Civic museums: Heartbeat of our cities

Posted By John Orna-Ornstein on 08 February 2016

Four ideas to support regional museums, from our Director of Museums, John Orna-Ornstein.

I try to visit at least one museum a week. I know that doing so is a huge privilege, but I also see it as a necessity. Unless I’m ‘out and about’, how can I understand what is going on in our museums; the challenges, the opportunities, the strength of collections and, most importantly, the people who make them tick?

A young visitor looks at Charles Waterton's caiman at Wakefield Museum
Photo © Jill Jennings / Wakefield Museum, courtesy of Wakefield Council

A week or two ago, I found myself in Wakefield, Yorkshire, for a visit to Wakefield Museum.  I’ve written and spoken about the massive challenge facing our civic museums many times. They are the backbone of the sector, providing a context of locality but also telling stories that connect us to the world. They are exceptional in terms of their global-local collections, their often grand civic buildings, and their dedicated and passionate workforce. And they now face huge pressure because of reductions to local authority funding, which means that many are having to rethink the work they do and how they will do it in the future.  

There is particularly high pressure on these museums in the north of England. This is because typically higher reductions in local authority funding mean a difficult economic context to operate in, but also because this is the heartland of the civic museum. Northern towns and cities from Huddersfield to Preston and from Bradford to Lancashire have strong eclectic museum collections and fine civic buildings. They were developed from the wealth of industrialisation, and its decline leaves them horribly exposed.

Let’s get back to my trip to Wakefield. The museum is housed in a new council building that also includes the library and a range of other civic functions. The collections are strong and wonderfully eclectic. They tell local stories: ‘Wealth and power, hardship and hope, love and war, and passion and belief’, as the website proudly proclaims. And they also tell global stories. A key object is the first ballot box in Britain made to conduct a secret ballot.

Stop and think about that. A keystone in the story of modern democracy housed in one of our local museums.

One of the ballot boxes used in the world's first secret ballot in 1864
One of the ballot boxes used in the world's first secret ballot in 1864. Photo © Wakefield Museum, courtesy of Wakefield Council

So, all good so far – a modern building, purpose-built museum, and a fine collection. But it’s as I have a coffee with the small team running the museum, and talk about future plans, that I become really impressed. They have developed strong relationships with national museums, and currently have a major loan from the Victoria and Albert (V&A). They know their audiences inside out, and have strong plans to develop their satisfaction. Their learning and family programmes are dynamic and thoughtful, and include plans to increase income. They work seamlessly across the arts, museums and libraries. Foyer spaces include cases specifically designed for installations inspired by the collections, the library houses a unique Viking-age log boat on loan from York Museums Trust, and there are future plans to take collections to several rural libraries in the area. And we’re joined as we talk by a senior colleague from Wakefield Council, keen to discuss future plans for the service. Despite the budgetary challenge, a strategic approach and a high level of support is clear.

I leave Wakefield feeling enormously encouraged, and with three or four thoughts about the future of civic museums uppermost in my mind.

There is particularly high pressure on these museums in the north of England. This is because typically higher reductions in local authority funding mean a difficult economic context to operate in, but also because this is the heartland of the civic museum.

First, civic museums at every scale still have the opportunity to be part of the heartbeat of our villages, towns and cities – and many, like Wakefield Museum, are just that.

Second, a little additional funding goes a long way. Much of the development in Wakefield Museum has been supported by a grant of around £100,000 from the Arts Council’s Museum Resilience fund. The second round of the fund is now open.

Third, I’m struck again and again by the contrast between different local authorities. The key factor doesn’t seem to be the level of funding cuts. Rather, it’s the contrast between the authorities that are determined to take a strategic, partnership-based approach to local culture and those that make short-term, less strategic decisions. There are plenty of models of good practice for others with similar ambitions to learn from.

My last thought is a broader one. Part of the challenge for civic museums is that every local authority is just that – local, and individual. This presents a real challenge. How do we spread best practice from one authority to another? How do we advocate for culture across local authorities? Is it possible to look for new models for delivery of museum services across regions or even nationally, when so much culture is managed locally?

I sense an increasing appetite for a more joined up approach to local museums. Could there be more combined services like Colchester and Ipswich? Could we procure goods and services on a larger scale? Can we be more strategic in our approach to sharing national collections?

I’d be interested to hear what you think. You can contact me at john.orna-ornstein@artscouncil.org.uk or I’m @JohnOrnaO on Twitter.

A little girl explores Style Picks: An Arts Council England funded exhibition at Wakefield Museum
Photo © Elly Ross, courtesy of Wakefield Council

Find out more

Find out how the Arts Council supports and develops museums.

Learn more about the Arts Council’s Museum Resilience Fund.

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