Solving the civic museum conundrum

John Orna-Ornstein, Issue 115/09, p14, 01.09.2015
Identity is at the heart of the challenge
One way of categorising museums is “top-down” or “bottom-up”. Many of our historic museums were established or supported top-down by an authority of some sort: national museums by national government, local authority museums by the civic leadership of towns and cities, and military museums by regiments.
These museums were a statement of identity and confidence, and often seen as a means to educate the population. The urge to establish such institutions is still present, with new civic museums being built in large numbers around the world as symbols of regional and national pride.

Then there’s bottom-up. Many museums have been established not by authorities, but by individuals or groups passionate about a specific thing – a place, a type of object, a person. In the UK, bottom-up museums blossomed in the 1970s and 1980s, with the development of independent institutions.

Groups of like-minded enthusiasts became united, often by a pressing need to save an industrial or other heritage in danger of being lost. And today, the majority of museums in the UK are independent rather than run by an authority.

However, what happens when the authority that established a top-down museum and sustained it for decades decides that it can no longer do so in the same way?

These are difficult times for museums, with national, local authority and Ministry of Defence venues that rely on public funding facing an unprecedented challenge. Local authority funding declined from £310m a year in 2010 to £240m in 2014.

Museums have responded by raising income and reducing costs. When I visit museums across England, the conversation is as often about hiring out space for weddings, and the net profit of a retail service, as it is about world-class collections.

But income isn’t at the heart of the challenge – identity is. Funding cuts present a conundrum that is not just financial, but also one of purpose. Top-down museums were run for a purpose set out by an authority, not necessarily by its users.

These museums typically offer eclectic collections that represent a place and its connection to the world. They have become a part of local fabric in the way a library often is, and normally free at point of use. It does not automatically follow that they can charge for what they offer or indeed raise funds for it, because of their history and nature.
So what is the way forward for civic museums? It is likely to mean becoming more commercial, and realising that customers and communities are not polar opposites. But, more importantly, it means ensuring that a museum is really wanted and that its purpose and form meet real, rather than perceived, community needs.
There are lots of examples of this. Nina Simon’s work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in California is one, where a failing institution has balanced its books and become the heart of its community.

The Silk Mill in Derby is experimenting with what it means for a community to create a museum it wants. And Luton Culture’s Museum Makers programme seeks to place local people at the heart of a self-sustaining museum.
It’s not just investment that matters, the approach to a venue is vital too. It is just as crucial to have an enterprising local authority as it is an enterprising museum.

Civic museums are at risk, but by working in partnership – independent and local authority museums, funders and the public – we can redefine their role to ensure they are part of our cultural fabric long into the future.

John Orna-Ornstein is the director of museums at Arts Council England