Tag Archives: Museums Journal

A sense of place

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.

It’s good to talk

For many people, museums are perceived as balanced places of education and knowledge, embodying some sort of benign didacticism. Embracing this apparent objectivity, several institutions have been keen to set up as organisers and mediators of public debate on topical issues.

In doing this, they take on not only the interpretation of their own collections, but also attempt to connect more directly with what is going on in the world around them. Some have carved out dedicated debating spaces for this, while others attempt to design dynamic and responsive elements into exhibitions dealing with contemporary issues.

But how successfully can a museum chair this kind of dialogue and are they even the right places to do this? The Science Museum and Natural History Museum (NHM) in London have looked carefully at how they can build debate into the fabric of their operations. The Science Museum’s Dana Centre was launched in 2003 as a venue dedicated to the adult debate of contemporary science.

The decision to create the facility followed “huge focus groups” asking people what would get them into the museum, says its event programmes manager Kat Nilsson. “It is about creating a space for dialogue for adults, as the main museum is often thought to be for kids and families,” she says. “So we try to reintroduce adults to the Science Museum through the Dana Centre.”

The idea for the Dana Centre partly came about when it became clear that some subjects – an exhibition on plastic surgery, specifically – rely on images that are not suitable for children. But the focus groups also showed that audiences were demanding something more engaging and conversational from museums.

When the London Transport Museum (LTM) reopens this month following a £20m refurbishment, it too will attempt to tackle current debate, in this case over the future of the capital’s public transport system. For its director, Sam Mullins, looking to and debating the future is an essential role for the museum.

“It seemed ludicrous to end the transport story now, or 10 years ago, when it leads you inevitably into contemporary issues which are always changing,” he says. “But [tackling these issues] has big implications on the skill set of the museum’s staff and its exhibition furniture.

“This kind of perennial contact with the public doesn’t come naturally. What you can do in an exhibition is limited in terms of how much you can provide multiple viewpoints. The closer you get to contemporary subjects, the more viewpoints you really need.”

This is one of the difficulties of tackling current and changing issues. While historical objects are full of stories and interpretations, when they are consigned to the past they are mostly inured to controversy. Inviting debate over potentially contentious issues demands different sets of facilities and abilities.

Managing debate

“We have had to divide up the museum media into permanent exhibitions, temporary exhibitions – which are three to four years in planning, so not very contemporary – and a rapid response through Nature Live,” says the NHM’s director of public engagement, Sharon Ament.

Nature Live carries the museum’s programme of informal talks, which run on a daily basis – a huge undertaking even for a relatively well-funded national museum. The museum also had to create a dedicated “media lab” in its Darwin Centre to host the events.

Seating about 100 people and fitted out with cameras, screens, special microscopes and microphones, the studio also streams events live to the internet, inviting online viewers to contribute to the discussions.

But given the extra demand on resources, why do museums feel compelled to host such forums? Is it because the traditional role of collecting and interpreting objects is not dynamic enough to pull the public through the doors? With regard to the LTM’s desire to be at the heart of the transport debate, Sara Selwood, the head of cultural policy and management at City University, London, says:

“My immediate reaction is that they are interested in doing this because the main function [of the museum] isn’t sufficient. It is not an unreasonable thing for them to do, but it does also raise questions about whether museums are to do with the past or the present.”

Ament believes that contemporary relevance is not optional, but vital to museums’ survival: “The day museums stop having relevance to their visitors’ lives, they become an irrelevance.” And in today’s climate of online “social networking” and constant interaction, maintaining a dialogue with visitors is perhaps even more essential.

But genuinely open debate can create editorial difficulties for museums as mediators in how controversial viewpoints are handled and who has authorship of them. And as the notions of neutrality and objectivity are thrust more starkly into the spotlight, there may be commercial implications too – will sponsors or stakeholders become uncomfortable with tricky subjects?

Most curators and programme managers seem compelled to uphold a position of neutrality, insisting they retain editorial control and present both sides of an argument; it is seen as a prerequisite of having the authority to host a debate.

“It is vital that editorial control is maintained or the museum looks stupid,” says Nilsson, in reference to a previous Dana Centre debate on the future of energy, sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels. “If I were to put on an event saying how wonderful nuclear fuel is, I wouldn’t have much credibility with the audience or my conscience,” she says.

Ament agrees, claiming that “editorial freedom” is built into contracts with sponsors up front. “It is a founding principle of the museum and one we hold very dear,” she says.

But Nilsson does acknowledge that the Science Museum’s commercial department has had some difficulties managing partner relationships.

Greenpeace, for example, has shown some concerns over perceived (or potential) conflicts of interest with sponsors. Mullins, too, recognises the limitations of his situation, as the LTM is essentially an arm of Transport for London (TfL), itself a political entity.

The downside of objectivity

“We want the museum to be an objective place to discuss current and future transport, but there is a highly political dimension,” Mullins says. “As an example, the mayor’s office and senior TfL people are always critical of the public-private partnership route for funding the Tube, but underneath that, there are huge numbers of people who are having to try and make it work.

“There is always this kind of duality, so we have to be careful. It would be quite stupid to give a platform to people who just want to slag off the mayor. To do something that is significantly off-message regularly would be like cutting your own throat.”

But if museums want to be engaging spaces of public debate should objectivity really be regarded as so sacrosanct? Not according to David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool (NML). He believes that editorialising is necessary.

“I can’t bear it when people describe museums as neutral spaces,” he says. “It is like some sort of badge of honour that we have awarded ourselves, but it is also like we have emasculated ourselves. We are in search of the truth, not neutrality, and they are not the same thing. We should stop being frightened of having opinions voiced in a museum space.”

In August, NML opened the International Slavery Museum – a space that Fleming says is “full of viewpoints” and which takes a “fundamentally anti-slavery stance”. Alongside a historical context, the museum also addresses the present-day plight of people who are in bondage or are “practically slaves”.

Given the predominant moral consensus, this line of editorialising is unlikely to be seen as problematic. But how far can you push it? Is racist nationalism an acceptable viewpoint for an exhibition of multiculturalism in Britain? Should neo-Nazi viewpoints be given space in a show about 1930s Germany?

“We have to be brave enough to have things that might cause offence,” Fleming adds. “But the law will stop me having to show views on certain subjects – pro-paedophilia, homophobia or racism, for example. From a personal point of view, the law is my safety net.

“But I don’t see why we have to take the museum as some holier-than-thou, sanctimonious way to be neutral, just so it isn’t too threatening. At the end of the day, it’s a myth that we don’t have partiality – everything is authored.”

So maybe neutrality is not quite as desirable as received wisdom would have it. Perhaps a degree of provocation will engage the public and catalyse discussion. Even for museums interested in the contemporary rather than controversy, hosting public debates may start to change the way they operate.

“We are thinking hard about our collecting policies: less hardware, more documentary material – trends, photos, oral history,” Mullins says. “And if you’re reworking your collecting and communicating, you have to rework your curators, too.”

This article was written for Museums Journal, November 2007.