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.
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.