Municipal museums of local history are, from childhood memory at least, oddly eclectic places. Clifton Park Museum in Rotherham in the mid-1980s seemed an unfathomable platter of paintings, porcelain and furniture all presided over by an imposing taxidermy lion. Although objects in this strange menagerie appeared, through ten-year-old eyes, to be connected by little other than their bygone nature, was the museum really a random assortment of objects or had I just missed the story?
This recollection perhaps captures some of the challenges peculiar to local museums: how to make coherent and relevant exhibitions from often very disparate stories and objects, potentially collected across huge spans of history. What stories to tell and how to tell them. Given the chance to launch or redevelop a local history museum, curators, designers and local authorities are re-approaching these questions as they attempt to build engaging and locally relevant spaces that are suitable for contemporary audiences.
The Lightbox arts centre and museum opened in Woking earlier this year under a scheme which presents only those stories that are unique to the town. ‘Very early on we knew we didn’t want it to be chronological, but thematic,’ says Lightbox director Marilyn Scott. ‘Basically, not much happened here for a long time, so it didn’t make sense to force the displays to follow a timeline. So we gave the designers, Real Studios, lots of pretty raw material and they had to make sense of it. It was important that we started with these stories so that the content is strong and locally relevant. And it was a way of editing: if the same things happened elsewhere, they’re not in here.’
Like Woking, every town and region has its own peculiarities and narratives. But in their museums it is often the major – and national – historical themes that are represented. Some believe this has led to repetition – the same stories told in the same order, and with similar exhibition designs countrywide. Imagine the timeline winding from early land formation through the historical peaks of Romans, Tudors, Victorians, World War II and so on, where the town is merely a local case study of the broader picture.
‘I think that most local authority museums are driven by their collections, not what’s of interest to the user,’ says Alex Sydney, former deputy head of Libraries, Arts & Heritage at Brent Council – where he worked on the redevelopment of Brent Museum – and now head of Projects & Performance, East Territory at English Heritage. ‘If the Romans happened to be in your town, which they were in many, there will be some archaeological relics so they’re going to be in the museum. The same for the Tudors, and so on. And then you’ve already fixed your stories before you’ve even decided what it is you want to say.’
This highlights a tussle that can develop between curatorial and educational objectives. Galleries are often the result of the curator’s wish to get everything on display, presented with the academic historian’s objective and chronological mapping of events. But does this put the shackles on what can be told? ‘Generally collections are pulled together over years from all sorts of different sources. So you might have a dentist’s chair, a three-piece suite and so on. How on earth do you pull this together into stories? I don’t think you should try to weave narrative around objects that don’t have a story or personality,’ says Alistair McCaw, director of Real Studios.
Graham Black, an interpretation consultant and academic at Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Museum and Heritage Management, also believes that museums can move beyond conventional notions of the collection in order to revitalise displays and audience engagement. ‘It’s not always about collections of 3D objects. There are other ways of telling stories. Museums can bring emotion, but historians are usually attempting to be objective and authoritative,’ he says.
It turns out that Clifton Park Museum underwent its own £3m redevelopment programme a couple of years ago, rethinking the approach to object displays and local relevance. While running this project Steve Blackbourn, principal officer for museums, galleries and heritage at Rotherham Council, also found some divergence between the education team and the curators. ‘We attempted to create “running themes” throughout the displays, but this takes great skill to achieve and requires staff to have a detailed knowledge of their audiences and the ability to think laterally. This isn’t always easy as curators don’t necessarily have the skills or personalities to achieve it,’ he claims.
And it’s the designers who sometimes bridge this space between curator and audience development staff, helping to translate collection material into stories in a 3-dimensional space, adds Blackbourn. But this can bring its own problems. There are a relatively small number of design consultancies able to carry out exhibition design and construction, a combined service often sought by local authorities wanting to control costs and accountability. In many cases, this has led to the same stories being presented by the same sets of designers.
‘I do think local museums rely too much on a narrow range of design ideas – death by graphic panel – and could be more imaginative and creative. We need to try and move away from “book on wall” approaches,’ says Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association. Hedley Swain, head of museum policy at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, agrees that there is a need for more risk-taking designs in the sector. ‘Local authorities tend to go for the big, established design consultancies, where you get a safer output. But maybe we should be going to young or small creative businesses for something more radical,’ he says. ‘At the moment there’s a tension between using lots of similar designs, which can slightly sanitise a space, and the loss of something more unusual. The places we really remember are ones like Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum.’
Perhaps the onus is on museum staff, rather than design consultancies, to ensure that designs are distinctive and relevant. ‘I very strongly think that museum personnel have to do more to establish what kind of visitor experience they want and then lead designers. There’s no doubt that design can become shop-fitting and I don’t think museum people know enough to brief designers,’ says Black. Blackbourn also feels that museum directors need to take more control: ‘If you want something unique to your local area, [as a museum director] you have to lead it – not your curators or designers, or you’ll end up with a house style.’
But a number of people believe that the local history museum sector is changing more broadly anyway, in ways that could well lead to greater individuality. Shaking off their inheritance as Victorian institutions of middle class taste, local museums are being revitalised by the influence of multicultural populations and a focus on collaboration with community groups. When Brent Museum in North London was redeveloped and relocated to Willesden Green Library in 2006, the challenge was to become relevant to a population that has changed dramatically over the past 50 years due to immigration.
The use of personal stories and community contributions are central to Brent Museum’s permanent exhibition, giving around 300 contributors ‘a sense of ownership’ of the museum, according to Sydney. But also significant at Brent is the way it tackles the contentious and disparaging aspects of its recent history. The exhibition’s thematic approach, also designed by Real Studios, demanded some coverage of the borough’s sometime notoriety as a centre of gun crime, for example. The political and curatorial dilemmas stemming from this subject are very much the lot of any local museum wishing to tackle serious community issues.
‘It’s a very sensitive issue and we had to work closely with the council on presenting it. Also, gun crime is about real people, not objects. The objects are only there if they relate to real people. I’m sure this is outside most curators’ comfort zones, but if you’re working in a community you’ll be working with issues not familiar to you. And if local history museums are to evolve and continue to be relevant to people they need to tackle these issues,’ says Sydney.
Both Cardiff and Leeds are currently developing new city museums with design consultancy Redman Design. When Leeds opens next summer, a whole floor will be dedicated to the story of the city. Involving the community in its creation is a major objective, says John Roles, head of museums and galleries for Leeds Council. ‘We are trying to involve local people and not just in a tokenistic way. There is generally much more community involvement now [by local museums]. It represents a change in attitude – less about experts telling you things,’ says Roles.
Ideas about the museum’s role and position in the community are very much on the agenda too. The 2010 General Conference of the International Council of Museums is titled Museums and Harmonious Society. ‘It’s a time when serious money is going into museums of local, regional and national identity,’ says Black. ‘And what’s happening at the local level is potentially the most exciting, as it’s where all the different voices of a community can come together.’
This article was written for Museums Journal, February 2008.