Letters

Issue 111/12, p20-21, 01.12.2011
Extinct: natural history keepers in West Midlands

Am I the only reader concerned by the unprecedented loss of natural history expertise from museums operated by local government, especially county services?

When I joined Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in 1990 there were about 10 traditional keepers of natural history in the region. Over the years, I have seen my neighbouring natural history keepers melt away, with vacated posts never filled.

In October, as the last surviving traditional keeper of natural history in the entire West Midlands, I became redundant. Natural history collections in this region are now entirely within the hands of museum geologists, social historians and archaeologists.

Most of these officers have been rebranded as collection managers and with redefined remits. But what I would regard as natural history experts are missing from their ranks.

I asked two members of the Marches Group (a working group comprised of West Midlands county museum managers) if the brain-drain of natural history expertise in the region had ever been discussed at their meetings, especially given the fact that I had regularly flagged it up with my own managers for several years.

Apparently they don’t discuss those sorts of issues. That pretty much sums up the local government-run museum industry for me.

Increasingly out-of-touch, anti-expert, anti-natural history, incapable of engaging meaningfully with the huge environmental and biodiversity agenda and dogged by weak and often surprisingly inexperienced managers. Where did all the heavyweight managers of the past go?

Many museums, including Warwickshire, have carried out visitor surveys revealing that natural history is a subject of high interest. In Insight, a survey of the London museum market carried out by MLA Renaissance London, natural history came out as the most popular subject. So why are museums running scared?

Museums like to portray themselves as competent, trustworthy, relevant and reactive. But if an amateur natural historian asked me where they could deposit a locally important insect collection or herbarium representing a lifetime’s work, how could I recommend a museum service lacking a natural history expert?

Steven Falk, senior keeper of natural history, Warwickshire Museum, 2000-2011, and senior keeper of natural history and city ecologist at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, 1990-1999

Keep museums free…

Sharon Heal’s suggestion that the government is privately in favour of ending its policy of free access to national museums is utter nonsense.

As we have repeatedly made clear, we are completely committed to free access to national museums. A key principle of our arts policy is that arts are for everyone, which is why the Coalition Agreement pledged that national museums will remain free.

The 10th anniversary of free admissions is just around the corner. Let’s use the opportunity to celebrate our museums rather than engage in fact-free mud-slinging.

Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, London


Please see original story here

… no, don’t

I question Sharon Heal’s assertion that the 10th anniversary of free entry for national museums is a matter of celebration.

It is arguable that it has grossly disadvantaged small and medium-sized museums by giving the lion’s share of government financial support to a small number of museums already best placed to be self-sustaining.

Most museums that do charge take part in the membership version of the Gift Aid scheme, meaning that members of their local communities who wish to attend a museum regularly need pay only once a year.

If national museums were running the same scheme, it would maximise the returns from overseas visitors who do not pay the taxes that support our museums.

National museums themselves have suffered badly from the lack of index linking for the grants put in place in lieu of charging and this has fed through to redundancies and below-inflation pay increases for staff.

Many local authority museums felt honour-bound to follow the nationals’ lead and are now suffering savage cuts because the local authorities cannot afford this luxury.

The free-entry scheme was an ill-considered pre-election promise by New Labour that was delayed and fudged to only include nationals (free entry for all museums was clearly the original implied intention) and subsequently underfunded with money that could have been more usefully distributed across the nation’s museums, rather than just across the national museums.

Erik Blakeley, learning and projects manager, Tank Museum, Dorset

Fort Nelson review

I read the review of the new Fort Nelson redevelopment. As project chairman, I felt that there appeared to be something not quite right, as this was not the Fort Nelson redevelopers or stakeholders loved.

Nor was it the Fort Nelson redevelopment that the local schools had rated excellent, and certainly not the Fort Nelson redevelopment that was currently seeing double the visitor numbers and a 99% satisfaction rating.

I therefore re-read the review and to my astonishment realised that it was not the Fort Nelson redevelopment at all.

The review had clearly been written prior to the museum being fully completed in August. Ironically, the review pointed out all the issues that we ourselves had recognised and had spent the last two years rectifying.

As the Royal Armouries had no control over when the review was done, we are not sure how this mistake could have been made, especially as our website, stakeholder management and regular contact with Museums Journal had always indicated the opening date of the new Fort Nelson.

It is obviously very disappointing for all those individuals and funders of the project that such a mistake was made and we hope Museums Journal will make every effort in the very near future to re-review the ‘NEW’ Fort Nelson.

Peter Armstrong, creative development director, Royal Armouries

Please see original story here

Museums Journal will publish an updated article about Fort Nelson early next year.

Catalyst grants

It is not the case that only Arts Council England (ACE) regularly funded organisations can apply for Catalyst.

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) welcomes applications for Catalyst: Endowments from museums, and will open a small grants programme to which museums can apply – Catalyst Heritage Capacity Building grants – next April.

The current round of Catalyst: Endowments closes to applications on 16 January 2012, and HLF will run a second round of this programme for applications in late 2012.

In addition to meeting HLF’s normal criteria, applicants for the Catalyst: Endowments element of the scheme should be a past or current recipient of HLF funding but there is no requirement that museums should be ACE national portfolio or regularly funded organisations.

Catalyst: Endowments and Catalyst Heritage Capacity Building grants are HLF’s initial response to views expressed in our recent strategic consultation on how HLF could do more to help organisations across the heritage sector engage with private giving and build greater financial resilience for the future.

We will publish our new strategy for 2013-2019 next year, when we will set out in more detail other proposals for helping museums and other heritage organisations to thrive and adapt in the current challenging operating conditions.

Anne Young, head of strategic business development, Heritage Lottery Fund, London

Please see original story here

Clarifications

Museums Journal November 2011, Great expectations

The photo caption (print edition) incorrectly identifies a picture of the Grant Museum of Zoology as being the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, both part of University College London Museums and Collections.

Museums Journal November 2011, National Museum of Scotland

ClickNetherfield would like to point out that it supplied the display cases for the redeveloped National Museum of Scotland


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  • Museum of Somerset, Taunton; the Hunterian, University of Glasgow; War Horse: Fact & Fiction, National Army Museum, London
  • Plus news, comment, letters, jobs and much more


The current issue of Museum Practice explores the use of oral history by museums, galleries and heritage organisations. The Oral History Society offers tips for funding digitisation and the Museum of London explains how it is digitising its oral history archive.


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