A museum odyssey

Sharon Heal, 18.01.2017
What I found on my thousand-mile tour of the museum heartlands
Last week I embarked on an ambitious (some might say foolhardy, considering the weather) journey around the midlands and the north of England.

My first stop was Kendal for a meeting of the Cumbria Museum Directors’ Group. I was there to talk about our new Code of Ethics and despite being held up by a trampoline on the overhead wires – really – I managed to get to Kendal Museum to talk about the ethics of closure, sponsorship and public engagement.

It was also an opportunity to hear about the work Kendal Museum is doing with its local college to provide traineeships that give students access to working in museums. The programme is in its fourth year and provides local young people with the opportunity to get an Occupational Museum & Gallery Skills qualification – and its participants have admirably high success rate in going on to find work in the sector.

The second stop was Birmingham for a meeting with sector bodies and experts from across the UK to discuss diversity – or more importantly the lack of audience diversity – in many of our museums.

The Association of Independent Museums is coordinating this work, and funding from Arts Council England and others will hopefully lead to some research into barriers to participation and – more importantly – toolkits and guidance that will help us make lasting and meaningful change.

After that I headed to Hull for the opening of the Ferens Art Gallery as part of the celebrations for the city’s year as City of Culture. The redevelopment of the gallery has opened the space up beautifully and the people of Hull have shown their approval with more than 6,000 visitors in the first weekend.

It was great to hear the deputy leader of the council speaking passionately about how museums can change lives and make a difference. The City of Culture title has brought investment into the city – and visitors (over 340,000 in the first few weeks of 2017). The deputy leader also declared that the council would never close its museums – commendable sentiments in these challenging times for local authorities.

My last stop was a trip to Preston. I was there to hear about the ambitious Reimagining the Harris project that aims to bring together the museum and the library into one space and one service.

Of course it’s not all good news for museums in Lancashire as five were closed last year. So while there I also met the cabinet working group that is looking into the closures. I was struck by the genuine desire of elected members to find ways to save the museums and I hope their plans to find alternative organisations to run them come to fruition.

All in all I covered over a thousand miles last week. It was an insightful journey into the museum heartlands and it convinced me more than ever that what people in all of those places need and deserve is culture that is relevant for them on their doorstep.