The conversation

Michael Turnpenny, Issue 115/09, p17, 01.09.2015
How can museums benefit from the Northern Powerhouse?

01092015-Michael Turnpenny 80438 copy01092015-Watson, Iain 2 copy

Left to right:

Michael Turnpenny is the museum development manager at York Museum Trust

Iain Watson is the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam)

Dear Iain:
The idea of a Northern Powerhouse reminds me of discussions in 2004 about creating regional assemblies, designed to promote northern regions’ economic and social development. Now the focus is on core cities, with the purpose of rebalancing the UK economy. I wonder whether museums can be seen as a key contributor to the regional economy and a defining characteristic of the north? Or will it be a scenario where public sector spending cuts are devolved – placing arts and heritage at greater risk? Best wishes, Michael

Dear Michael:
I am fascinated by the Northern Powerhouse’s “northernness”. Historically, we might have defined that northernness in terms of manufacturing and extractive industry but, as Paul Gilroy, a professor from King’s College London, has written, identity belongs as much to the future as to the past. What is our northern identity now and into the future? I sometimes fear that northernness is defined by the absence of other, so is northernness now just an absence of southernness? We must not look backwards, as that would give us only a retrospective nostalgia. Best wishes, Iain

Dear Iain:
I share your concerns; several museums in the north were established to demonstrate cultural capital and to reconstruct the identity of cities, and to provide educational opportunities. Museums continue to have a role in helping construct identities, and it would be better for this to come from within than be imposed from afar. This role has implications for what we choose to collect and exhibit, and the messages we communicate to our audiences. It also begs the question: do we wish to talk about the “north”, “regions” or “core cities”, and how do we structure our organisations within that context? Best wishes, Michael

Dear Michael: Something I have observed is a shift away from a gross value added analysis of economic impact to an emphasis on regional (or place-based) distinctiveness, which culture and heritage provide. In the north-east, we have produced a Case for Culture, our statement of ambition for the next 15 years. It includes an aim to support economic growth and job creation, attract more visitors and create a vibrant and distinctive region with an excellent quality of life. Best wishes, Iain

Dear Iain: That is interesting and should allow for an approach that incorporates culture. I wonder whether the growth of core cities will mean that the sector will need to collaborate more. We are seeing this with the development of the West Yorkshire Local Authority Museum Partnership, which is facilitated by Leeds Museums and Galleries. As well as area or regional advocacy, I am interested in whether individual museums could begin to specialise and deliver products or services to others in their area. Have you seen much evidence of this? Best wishes, Michael

Dear Michael:
The thinktank IPPR North has just published research into levels of disposable income. Pre-recession, the north had some of the lowest levels of disposable income, but the north-east, in particular, is bouncing back stronger than others. What can museums do to support, and benefit from, this? The first thing we have to do is survive and thrive. At Twam, we have developed a range of services that we are trading, such as conservation services, wholesaling of shop stock to a range of outlets and consultancy. There are no silver bullets, but the museums that thrive will be undertaking a wide range of mission-driven and sustainability-driven work – and when the two themes converge, happy days! Best wishes, Iain