London calling

Sharon Ament has already made her mark at the Museum of London by stepping into the debate over Tower Hamlets Council’s controversial decision to sell a Henry Moore sculpture. Simon Stephens finds out what else she is planning
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Simon Stephens
“Going back to my mother’s hometown of Liverpool is where I really connected with museums,” says Sharon Ament, who moved to the city with her family as a child after her father died. “The big city museum there changed my life.”

Ament, who became the director of the Museum of London in September last year, says that her family did not have much money in Liverpool, so she made frequent visits to its main museum, which was free.

“I can remember objects in that museum that have resonated with me forever,” says Ament, who recalls the felt armour of Mongolian soldiers and rows of blue and white ceramics.

“These things were highly evocative and have stayed with me.”

Ament also cites the Walker Art Gallery and Picton Library as important early influences. But it was at a smaller venue in the city that she started to think about a career in museums and what direction it might take.

“Very early on, after I left university, I volunteered in the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool and in one sense that was where I decided that I absolutely did not want to go down the curatorial side of museums,” says Ament, who was interested in doing something that connected her more directly to people.

“I found that turning people on to a cause, to an issue, and communicating complex ideas is what I really wanted to do.”

These interests later led to a job at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and then the Zoological Society of London. This in turn provided the connection to her first paid job in a museum, at the Natural History Museum in London, where she spent 12 years.

Ament had three different roles at the Natural History Museum, the last of which was director of public engagement. The idea of having one person who is responsible for all the public-facing sides of a museum was a relatively new one, although it has since been adopted by other museums.

Ian Jenkinson, the head of visitor engagement at the Natural History Museum, worked with Ament for nearly 10 years.

He says she had a really coherent vision for what she wanted to communicate about the museum and how she could raise its profile. He also says that she thrived on leading a broad-based team. These attributes should stand her in good stead in her new job.

Ament feels that she has arrived at the Museum of London at good time, as its infrastructure has already been vastly improved under her predecessor, Jack Lohman, who left last year to become the head of the Royal British Columbia Museum on Vancouver Island in Canada.

“What is interesting is the next phase of this museum’s history, which is about really leveraging the value of all that work so we are better known and people engage with us more so that the vibrancy of the story that we tell, the story of London, plays a bigger part in people’s lives.”

Ament is currently working on a new strategic plan for the museum, which should be finished this month. She won’t release details until it is complete but overall she is keen for the museum to have a far higher profile.

“We need to have bigger ambition, we need to be better known and we need to have a strong voice in London, for London,” she says.

“I think that the museum has been slightly too polite and can sometimes feel overshadowed by the big nationals.”

Ament has already begun this process with a recent shake-up of the museum’s PR and communications department.

There are other aims, and new capital projects are not off the agenda, even though a lot was done at the museum under Lohman. In particular, Ament is not happy with the external appearance of the building.

“How do we become more visible? How do we externally reflect the quality that is inside? That really needs to be addressed,” she says.

She feels the museum is a good size in terms of being big enough to have an influence and make an impact, but not so large that staff can’t work closely together and act quickly to respond to changing demands.

“It’s really exciting as I’ve found that the team here are really up for big challenges and setting bold ambitions and replicating the boldness of London itself. I’ve been quite bowled over by the appetite that exists here.”

All this is related to Ament’s belief that the museum has a lot to offer and can have an impact on more people’s lives.

“Moving into this job, I have been thinking a lot about who I am, what I do and what is meaningful to me,” she says.

“I have been thinking about my connections with museums and what shaped me as a child. I think they really ought to be places for intellectual thought and that is what people are interested in. People want to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking.”

Ament describes herself as a street fighter and she has already got the museum to issue a statement on the debate over the plans for history teaching in the proposed new curriculum for schools.

She has also got involved in the scrap over Tower Hamlets Council’s plans to sell Henry Moore’s sculpture, Draped Seated Woman, known as Old Flo.

Ament acted quickly after the controversy arose by writing to the mayor of Tower Hamlets to suggest that the work could go on display as a long-term loan to her museum.

“The reason we got involved is that felt we needed to stand up for something we really believed in,” says Ament.

“It was really deeply about a place – the East End, the time at which the sculpture was commissioned and located on the Stifford estate after the war, the view of public art in the modern world, and these wonderful new dwellings that were later pulled down. All of that makes it our stuff – it is about the history of London embodied in this piece of sculpture.”

The issue has since been further complicated by the revelation that Tower Hamlets Council might not even own the sculpture. Whatever the outcome, it has been an interesting process for Ament.

“What has resulted in the urge to keep Old Flo in the public domain has been another wave of reconsideration of the meaning of the sculpture for residents today. What is really gratifying, in this age of austerity, is that people really value Old Flo and what she stands for. It is amazing.”

Sharon Ament at a glance

Sharon Ament became the director of the Museum of London in September 2012.
Before this she was the director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum, where she worked for 12 years.

She had previously worked at the Zoological Society of London (London Zoo) as the head of marketing and PR, and at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as the head of national marketing.

Ament is a former chairwoman of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, which represents 17 major cultural organisations. She was also vice-president of Ecsite, the European Network for Science Centres and Museums.

Until recently she was a trustee of the Wildscreen Trust and the International Wildlife Film Festival. Ament lives in East Dulwich, close to where she was born in Peckham, south east London. She grew up in Norfolk and Liverpool.

Museum of London at a glance

The Museum of London is responsible for two museums: the Museum of London itself at London Wall and the Museum of London Docklands.

The Museum of London attracted 432,000 visitors in 2011-12, down from 493,000 the year before when its £20m Galleries of Modern London opened.

There were 185,000 visitors to the Museum of London Docklands in 2011-12, the highest number to ever visit the museum.

The museums had more than 105,000 school visits in 2011-12.

The Museum of London is one of 16 Arts Council England major partner museums and is receiving more than £4m from 2012-15. The museum employs 268 staff.

The museum’s main sources of funding are the Greater London Authority and the City of London Corporation, which provide 83% of its voluntary funding. It had an income of £25.8m 2011-12.

The museum’s archaeology division transferred to an independent charitable company in 2011.

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