TAITMAIL Museums of the Community Age
“Why can’t we sit in a comfy armchair, drink coffee and chat while we look at art?” Kenneth Hudson liked to posit. “Why do we have to treat a visit to the museum as if it were a sepulchre where you have to stand in silence and awe?”
Hudson, who died in 1999 aged 83, was a BBC producer who effectively invented industrial archaeology and founded the Museum of the Year award in the 1970s in his crusade to democratise museums - he got an OBE for his efforts but was too busy to go and get it, bound to a dizzying schedule of globe-trotting to proselytise and advise.
Hudson wanted museums and galleries to lurch away from being the elitist temples enjoyed and run by the middle classes created in a patrician age and whose collections were no concern of 90% of the population, who nevertheless have an equal right to our national history. His heart would be warmed by this year’s shortlist.
The Museum of the Year award has much changed since he started it 50 years ago, the BBC is no longer involved except to report on it and there is more to be won than the bronze head donated by Elisabeth Frink. There’s £100,000 for the winner now, and £15,000 for each of the runners-up, an innovation of which he might not have approved.
At least one of the five contenders to be the 57th winner would not have been regarded as a museum at all when Hudson began his quiet revolution, to all appearances being nothing more than a covered market where traders, makers, art and activity mingle.
Tŷ Pawb, meaning “Everyone’s House”, actually was the People’s Market in the heart of Wrexham but long redundant and heading for demolition until an enlightened local authority, backed by the Welsh Assembly, made it central to the town centre’s £12m revival.
Its presiding genius is its creative director, Jo Marsh, whose bold experiment opened in 2018 to make a community resource where stalls sell everything from ear-piercing and records to wool and Welsh-inspired tapas, mixing with performance and visual art. And there’s coffee and even armchairs.
Tŷ Pawb makes the shortlist now because it has just opened “Lle Celf Ddefnyddiol”, or “Useful Art Space”, for creative workshops, community conversations, play sessions, informal performances and other uses imagined by the local community -“inspired by the belief that art can be a tool for social change” says the Art Fund citation.
But Tŷ Pawb’s competitors for the top prize - the Story Museum in Oxford, the People’s History Museum in Manchester, the Horniman in South London and the Museum of Making in Derby - are all part of the urban conversation of which museums have discovered, perhaps to their surprise, are a part and comes under the umbrella of “The High Street": the community discovering its own collective quiddity in its reconstructed centre that is simultaneously commercial and social.
Covid is credited with inspiring much of the new thinking that is changing museums and the public’s attitude to them, often because of the new virtual audiences they have found online, but it precedes the pandemic by years.
The Story Museum started two decades ago as a virtual museum about story telling with the help and support of the likes of Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson, putting on events and exhibitions around Oxford and only moving into a building in 2009. It’s been refurbished and reopened last May with ten galleries and activity spaces with a special mission to target children in a city where 26% of them live in poverty, to encourage literacy and motivation to read independently.
As its name suggests the People’s History Museum is immersed in its working class community in which the story of the trade union movement used to dominate, but says that it has shifted from being a museum about campaigning to one that actively campaigns, with exhibitions about migration and challenging, for instance, the Nationality and Borders Bill.
The Museum of Making is a transformation of an early 18th century silk mill in a city that was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution and manufacture into the 21st century. Its £18m development was made possible not only by the money but through the efforts of over 1,000 volunteers who were in the programme specifically to learn new capabilities “aiming to improve young peoples’ skills to enter the workforce in a city in need of technicians, engineers, and problem solvers”.
And the dear old Horniman with in its monstrous walrus - actually a mutant as a result of bodging by Victorian taxidermists who had never seen a walrus overstuffing its hide - in pride of place in its main gallery has also changed its mission. Having gone through the process of becoming ecologically driven in its programmes, exhibitions and activities it has now established a “Reset Agenda” around the diversity of its London audiences and particularly showcasing black British creativity.
A possible contender next year, the Box in Plymouth, has already had an award, just announced in a commendation from the European Museum of the Year (also invented by Hudson and now under the auspices of the Council of Europe) for having “created a new cultural asset for its city and region and… an active advocate for the social change it can bring to its communities”.
That museums could move in from the fringes of communities to be at he heart of social activity and change was a dream for Kenneth Hudson when he devised the Museum of the Year Award, but this year’s contenders show they have gone beyond even his imagination.
And what would also delight him is that this shortlist will appal the government and its anti-decolonisation and anti-woke agenda. I look forward to Nadine Dorries’s congratulatory speech when the winner is announced at the Design Museum on July 14.