Closed by the local council in 2010, the Church Farm Museum, Skegness, has bounced back as the volunteer-run Church Farm Village

Going local

Helen Weinstein, Issue 112/02, p22-27, 01.02.2012
What do ideas of localism, volunteering, and community empowerment mean for museums and their audiences? Helen Weinstein reports
Axing public funding leads to museums sacking staff, curtailing opening hours, slashing programmes for targeted groups, and reducing their public events and activities, according to a Museums Association report last year on the effects of the cuts.

Heritage organisations faced with budget reductions are at a crossroads in terms of supporting and enabling community empowerment.

It’s indicative that English Heritage made the early decision to abolish its entire outreach department across all regions when it became clear that cuts were on their way.

This is the time when we will see whether diversity and community engagement really matter to cultural organisations. Museums will send a powerful signal by the decisions they make on the future of their outreach work.

Some will halt it entirely, while others will keep it at the margins by only developing targeted programmes and projects when specific funding is available. For some, outreach will have a transformative role, with public engagement embedded in the DNA of their organisation.

Mark O’Neill, the director of policy and research at Glasgow Life, the organisation that runs the city’s museums, says the sector has to rise to the challenge.

“Museums urgently need to make decisions about their core values in these challenging times, and to ask themselves what are they for, and who are they for,” O’Neill says.

“Are they there to serve those who work in them, or to serve the public who visit them and use them for their learning and pleasure?”

Museums under siege from savage budget cuts are finding it hard just to keep their heads above water. Some are cutting programming to the bone, such as Croydon Museum, even though it has an impressive track-record of active participation by a very wide range of audiences.

Others, retreating still further, concentrate on preserving the museum building and the collection, and little more.

But if a museum has reduced opening hours, has few events or activities, and no active participation or community engagement, what does it have?

“A dying institution full of stuff,” suggests cultural commentator Tristram Besterman.

“When a museum diverts resources towards things and away from people, it becomes socially dysfunctional and unsustainable. Financially, this sort of response is self-defeating because such museums will lose support in the community.”

Alternative models

There are alternative models for museums and galleries on the sharp end of experiencing the shift from big state to big society. Some are developing into social enterprises to serve rural localities.

One example is the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, which is negotiating with Suffolk County Council to operate a range of its services.

Other museums, often those in large towns and cities, are following the lead of Sheffield, Luton and York to become trusts. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery is in the process of merging with the city’s Thinktank science centre to form a trust.

Rita McLean, the head of museums and heritage services in Birmingham, says: “This can impact on audiences and the quality of community engagement when organisations necessarily look inward as staff and operations are reconfigured to achieve trust status.” But she adds that this is a short-term problem.

Some museums are facing closure, sometimes with little or no community consultation. The Pumphouse Educational Museum in Rotherhithe, London, recently shut because Southwark Council withdrew core funding.

This is the second time that Southwark has closed a museum as part of budget cuts.

The first time was in 2008, when the local authority decided to close the Livesey Museum for Children, a property given to the Old Kent Road community by a Victorian philanthropist, George Livesey.

The decision was made despite local resistance and offers from community groups to run the venue in place of the local authority.

The museum has remained shut in spite of the Friends of Livesey’s campaign (see box opposite) to run the facility.

The experience of community campaigners in Southwark and other areas flies in the face of the aspirations of the Open Services white paper, which comes before parliament this year and aims to devolve the operation of community institutions to the neighbourhood level.

The Livesey campaign is ongoing but those involved say the council is not backing their bid to take over the running of the venue.

Skills concern

In contrast, Harlow Council has been very upfront in inviting local partners to tender for services as it makes £1.9m cuts.

Last year the council published a prospectus inviting bidding to procure “popular discretionary services” including a nature reserve, an art gallery, a theatre with drama and dance studios, and the town’s museum.

Only one local voluntary organisation made a formal expression of interest to run Harlow Museum but the bid has run in to myriad difficulties. Some worried locals have voiced their anger because of the incoherent approach to tendering.

One volunteer shared her anxiety, saying: “What if this big society means private companies will take over because community groups do not have the skills to put forward sustainable plans in their paperwork?”

There can be a great boost to civic engagement when volunteers save a local museum from closure. The Church Farm Museum in Skegness, Lincolnshire, recently reopened with volunteers looking after buildings and animals, gardens and farm vehicles, and running a smithy, a gift shop and a cafe.

They are also providing hard-to-reach groups (such as ex-offenders and offenders) with new skills and a route to employment.

A decision has been made to rebrand the museum as “the Village”, underlining the aspirations of the volunteers for the museum to become a community hub.

There are significant capacity issues for community empowerment to be sustainable (see box below).

There are lots of areas where help is needed, including assisting groups with paperwork to tender for local services, providing coaching for best practice in community engagement, enabling training in object handling and contemporary acquisitions so that collections can be refreshed, and providing regional and national borrowing networks.

Sustaining any business is tough in this economic environment, but faced with a lack of leadership to support and develop strategy and skills, it may be that many museums saved in a crisis by volunteers will fail through no fault of their own because they are unable to deliver sufficient audience numbers and sustained commitment from volunteers.

Prime Minister David Cameron promised 5,000 community officers to facilitate the big society but many of them are not yet in place or have huge remits and are only commissioned on one-year contracts, which makes it difficult for them to offer sustained development support.

Mutual museum

In order for small- to medium-sized museums to become sustainable, they need to have leaders and curators with professional skills and to have a dialogue with their community users about what they are there for. And letting the community in can positively transform museum management.

Ryedale Folk Museum on the North Yorkshire Moors is a good example of a “mutual museum” that aims to have no discernible demarcation in authority between those who are the practitioners and those who are the audience. Here, work and learning is shared by all, rather than there being the “doer” and the “done to”.

Mike Benson, who recently joined Jarrow’s Bede’s World as its director, only had £6,000 in core funding when he became the director at Ryedale Museum in 2004.

But he created new income streams by supporting community users and by substantially increasing visitor numbers and developing volunteering.

Benson says museums must find a way to connect to wider civic and civil society.

“Real participation is only possible when there is trust, respect and mutual learning, when there is no distinction between the inside and the outside, where you see expert volunteers leading practice, and supporters with real power and voice to use the institution and express their pride, sense of place, sense of self.”

In the change from big state to big society there are opportunities for community engagement and empowerment to be implemented.

Tony Butler, the director of the Museum of East Anglian Life, says that routes into governance can make museums flexible and truly participatory, encouraging visitors to become repeat users who become friends, who become volunteers, who become trustees.

“If this happens, the museum will become a radical institution in our society, characterised by an openness about authority and learning, where the curator is a collaborator with audiences and the connector with civic society,” Butler says.

The economic and political landscape has created a threat to some museums but may well be the catalyst for fundamental change and the adoption of this emerging social model for the “mutual museum”, characterised by the building of successful partnerships, the generation of income through social enterprise, and the core involvement of volunteers in curating and programming.

John Orna-Ornstein, the head of London and national programmes at the British Museum, says: “I love the vision of museums that are seeking to be owned, in the broadest sense, by the communities around them.

“Those where volunteers are embraced, celebrated, enabled and given authority. Those whose displays explore the individual and from there explore the local, national, and international issues that individuals connect to, showing that we’re all connected and all have significance.”

Helen Weinstein is the director of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, University of York

The Livesey: learning from failure

When Southwark Council closed the Livesey Museum for Children in 2008, I initiated a campaign then helped form a Friends group.

We stopped the sale of the building by showing that Livesey’s bequest meant it wasn’t theirs to sell. But we could not stop the redundancy of the museum’s wonderful staff.

We formed a proposal to run the museum, underwritten by a trust, but the council favoured a pitch from a youth theatre. The Charity Commission rejected this because the bequest requires the building to be free and open to all.

The council is still looking for proposals but the Friends haven’t revived their enthusiasm to form a new plan. From my experience, enthusiasm wanes with  a lack of common cause.

It’s a challenge to form a positive proposal out of a conflict situation, as there will always be winners and losers. It can be hard to explain that participation
in culture can be accessible and empowering for all.

There are disagreements about money, with some insisting on accruing a cushion while others feel a great idea will attract money over time. Because you can’t get funding and permission unless you are constituted and experienced a new campaign group may have to give rights and earning potential to a partner.

The positive outcomes of an unsuccessful campaign are that people learn together, despite disagreements, and new local collaborations arise.

Bridget McKenzie is the director of Flow Associates

Malton Museum: starting over

The experiences of Malton Museum in Ryedale, Yorkshire, highlight the challenges for volunteer-run organisations operating in the current climate.

The museum is holding its last exhibition, Fifty Favourite Finds, before being forced to move out of its current home. It is currently sub-letting the space at a peppercorn rent from Ryedale District Council, which has decided not to renew its lease as the leaseholder, the Fitzwilliam Estate, wants a commercial rent for the building.

Malton Museum has existed since the 1930s and its collection is based on artefacts that were mostly gathered during an archaeological excavation of Roman Malton during the early 20th century. It moved to its current home in the town centre in the 1970s.

The museum has tried to find a new home on a couple of occasions, including a failed Heritage Lottery Fund bid with the York Archaeological Trust.

But the museum has secured some money from the council and its education officer, Margaret Shaw, says it is working hard to secure a new venue and to keep the museum within the Ryedale community.

The museum recently identified a site, also owned by the Fitzwilliam Estate, that could provide a new home. It is on the edge of town but has parking, outside space and is next to the site of the Roman fort where many of the museum’s artefacts were found.

“It was felt that what we have here is far too important to put into storage or to put it in other museums.” Shaw says. “We have lots of ideas but we just need the Fitzwilliam Estate to rubber-stamp the plan.”

In the meantime, the museum is hoping to keep up its profile in the local community through exhibitions, workshops and events at various venues. It will also continue its education work.

Simon Stephens