On the waterfront - Museums Association

On the waterfront

Julie Finch, the head of Bristol's Museums, has high hopes for a project that will tell the city's history. By Simon Stephens. Photographs by Phil Sayer
Julie Finch
Julie Finch has only been working in the sector for 11 years but has risen fast to become the head of museums and archives at the Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives Service. For someone who was a volunteer at Lincolnshire Heritage Services not that long ago, her success shows that it pays to carefully plan your career.

“I knew where I wanted to be,” says Finch, who started out as a practice manager in the National Health Service. “I came to museums a little bit later than most people and had quite a lot of life experience and that enables you to be very clear about your trajectory and path.”

Her first job was as collections manager then principal manager at Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire, the county she is from. She then became principal keeper at the Usher Art Gallery, where she worked with Jonathan Platt, the head of heritage at Lincolnshire County Council, on the development of the Collection, the museum in Lincoln that sits alongside the Usher.

Finch has had two mentors, both of them high-profile figures in the sector: David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool; and Michael Day, the chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces.

Fleming advised her that she needed some urban experience, so Finch’s next move was to Salford Heritage Services as heritage development officer. Quite quickly she became head of service at Salford but then decided she wanted more national experience so she went to the National Football Museum in Preston as director.

She left the football museum in 2006 to become deputy head of the service at Bristol, leading on the development of the Museum of Bristol. And last year she replaced Kate Brindley, who went to the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, as head of museums and archives.

Bristol has its fair share of challenges, like many large local authority museum services. A review of the service has been ongoing for some time and the details are to be finalised soon.

Unions and former staff have been worried that curatorial and conservation posts are under threat, but Finch says it is important that any potential redundancies are minimised as “the knowledge and skills within the service are one of our key selling points”.

The Museum of Bristol, which will open in spring 2011, is now known as M Shed after the 1950s transit shed where it is housed. The scheme was costed at £19.6m in 2005-06 and was due to open in late 2009/early 2010, but a completely different design was adopted following a public consultation. The more ambitious scheme will cost £26.5m, and has 93 per cent of its funding in place.

The project’s cost has attracted some disapproval from within the city, with the Bristol Evening Post one of the fiercest critics. M Shed will open in spring 2011 using existing staff resources, although the plan is to reduce the city museum and art gallery opening hours from seven days a week to six in order to make this possible.

For Finch, the opening can’t come soon enough: “The Bristol Evening Post has an interest in the service and generally it is very positive, but they have a particular perspective on M Shed. The view is that once M Shed opens and people see what is in there and know it was absolutely worth it, then we are going to get a very positive story.”

Finch believes the new museum is a “genuine shift in thinking about the development of a capital project” in that it focuses on people, not just objects. “There was not a model anywhere for it and that was quite exciting, thinking how this could be very different and what it would look like when it opens.”

One area of focus has been contemporary collecting, with Bristol trying to plug the gap in its collection of objects from 1950 to the present day. Curators have also been involving people in arts projects that will form part of the displays. Another project has invited schoolchildren to make a series of films about local people’s memories and experiences of conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries.

“It is really hard to describe what it is going to be like, but when people visit it is going to click,” Finch says. “The range of emotions that the experience will draw out from people will create something that is very different. And the programming that we undertake will engage with people in new and different ways, so that they become part of the story in a much more participatory way.”

Finch says the museum will not be afraid to tackle difficult subjects and last year’s show by graffiti artist Banksy, who grew up in Bristol, was important in positioning the city as a place that could hold ambitious exhibitions.

Away from M Shed, the next big project will be the redevelopment of the City Museum and Art Gallery, which will be done in phases. There is also a plan to create a new storage facility, which will free up more public space at the city museum.

All this will have to be done with an uncertain economic outlook and cuts to programmes such as Renaissance in the Regions as the backdrop. Like others, Finch is keen for museums to come together to press their case for funding.

“We could all be a whole lot more joined up in selling ourselves externally. We need to be more proactive about getting out there and talking to our MPs and ensuring that they don’t see museums as a nice-to-have, but something that is a definite in delivering against local agendas.”

And Finch is convinced that museums have a good story to tell. “It’s the combination of the knowledge held in the service through the staff and the fantastic array of collections that makes museums absolutely unique. It is that combined capability that gives us the edge over libraries or Sainsbury’s or whatever you want to compare us to.”

Finch hopes the importance of objects, and the knowledge about them, will be readily apparent at M Shed. “What a fantastic opportunity, to be in this job and to be able to use these collections to tell the story of Bristol and its place in the wider world, because that is going to be the wow factor – the collections are what is important.”

Julie Finch at a glance

Julie Finch’s first career was in the National Health Service, but she decided to work in museums while doing a degree in heritage studies.

After volunteering at Lincolnshire Heritage Services, her first paid museum job was as collections manager then principal manager at Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire, the county Finch is from. She then became principal keeper at Lincoln’s Usher Art Gallery.

After this she moved to Salford Heritage Services as heritage development officer and later became head of service. Her next move was to the National Football Museum in Preston as director.

She joined Bristol in 2006 as deputy head of the service, leading on the development of the Museum of Bristol. She became the head of museums and archives in Bristol in 2009.

Finch has an MA in museum studies from Leicester, an AMA and is currently working on an MBA and FMA.

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