Transforming our high streets - Museums Association

Transforming our high streets

How museums are stepping into the void left by retail closures
High streets
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Simon Stephens
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Leicester is part of Historic England's High Street Heritage Action Zones Cultural Programme

High streets are dangerous places to be at the moment – at least if you are a retailer. They were under pressure from the growth of online shopping even before the pandemic, but over the past year it has been carnage in terms of shop closures. Household names such as Oasis, Debenhams and Carphone Warehouse and many others are disappearing from our high streets forever.

The downturn in high street retailing is having a huge impact on the nature of city and town centres as the number of empty properties multiply. As result, many of these areas have a growing feeling of long-term decay.

But while the picture looks bleak now, the decline of retail is allowing local authorities to rethink what high streets might become in the future. Predictably, the answer is not more retail.

Many of those leading the transformation of high streets are looking to create an environment that is less reliant on retail but has a wider mix of uses, where people can live, work, relax, learn and be entertained as well as buy things.

Museums and galleries offer a number of these services and therefore have the opportunity to play an important role in revitalising our high streets.

Like many UK cities, Derby has seen a huge increase in empty retail units in recent years, including the recent confirmation that its Debenhams department store will close. The Derby City Centre Masterplan 2030 sets out the council’s strategy to regenerate the city centre. The aim is leverage £3.5bn in investment, create 4,000 new jobs and deliver 1,900 new homes.

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One of the significant projects mentioned by the council as part of the masterplan is converting the Silk Mill into the Museum of Making.

Tony Butler, executive director of Derby Museums, which is developing the £17m scheme, has found that those involved in planning the transformation of city centres in Derby and elsewhere are taking the role of culture much more seriously.

“There has been quite a sea-change in the way that those shaping the future of city centres such as councils are thinking about high streets and Covid has transformed this further,” Butler says. “What is interesting is that they are coming to us, which used to be unusual, as before we spent often time trying to bash down the door and make ourselves heard.”

Artist impression of the Museum of Making - The Creative Core

The Museum of Making is due to open this spring, Covid restrictions permitting. Butler says the project has become the inspiration for City Makers, a scheme to make Derby a place where makers, artists, designers and those in creative digital businesses can thrive, while pumping life back into the high street. Like the museum itself, the initiative draws on Derby’s rich manufacturing heritage.

“To keep people in the city centre you really need a strong cultural offer,” Butler says. “City centres have been really transactional – you come in, do your shopping, go to the cinema and then leave. The trick now is making these appealing places to live.”

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Pop-ups and museum stores

Museums all over the UK have already been involved in projects to help bring high streets back to life. This has often involved taking over vacant retail units with pop-up exhibitions, which has also had the advantage of helping museums reach new audiences. In other cases, such as the Migration Museum in south-east London and the Prescot Museum in north-west England, museums have taken up permanent homes in shopping centres.

There have also been some innovative larger-scale projects, including The Secret Collection, the first publicly-accessible museum store on a UK high street. This £3.7m facility opened to the public in early 2018 and houses tens of thousands of items from Renfrewshire’s museum collections. The project is part of a wider plan to use the Paisley cultural assets to revitalise the town, including the £42m redevelopment of the museum.

Another example is Tŷ Pawb (Everybody’s House) in Wrexham, north Wales. This combines an arts space that is designed to work not just alongside, but with, community, educational and commercial spaces. The £4.3m project was completed in 2018 for Wrexham County Borough Council and Arts Council of Wales.

Plans to revamp high streets in England have backing through the £95m High Streets Heritage Action Zone initiative, which is working across 68 English areas. This scheme is led by Historic England and is funded with £40m from the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport’s Heritage High Street Fund, £52m from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Future High Streets Fund, and £3m from the Heritage Fund.

The £7.4m Cultural Programme is part of initiative and Historic England recently launched some of the activities that form part of the plan. It is being run in partnership with Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The four-year initiative will feature digital and physical artworks that aim to make high streets more attractive, engaging and vibrant places for people to live, work and spend time.

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“Historic England is taking a unique approach in combining cultural programming, community engagement and physical regeneration to transform high streets across England,” says Ellen Harrison, the head of creative programmes and campaigns at Historic England. “The cultural programme’s aim is for artists to work with local people to help them rediscover and express the pride they have in the places they’re from.”

There are lots of opportunities for museums to help reimagine our high streets but such major transformations are rarely straightforward. Converting retail interiors that were built for a specific purpose is not always easy, and the planning system adds complexity as well. There are also lots of different stakeholders on high streets, sometimes with competing interests.

Nevertheless, many in the museum sector are looking forward to the role they might play in high street regeneration.

“At a moment when many towns and cities are looking to the future, museums have a role to play in building the value and impact of culture into local strategies and development plans,” says Sam Astill, the head of museums at the South West Heritage Trust.

The trust is currently working with Somerset West and Taunton Council to use empty shop fronts in Taunton, Wellington and Minehead. The plan is to install graphics connected to an upcoming temporary exhibition of Brian Rice, a Somerset-born abstract artist who was part of the 1960s London art scene.

“Museums and culture can help drive high street recovery in the year ahead,” Astil says. “By collaborating with the business community, local authorities and other cultural organisations, museums can help enhance the urban environment through creative programming and interventions."

UK high streets might look very different in the future as they evolve into places to live, work, learn and play, as well as shop. And visiting a museum could become a vital part of the mix.

Meanwhile spaces

“Meanwhile spaces” are short-term lets offered to artists and creative practitioners, as well as others such as charities. They are cheap and flexible and can be used for experimentation but are obviously not great for those looking for something longer term.

Having to constantly relocate actively prohibits growth in the sector because those involved spend time, energy and resources planning the next move rather than being able to focus on growing an artistic programme, investing in equipment, expansion and so on.

Constant relocation threatens the existence of some artist-run/led initiatives as not everyone can afford to move at short notice, or can find somewhere to move to. This is hardly ever picked up in the press, which tends to treat meanwhile spaces as something of a win-win. The reality is that once artists and creative practitioners have increased footfall, or a developer appears, they are booted back out at short notice and with no plan for future development.

City centre and high streets have been in decline for a little while now, and Covid has accelerated this trend. That means that there is an opportunity to think differently about who and what high streets are for and to re-engage with communities beyond a retail offer.

But, and this is a massive but for me, that offer has to be about genuine, long-term support for the arts if it is to work. It can’t just be an instrumental use of art and culture to tart up high streets for a short period so as to entice shoppers back.

Emma Coffield is a lecturer in museum, gallery and heritage studies at Newcastle University. She is part of an interdisciplinary working group concerned with artist-led practice

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