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

Pause for thought

Readers will have noticed a distinct lack of posts on this site since July. It is not that there haven’t been things to blog about, just a lack of opportunity to do the thinking that is necessary to make a blog worthwhile. I have just moved house long distance and that took most of my time and energy in the run-up to the move and since. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel soon and I hope to get back into putting up new posts before too long. There will be much to reflect on.

I have been involved for almost two years in a project exploring ‘how heritage decisions are made’ and it will be good to share some of this experience with a wider audience, now that the project is coming to its final conclusions.

I have also left behind activity in York and the wider North Country in connection with ways of introducing aspects of radical history to a wider audience and will have some reflections on that experience and where I go from here in my new and very different locality.

Having moved further away from the south-west Yorkshire roots of the Bashforth family name, by some 200 miles or so, it prompts me to think about the way in which the family name moved around the country and the world and how this relates generally to the experience of working-class migration from the 18th century to the present day and the various motivations behind it. And that will also prompt me to get back to more of the exploration I have been making into the dispersal of the name during the 19th century.

Heritage in the Media

[Re-posted from Whose Heritage is it?]

This last week on UK television has featured at least two programmes covering heritage issues. On Wednesday, The Culture Show (BBC2) did a whistle-stop tour of various sites of contest and included historian Dr Richard Miles querying the very idea of heritage. On Thursday, the last in the series Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past (BBC4) illuminated the direction of policy after WW2. Meanwhile I have picked up on three stories surfacing in the printed media.

Adam Gabbatt (The Guardian, 21 March, page 23) focused on conflict in Memphis, Tennessee, over a park previously named after Nathan Bedford Forrest and now to be renamed. Forrest was a prominent 19th-century civic figure in Memphis, supposedly instrumental in bringing the railways to the city, served as a Lieutenant-General in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (i.e. the losing side) and later became a city councillor and an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Present day Klan members are opposing the change of name on the grounds that the council is ‘trying to erase white history from the history books’.

Mark Smith (The Guardian, 22 March, page 30) covered the story of Glossop Library in Derbyshire. The library is housed in the Victoria Hall, which was established through the patronage of Lord Howard in 1888 with a legal covenant that the land gifted to the town council should be ‘for the purpose of the erection of a public free library and public hall thereon’. The County Council wants to move its library out of the building, in trust to Glossop Borough Council, and build a brand new library at a cost of £2 million. A local campaign, Glossop Soul (Save Our Unique Library) opposes the move and wants the existing building to be modernised and kept in its intended use. Local opinion is divided.

Meanwhile in April’s issue of The Garden (magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society) there is an impassioned article (page 23) by Lia Leendertz in defence of public allotments. Some local authorities, strapped for cash as many are, seek to sell off publicly owned allotments to developers. They argue that this is in the wider interests of the overall community, while allotment holders are a minority of selfish, privileged individuals. The writer draws on the history of allotments to fight her corner, citing the 1845 General Enclosure Act. At that time some 615,000 acres of land were enclosed, while 2200 acres were converted into allotments for the poor (0.36%). There is (only arguably) less poverty and dependence on allotments, but these are ‘our last fingerhold on the vast tracts of land we could once call upon, carved off millions of acres at a time. No-one should be regarded as selfish for defending that’.

Heritage attaches to public park names, the products of a bygone era of gentry patronage and a long and unfinished battle over rights to common land. In each case a decision has to be made. In each case there are vociferous opponents and proponents and valid arguments on both sides. Heritage is an arena of cultural, social and political conflict, with underlying forces of change, both material and cultural. Who is to decide? Do the answers have to be homogenous? Should we sanitise history? Should what was decided in the past determine what we can do in the present and for the future?