A view from the dark side

Posted By John Orna-Ornstein on 06 June 2017

John Orna-Ornstein, our former Director for Museums, writes about his experience working with us and what the future has in store for museums in England.

I was surprised by the reaction of some of my friends and colleagues when I joined Arts Council England, nearly four years ago as director of museums. ‘You’re going over to the dark side’ was a not untypical reaction from a friend who ran an arts organisation. Now it’s time for me to leave – for a role at the National Trust – so this seems a good moment to reflect on the view from the dark side.

It’s been an extraordinary and wonderful few years. I’ve had the privilege of visiting museums the length and breadth of the country. I’ve driven in the London to Brighton vintage car rally, climbed the mast of SS Great Britain and stood on the footplate of a steam engine at Beamish. I’ve held a finch gathered by Darwin at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology and smelt the tar on a piece of rope that sank with the fated Mary Rose. And, most movingly, I’ve listened to the stories of a holocaust survivor at the Jewish Museum in London and spoken to a survivor of terrible oppression in Uganda as part of Battersea Arts Centre’s Moving Museum.

John Orna-Ornstein climbs the main mast of SS Great Britain in Bristol.
John Orna-Ornstein climbs the main mast of SS Great Britain in Bristol. Photo © John Orna-Ornstein.

Another element of the role has been engaging with a much wider range of arts and cultural organisations. I’ve enjoyed immersive theatre on the Cornish coast and listened to music of the highest quality at the Royal Opera House. I’ve laughed at naked clowns in Great Yarmouth and struggled through painful but ultimately rewarding modern dance performances in Poole. All of this has been a huge privilege.

So what about the dark side itself, Arts Council England? I’ve honestly found the organisation surprisingly responsive and ready to change. These are challenging times for museums, with a 30% reduction in local authority funding in recent years. So, rather than a focus on the things I love about museums – the way collections engage and delight visitors – my first role at Arts Council was to concentrate funding on building an independent-minded approach in museums through the development of the £30 million Museum Resilience Fund.

From there, my and the organisation’s attention turned rapidly to an even more significant change; integrating the Arts Council’s funds for museums into its arts funding. This is a momentous shift for the organisation but it’s one that will benefit museums, the arts and the public. And it’s one that has been tackled with ambition and determination. This summer we’ll announce the first integrated National Portfolio for arts, museums and libraries. And next year will bring the launch of the new Grants for Arts and Culture, as well as strategic funds open to museums as well as arts organisations.

It’s a privilege working for a funder and development agency, but also a responsibility. Arts Council England sometimes feels like the ‘dark side’ from outside because it wields significant influence over individual organisations and people as well as the whole arts sector. And that’s why it’s vital that the Arts Council acts with humility as well as confidence, and why it stays incredibly closely connected to the sector and the public it serves.

John Orna-Ornstein at Nottingham Castle Museum
John Orna-Ornstein at Nottingham Castle Museum. Photo © John Orna-Ornstein.

It’s also why now feels a good time for me to leave. I’ve always worried that if I spend too long working for the Arts Council I’d begin to believe that its resource and influence was somehow mine, rather than being a privilege and a responsibility. My new role at the National Trust is an incredibly exciting one, leading the organisation’s curatorial and visitor experience work.

But I had a salutary warning last week. Two colleagues from different museums both told me I was going over to the ‘dark side’ in joining the National Trust. So my determination, as I do so, is to apply the same principles of service and of humility, as well as confidence, to the Trust’s role in preserving special places for ever, for everyone as I’ve tried to apply at the Arts Council.

I believe I’m joining another organisation with an appetite for change and I’m looking forward to the challenge with relish.

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