the future will need to build mutual relationships with the public, be non-hierarchal and, be a platform for the free exchange of knowledge and creativity.


Posted in Derby, economy, Transition | 1 Comment

Who pays for free admission to museums in the UK?

I spent much of the last fortnight spending a small fortune traipsing round half empty museums in Tuscany. From afar I read the increasingly contested debates around the philosophy and affordability of the policy free admission to some museums in the UK.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents never took me to museums and art galleries. They thought they were expensive, stuffy, unwelcoming and ‘not for the likes of us’. If they were around today they’d have a different experience. A generation of museum leaders has made them relevant, intriguing and provocative. Since 2000 the policy of free admissions to National Museums (or those sponsored by the Department of Media Culture and Sport (DCMS)) has removed many of the economic barriers to visiting.

In UK cities some museums funded by local government are free and were long before the Nationals. Some ‘civic museums’ charge. For example flagship city museums in Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Derby are free, those in Norwich and Nottingham charge.

In 15 years the policy of free admission to National museums has had the effect of dramatically increasing the number of visits. Likewise investment in learning and activity programmes in regional museums since 2000 has seen attendances surge. Visits from those on low incomes has (social classes C2DE) has risen, though not as much as those from those on higher incomes. More people are visiting museum than ever before, but it appears that it is middle-class people going again and again.

In his op-ed column on Museums Journal website last week, Alistair Brown noted

…there’s also an important positive case to be made here as well. Our local authority museums are vital parts of the civic sphere. 

They support happy, peaceful communities. They educate and entertain. They care for collections that preserve collective memory and information about the local, national and international. And they should be accessible to all, not just a privileged few.

As a director of museum trust which manages three ‘civic’ museums in Derby, the challenges of running a free museum in a time of Austerity is profound. During the period 2014-16 our public sector income (which currently accounts for 87% of turnover) will have dropped by nearly 30%. We are faced with difficult choices – do we reduce services, opening hours or introduce some charges? I passionately believe civic museums like ours should be free. I also have some sympathy with Rachel Cooke’s argument, that a museum might charge those who can pay if they…

…fund not only the concessions that must be maintained for children, pensioners and students, but also – this is so much more important – to pay the salaries of those working hard to bring in new social groups: the curators, the youth workers, the people who run educational programmes.  

For those concerned about social justice or reducing inequalities, it is worth recalling the original purpose of many civic museums. Their collections often predate most Local Authorities. Many like the core collection of Derby Museum and Art Gallery were founded by early 19th century philosophical societies. Their members wished to expand knowledge beyond their locality and further understand the wonders of the natural world through collections of specimens, archeological material and art.

In the later 19th century, individual philanthropists gifted collections or cash to develop buildings for museums. Like Carnegie libraries, the purpose of these institutions was to expand the knowledge of general public and in particular the poor.

A model of the original 19th century design for Derby Museum and Art Gallery

A model of the original 19th century design for Derby Museum and Art Gallery, in the museum stores (now on display in the Common Treasury exhibition in the museum )

As cities expanded and population increased, the management of these  museums  was transferred to city corporations and then funded progressively from local taxes or ‘rates’.

However since the late 1970s the burden of taxation has fallen disproportionately towards the poor. A higher proportion of their income in spent in tax than the rich, through council tax or regressive taxes such as VAT. Even if there has been an increase in lower income visitors to museums, they are still outnumbered by their wealthier counterparts. They are, in effect, subsiding the activities of the well-off. Abandoning free admission would further reinforce this.

The public funding of Derby Museums Trust comprises:

  • 30% of income comes from Arts Council England, funded through general taxation
  • 58% of Derby Museums Trust income comes from Derby City Council
  • Around 35% of Derby City Council’s income comes from council tax, the rest from central government grant which is disproportionately lower than councils in the South of England.
  • In places like Derby 80% of council tax payers live in houses bands A-C. They represent about 55% of our visitors. The rest live in bigger houses or come from outside the unitary boundary and their local taxes contribute much less or nothing to the museums.

A blanket admission charge would effectively mean local people paying twice for their civic museum.  Charging only ‘out of towners’ would bring in little income. Moreover allowing concessions for students, unwaged, those on income support reinforces the inequalities in access to culture. Visitors would have to prove they were poor and this would effectively means-test access to cultural heritage.

The notion that we as a society cannot afford free museums is fallacious and is borne out of choices we make regarding taxation and a desire for the market to define our needs. We should shift the burden of developing our cultural institutions from the poor to the rich.

  • More progressive local taxation, eg raising bands of council tax, or even a surcharge for a local culture tax for homes band C downwards.
  • More public investment away from London and the South East.
  • Better distribution of lottery funds to projects of the interests of the majority of players – less subsidy for Covent Garden and Glyndebourne and more for local arts and heritage
  • Concerted campaigns to encourage the rich to give to culture for public benefit, encouraging giving as civic duty and a privilege of wealth – as in the U.S.

Even so, inducements like Tax breaks for giving further reinforce the notion that the rich may deem what is worthy about culture or society. It further undermines the notion of a civic realm to which we equally contribute according to our means.

The ‘free admission’ debate is less about ‘free access’ but more about how we define society. Do we want a public realm which is increasingly privatised or open and democratic, institutions like museums more defined by the market than universal values of shared humanity and equality and a cultural life which emphasises entrepreneurialism over solidarity?

Posted in civic realm, Derby, museums | 6 Comments

Museums and the Civic Contract part 2 – the Derby way

In my last blog I suggested that museums reassert their civic contract with their place and their communities. This would augment the value of the institution of the museum as a place of learning, mediation and delight. I suggested that years of instrumentalist policies had moved us away from the fluid and dynamic nature of our communities. These had been borne out of a desire to help and do good for people rather than the aim of giving agency to find their own place in the world.

In the last week the  2015 UK general election has returned a majority Conservative government for the first time in 18 years. There will be no let up in the cuts to public spending, and for those museums, particularly in big cities there is a risk of decline in activities and relevance to their communities.

At Derby we made a conscious decision to involve the public in every aspect of the museum’s life. As a consequence this has caused us to think our role as civic ‘leaders’. We have the city’s cultural heritage at our disposal, our responsibility is not just to look after it but to unlock and share its delights. We shouldn’t fear, but relish this challenge

Like an onion, we wanted to peel back the layers of the museum. This process began with the Re:Make project at Derby Silk Mill. Here at the site of the world’s first factory we are creating a Museum of Making, illuminating a 300 year old story of creativity in Derby. Since 2013 we have worked with Makers in Residence, artists, makers, hackers, tinkerers and members of the public to shape and design a new museum. People can learn new skills in our workshop, make new friends and be creative in a way unconstrained by formal learning. The results of the experimental phase have been unexpected, unusual and have breathed new life into what was a fairly uninspiring industrial museum.

Building on what was learnt at the Silk Mill, we used the same co-production methodology in the creation of a new natural history gallery at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. The gallery Notice Nature Feel Joy, involved a phalanx of specialists and experts such as zoologists, entomologists, taxidemists, psychologists and musicians a well as a large group of public volunteers. The results were a beautiful melange of specimen, stories and details of the wonders of the natural world, enriched by the voices of many individuals. Never has the maxim that ‘no one of us is smarter than all of us’ been so true.

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Both these projects could have resulted in displays which appealed exclusively to the interests of those involved. To guard against this we used a human centred design methodology in project development. This analyses and foresees how users are likely to use a product. It also tests the validity of assumptions with regard to user behaviour in real world tests with actual users.

At the start we set up project labs in our galleries where we gathered user suggestions. For example there was a strong message of “do not tell us what we can find out on google”. People wanted displays which were experiential, not didactic. Throughout the project, we tested ideas in an open gallery space, making the exhibition in full public view so that visitors would feel they could talk to staff and volunteers and offer views. We would imagine, prototype, test, evaluate, make and share – just like the scienetists and artists of the 18th century Enlightment embodied by the work of Joseph Wright of Derby.

Whilst this was going on, we were fighting the prospect of huge cuts from our major funder. Last December, Derby City Council announced that funding for 2015-16 would be reduced by 26% as they responded to swingeing reductions passed on from central government. This would have had a devastating effect on the organisation, threatening the closure of one of our musuems. Reluctantly we went public and launched a petition to the city council urging them to reconsider. This show of independence changed our relationship with the city, it exposed our activities more than ever. The museums campaign was partially successful, securing nearly 7,000 signatures on a petition which triggered a debate the Council chamber. The Council was agreed to spread the cuts over two years which gives the organisation breathing space to seek alternative income or modesl of operation.

Whilst ostensibly the campaign focused upon potential closures of museums it also caused local opinion formers to scutinise our activities. Why, for example, are there collections of value in store (namely a work by Lowry) and could they not be sold to reinvest in culture in the city?

This is a legitimate question and one museums are loathe to address outside of the confines of ‘ethical disposal’ or loss of Accreditation and access to grants. Our immediate response was to put the Lowry back on display in a prominent place. Moreover it stung us into thinking more deeply about the purpose of a civic collection.

We went back to the founding documents of the museum in 1879, and read through the ‘Curator’s book’. In 1881 supporters of the new Art Gallery noted that it should not “provide a fashionable lounge where our exquistites alone may congregate to study and admire the beautiful, but to develop the artistic aspirations of all sorts and conditions.” In the 1940s the Gallery Curator wrote proudly of mounting an exhibition of artwork by refugee children from Nazi Germany.

Our response was to present the exhibition A Common Treasury. It features some fine objects, many of which have not been on show for some time including work by, Lowry, Epstein (a bust of Jawaharlal Nehru), Benjamin West, John Piper, John Singer Sergeant. There are also delicate examples of Derby porcelain and Paleolithic hand axes found in Somalia (the rest of the ‘set’ is in the British Museum). All these objects, collected over 100 years reflect a thirst to understand the world. Yet interestingly by the 1970s Derby Museums’ ambitions seemed to have been clipped, and an emphasis on collecting material related only to the city. It was as if the museum felt that Derby people didn’t know about their city. But I think to understand our place, we should discover our place in the world.


We need a world view more than ever in order to connect to each other rather than divide us. Insecurity and growing inequality drive many to narrow identity politics and nationalism. Our great museums have collections to inspire free thought, feelings of commonality and a shared stake in the future. But they have to be open to participation and constant change , they have to be brave and stand up for their values in public, but above all they have to embody the notion of ‘the civic’ where citizens and institutions co-operate in a free and open public realm.

Posted in civic realm, Derby, museums | 1 Comment

Museums and the Civic Contract – part 1

Last week I went to the V & A to see the All this Belongs to You. It is a series of interventions by artists and the museum examining the role of public institutions in contemporary life and what it means to be responsible for a national collection. This is an opportune exhibition, opened in the run up to the 2015 General Election and at a time when many feel that a decade of austerity will undermine the notion of a free and open public realm.

'All this Belongs to You', Neon Invitation by Neon Circus 2015

‘All this Belongs to You’, Neon Invitation by Neon Circus 2015

Apart from the bold assertion that All this Belongs to You in the entrance hall, I found many of the other installations quite hard to locate, hidden in far away galleries with the guidance leaflet difficult to follow. What should have been a call to arms seemed flat in comparison to the razzamatazz surrounding the concurrent Alexander McQueen show. That said, the programme of events and talks over the next few months looks fascinating and provocative.

In the regions of the UK, large public institutions are at risk. Many our great civic museums, supported by local authorities have seen their funding reduced by between 25% and 50% during 2012-2016. Some local authorities talk about their budgets going off a cliff with the possibility of funding for discretionary services ceasing completely by 2017. Arts Council England are shortly to publish a review of the future of local authority funding for culture, it will make sober reading. Some civic museums many of which are nearly 200 years in the making could shrink considerably and conceivably disappear.

Although the avalanche of funding cuts may be hard to avoid, museums could help themselves by being more vocal as to their value in the civic realm. The decisions politicians make are coloured not only by economic matters but also how they play with the public. On the one hand, museums are far more socially active than in the past. A more progressive profession and benign political climate has meant that a commitment to learning, participation and community engagement is central to most museums. The Museums Association clarion call, Museums Change Lives places social justice at the soul of museums.

Paradoxically the instrumentalisation of cultural policy and activity over the last 20 years has not meant that museums have fulfilled their full potential as independent rallying points for civil society. In a previous blog I noted that for civic institutions to have greater impact in the public realm they need to behave more like civil society organisations. They should allow for the rhythm of local life. Communities unite, divide, show liking or indifference to each other. Our cities have very fluid communities, there is far more muddle than is convenient for media.

Although fifteen years of instrumentalist funding has had much social impact it has meant that many organisation became proxy state delivery agencies. I’ve witnessed this as director of the ‘independent’ Museum of East Anglian Life. I was encouraged to bid for Local Authority contracts to deliver services for learning disabled adults (as a means to offset a reduction in public funding).

Long term trends show that museum visits are increasing, survey after survey shows that museums are trusted by the public. I think that this is at risk if museums do not reassert their civic contract to the public. They should assume a commitment to social justice but from a position of independence. In 2013 The Garden Museum in Lambeth supported residents of the Heygate Estate which had been slated for gentrification by Lambeth Council. They should reassert their ethics and be prepared to debate in public the value of a civic collection in all senses. If not, there is no counter to the reductionist economic case made by some elected members to sell cultural assets to plug budget shortfalls. All this Belongs to You applies equally to local as it does to National collections.

In the next blog I’ll describe some of our work in Derby Museums to reassert our civic contract, by being more open, democratic and responsive to the public

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