Do Museums Have Value?

Apparently not much! In recent weeks I have heard of the closure of at least two museums in the north-east of England with which I have had connections.

The DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will be closing in April, despite a campaign to keep it open. The museum is the depository for huge numbers of artefacts connected with the history of the Durham Light Infantry and its forebears. The regiment has close connections with all communities across the north-east and it is ironic that it should be closing in the middle of centenary commemorations for the First World War and the 70th anniversaries of events in the Second World War. Many local families, including my own, have gifted personal items into their collection. It is proposed to put the collection into permanent storage, though apparently this will be in a disused former tobacco factory on a short lease and with presumably dubious atmospheric conditions for conservation purposes. The museum was housed in a modern building in extensive parkland that was used recreationally by local people, including events at the museum such as those for fathers and children on a Saturday morning. It is proposed to sell the land for redevelopment, so there will be no turning back at a later date in better times.

The facilities at Bede’s World in Jarrow were closed at short notice in February. The site has national and global significance, as this is where the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People during the early 700s. He was locally born and is nationally and internationally renowned. Until recently Bede’s World was directed by Mike Benson, assisted by Kathy Cremin and a host of enthusiastic volunteers, young apprentices, former offenders and local people. It was buzzing with social and cultural significance, the second place that Mike and Kathy have enthused with their particular vision for heritage. Sadly, the Charitable Trust was not up the task and went into liquidation and all this hard work, hope and energy has been wasted by men in suits. Mike has gone on to the National Coal Mining Museum in Yorkshire (I wonder how much longer that will survive in the current climate, since it is quite remote) while Kathy has left the museum sector.

In recent decades, £millions have been poured into the heritage sector only for recent austerity measures and economic downturn to render the survival of the institutions in doubt. Not even major national museums are exempt. The National Railway Museum took millions from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other national funding bodies to open up its library and archives seven days a week, all year round in a new facility called Search Engine. That vision survived only a few years before staff cuts were made and opening hours shredded. The same sad story is affecting museums, archives and libraries across the country – though there will always be a hand in the till for London and the facilities for the élite few.

And why? In the last analysis it is to prop up the bankers and their culture of high salaries and bonuses for failure. Usually this is couched by the politicians in terms of ‘fiscal responsibility’. Where is the responsibility in trashing the country’s social and cultural heritage in this way? Where is the responsibility in trashing facilities for the disadvantaged, the sick and the poor?

The Big Question is ‘Where the hell is the opposition?’ Why is the population of this country just accepting of this? Where is the clarion call from the so-called anti-austerity ‘Hard Left’ Labour Party leadership? It would seem they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

Short answer: sorry, Britain, you get exactly what you deserve. If you sit on your hands – this is what you get and what you, by default, have asked for.

I was recently involved in an AHRC funded project asking the question: who makes heritage decisions? Not the ordinary people, that’s for sure. That was the doubt I began with and the one I still end with.

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How are decisions made about heritage and how can we get involved?

How can participation in heritage decision making be increased from wherever you are?

I have been part of a collaborative research team that is now able to share its findings via the following press release.

Heritage is about what we value: places, buildings, objects, memories, cultures, skills or ways of life. So why can it be so hard to get actively involved in heritage decision-making? Drawing on innovative practice and research experiments, the Heritage Decisions team have developed a website, publications and a series of events to show what you can do to increase participation in museums and heritage; whether you are a leader and shaper of policy and organizations, you’re trying to do good work within structures you don’t control or whether you simply care about the culture and history of the place in which you live.

Project background

Over the last two years a team of twenty people – researchers, policy makers, funders, museum practitioners, people who are activists about their own history and heritage – have worked together to design and then carry out a research project.

The Heritage Decisions team was brought together by an innovative pilot scheme developed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme. The Connected Communities ‘Co-design and Co-creation Development Awards’ scheme sought not only to enable collaborative research between researchers, policy makers, practitioners and community groups but to actively enable the collaborative development of a research agenda, from its earliest stages.

While we all had a shared interest in heritage and decision-making, the team was formed deliberately to draw into dialogue people from different backgrounds, positions and approaches. The aim was to use the team’s collective experiences, perspectives and positions to create a research project which might explore how to increase participation in heritage decision-making.

Project approaches: Reflecting on innovative practice and research experiments

The project’s research insights are derived from two key approaches: the first by reflecting on innovative work already undertaken by practitioners in the research team and the second through conducting research experiments. The project’s final booklet focused on how participation in heritage decision-making can be increased from wherever you work or live and whatever your position – professional, researcher or someone who cares about your own culture and place.

In terms of reflecting on innovative practice, John Lawson, Kathy Cremin and Mike Benson, who collaborated first at Ryedale Folk Museum and now at Bede’s World, reflected on the development of their approaches to distributed decisions making through turning museums inside out, conceptualising heritage as a ‘living stream’ that sustain the places it flows through and decision-making as distributed so that all staff and volunteers might have ‘freedom of self’.

In terms of a research experiment, at the Science Museum the focus was on how communities can contribute towards developing museum collections. The project, coordinated by Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History, focused on electronic music and work with musicians, fans and self-confessed synth-geeks – Jean-Phillipe Calvin, John Stanley, David Robinson, Martin Swan and researcher Richard Courtney from the University of Leicester – to recommend items for the Science Museum collections. Alongside these practical recommendations, the project also came to question logics of preservation by arguing that a future for the synthesizer collections might be best secured not by keeping them away from being touched but by them being played, used and celebrated by a community of those that know and care about them.

Other projects included:

  • A chance for a funder – Karen Brookfield from the Heritage Lottery Fund – to see one of their projects, The Potteries Tile Trail, up close. A collaboration which also gave time and space for The Potteries Tile Trail coordinator, Danny Callaghan, to draw out some of his principles and ways of working which has led to the project’s ‘DIY Heritage Manifesto’.
  • An exploration of how a Conservation Officer, Jenny Timothy, collaborated with architects and developers in Leicester – and how the significance of a building unfolded through the relationships and conversations as the project developed.
  • A project of organizational reflective practice at the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland focused on their Discovering the Clyde project – made possible by research collaboration between researcher Rebecca Madgin, University of Glasgow, and the RCAHMS’s Alex Hale.
  • An investigation of heritage decision making within a city – in York. Here Peter Brown, York Civic Trust, Lianne and Richard Brigham, York Past and Present, Paul Furness, York’s Alternative History and researcher, Helen Graham, University of Leeds, develop a series of events, history walks and interventions to both make more visible decision-making practices and to model and explore alternatives.

Key ideas

The key ideas that have emerged from the Heritage Decisions project – all ways in which to increase participation in museums and heritage – are:

  • Act: Make change from where you are
  • Connect: Cross boundaries and collaborate
  • Reflect: See your work through other people’s eyes
  • Situate: Understand your work in context

Events for the Connected Communities Festival

The project was celebrated by the launch of the final project booklet – ‘How should heritage decisions be made? Increasing participation from where you are’ – with four events tying into the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Festival in June 2015. The events – in Manchester, York (20th June) and Stoke (27th June) – each explored community-led and DIY approaches to heritage. There was also an event – lined to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland strand of the research – Connected with the Clyde: A Multi-Disciplinary Canoe Journey (training workshops Thu 18-Fri 19 June, event Sat 27 June, River Clyde).

To find out more about the Heritage Decisions June events:  http://heritagedecisions.leeds.ac.uk/blog/

To download the project’s final booklet and for more information see the project website:heritagedecisions@leeds.ac.uk

Twitter: @heritageres

Or alternatively contact the project’s Principle Investigator Helen Graham, University of Leeds on h.graham@leeds.ac.uk

Co-Design in Heritage Project

It has been very gratifying to have been invited to join an intriguing project being led by Helen Graham from Leeds University. We are exploring the concept and process of ‘co-design’ in heritage projects, something that has become highly topical as what one might call ‘the heritage industry’ tries to ground itself more firmly in the various localities. The project itself is going to be co-designed by its members, rather than dictated by Helen and her colleagues, which makes it doubly interesting and exciting.

Most of the members are ‘heritage professionals’, so my involvement is somewhat from left field as a radical historian, albeit a retired heritage professional myself. The project is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and it is good to have that kind of public support for what the project is about. Check it out on its own blog.

Personally, this will be something of a learning curve, not least in getting a more nuanced idea of what is meant by ‘co-design’ in this context, as I understand it has something of a provenance in ICT. We get started in the middle of March, basing ourselves for a day at Bede’s World, near Jarrow. I look forward to getting stuck in and also to revisiting a place I last saw around 1959-60 on a school trip to visit Hadrian’s Wall. It had a huge influence on my long-standing self-identity as a Northumbrian with a romantic attachment to its high Anglian period in the 7th and 8th centuries, though I also connect it with a darker side of North-East history – the Jarrow March and the desperate history of suicides in the Jarrow Slacks.