TAITMAIL How museums can Flower
“A museum is like a living organism; it requires continual and tender care; it must grow or it will perish.”
In November the Museums Association conference will debate what the purpose of museums is, whether they are fulfilling it and what’s to be done if they aren’t, thrashed out by such luminaries from the sector as Mark O’Neill, the former head of Glasgow’s museums and galleries, the founder of the Museum of Denmark, Jette Sandahl, and Sara Wajid, the co-CEO of the Birmingham Museums Trust.
“Many museums are not realising their potential to enrich the lives of our fellow citizens” goes the conference premise, “not only because of lack of funding, but because there might be something wrong with our model for engaging with society.”
But the issue is almost as old as our museum tradition itself, and though the quote at the start could be from the introduction to the debate coming up at the Glasshouse Gateshead (the former Sage Gateshead) in a few weeks with the provocative title of “The curse of permanence”, it isn’t. It actually comes from nearly a century and a half ago, from the first director of the Natural History Museum, William Henry Flower, introducing what he called “the new museum idea”.
Another Victorian South Ken Museumopolis founder, Henry Cole, called museums “temples where all can worship in harmony” and the creator of the Great Exhibition and of the forerunner of the V&A went on to declare grandly, “Museums are antidotes to brutality and vice”.
Since Cole and Flower led the way into a new era for the sector, there have been many re-examinations of the purpose and practice of the UK’s museums, mostly to do with the dynamic tension between care for historical collections and attracting visitors.
In the 1970s and 80s there was an unprecedented boom in museums with a new one opening every 18 days, some of which should never have been conceived – important collections were not infrequently broken up because of bad management and practice. Now we have around 2,500 attracting something like 100m visits a year.
But our museums are still changing. Predictable, traditional institutions such as the old Bethnal Green Museum and the Manchester Museum and Art Gallery have reassigned their missions, some might think to bring them more in line with the Flower-Cole vision.
Rethinking was well underway 40 years ago. Frank Atkinson’s Beamish in the North East, Chris Zeuner’s Weald and Downland in Sussex and Neil Cossons’s Ironbridge Gorge were part of a new thought that you could save historic buildings by transplanting them to the safety of an open-air museum site, bringing objects to life in their context and creating a completely new dimension to our understanding and enjoyment of heritage.
And then there was Richard Gregory, a professor of neuropsychology who, in the Brunel building at Bristol’s Temple Meads Station, devised the Exploratory which consisted entirely of experiments, called “plores”, which took an interactive approach to revealing the secrets of science.
Museums encountered the need for marketing, for the first time, and that was a learning curve too. The marketers came from the nearest domain available, tourism, and they had honed their craft in places like Disneyland. Guides were togged out in fancy dress, shops were importunately positioned so that you had to pass through them before getting to the collections, and “visitors” became “customers”. Caterers jostled for franchises to create cafés and restaurants which took over vital exhibition space and were often wildly overpriced for the clientele. The word “museum” was considered unmarketable but attempts to replace it with phrases like “heritage centre” failed. Admission charges were introduced for national museums (removed eventually in 2001), making marketing success even more vital.
Bur gradually nationals like the Science Museum, the Imperial War Museum and Tate encouraged home-grown staff to develop innovations in addressing the public, and they led the way, despite having to cope with the enormous complications of charging for entry.
And in the mid-90s the whole capital funding structure for cultural buildings was transformed for ever by the National Lottery, which brought millions to the sector for building projects – but crucially not for revenue funding. It meant that projects which were financial pie in the sky were suddenly achievable if they could earn enough to run their operations, and some were magnificent examples of hubris, like the Pop Museum in Sheffield and the Cardiff Bay Opera House, which failed.
Local authorities, often castigated in the 80s for insisting on unsustainable local history museums, entered into the spirit, notably Tyne & Wear, Merseyside, Manchester and Leicester.
Leicestershire County Council decided to transform the redundant Snibston Colliery into a science park. It cost £8m and opened in 1992, featuring interactive exhibits, a colliery tour, a train, and even a (sponsored) fashion gallery. But it was managed by the council which in 2015 decided it could no longer afford the £900,000 a year running costs, and closed it.
Then there was the Earth Centre, beneficiary of the lottery’s early flush. You couldn’t think of a more relevant facility for today’s environment conscious public, built on the site of another former colliery, this time at Conisbrough near Doncaster, and it was to be Europe’s first ecology museum. It had a solar canopy with the biggest array of photovoltaic cells in the country to power the complex, underground planet earth galleries, and a waterworks pavilion demonstrating the purification of water. It took ten years to fundraise and it got £42m including £21m lottery money and £10m from Europe.
It opened in 1999, a literally ground-breaking millennium project, and won an architectural award, but despite promising initial visitor numbers, they quickly fell away and it closed in 2004, 20 years ahead of its time. It was eventually sold to an educational activity company which has renamed it Dearne Valley, and its car park now has 177 houses on it.
The conversation will be revived once more on November 8, asking, “Is the institutional permanence of our sector to be celebrated and built on, or do we need to do something more radical and flexible to reflect society and support communities to navigate the changing world around us?”
The question has been asked, and sometimes answered, for over 150 years, and we might be living in the most exciting time for museums since the 1970s and 80s. But the target is as simple now as it was when Sir William Flower proposed “the diffusion of instruction and rational amusement among the mass of the people” and Professor Gregory invented his first plore a century later. “I like the idea of families being involved” he said “so that generations can communicate. That’s how we can develop”.