Museum bosses often have offices in interesting buildings, but Janita Bagshawe surely has one of the most impressive – in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion overlooking the restored regency gardens. The venue is one of five run by the service, alongside the nearby Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, and Preston Manor, Hove Museum and the Booth Museum of Natural History.
Janita Bagshawe has been working at Royal Pavilion & Museums (RPM) since the mid-1980s and has seen many changes during her time in Brighton. But this year is one of the landmark moments in her career as the organisation leaves local authority control and becomes a trust. As the head of the organisation, Bagshawe is busy making arrangements for the smooth transfer of the service, which will happen on 1 April. The RPM Trust will manage the museums through a 25-year contract with the council, which will still own the buildings.
Bagshawe is looking forward to leading the new trust, which she feels will be more responsive and agile, whether that is working with partners, recruiting staff, programming exhibitions or raising funds. “Being in a trust means that you can respond to things much quicker,” Bagshawe says. “As part of a local authority, you do things in a set way. For the trust, we’re talking about getting processes that are absolutely tailored for the service.”
One of the things that Bagshawe is pleased about is that staff will transfer to the trust under their current terms and conditions. Developing and supporting her workforce is an important part of her role in Brighton. One of the key initiatives that she has overseen began in 2012 and offers employees the opportunity to branch out from their usual roles and try their hand in alternative jobs and teams.
“Quite a lot of the staff have taken up that opportunity, and some have gone on to do other things,” Bagshawe says. “And it’s also worked in terms of understanding what people’s jobs are, and what the different teams are doing.”
Despite the move to trust status being a big change, working with an independent body is not entirely new for Bagshawe as the trust is being created from the Royal Pavilion & Museums Foundation, a charity created in 1972 to raise funds to support the city’s museums. Funding has been a vital part of Bagshawe’s role for many years as the head of service at Brighton.
“Local authority money is absolutely awful at the moment, but I can remember cuts happening back in my early days,” says Bagshawe, who has seen Renaissance in the Regions funding come and go, the move to Major Partner Museum status following the abolition of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, and, most recently, the integration of museums into Arts Council England’s National Portfolio programme.
The move to trust status is an important landmark for the museum service, but there have been other significant moments during Bagshawe’s time there. These include Brighton and Hove councils merging in the 1990s to become a unitary authority, the reopening of Brighton Museum at the turn of the millennium after a £10m revamp, and the council introducing entry charges to Brighton Museum and Art Gallery for non-residents in 2015.
Another event that sticks in Bagshawe’s mind is the “Great Storm” in 1987. This happened on the night of 15-16 October, with hurricane-force winds causing extensive damage across southern England.
“I hadn’t been working here that long,” Bagshawe says. “I remember getting a call saying that they wanted people to come and help in the museum, as there’d been water coming in. I think it was the Friday, and that was going to have been the first under-fives sessions that I was running. Of course we were closed, but people were trying to come in with their kids.”
Bagshawe started her career in museum education and prior to working at RPM she had a range of temporary and voluntary posts with the National Trust, and Norfolk and Swindon Museum services.
“I did quite a mix of stuff,” Bagshawe says. “What was really nice was learning about other areas, object handling, that sort of thing. And I was also doing front-of-house work. So, you were on patrol, and then there was a bit of selling in the shop. In fact, my first paid job when I left school was at a National Trust shop in Victoria.”
Bagshawe has come a long way since then but still retains an interest in all areas of museum work. At Brighton she has encouraged her team to develop an ambitious range of programmes responding to the interests of local residents. This includes activities that reflect the city’s unofficial status as the “gay capital” of the UK. Recent programming at Brighton Museum includes a trail exploring and revealing LGBTQ stories, the Museum of Transology display, the Outing the Past Festival and LGBT History Month Free Day.
Under Bagshawe, the Royal Pavilion & Museums has also embraced the move to directly involve audiences and other stakeholders in creating and developing displays, most recently in the Archaeology Gallery at Brighton Museum.
“Teachers were heavily involved in the development of that gallery,” Bagshawe says. “It’s gone down well with schools because of their involvement. Co-production seems to go down well with people, but we’ve still got more to do.”
Another key area for Bagshawe is how Brighton’s collections are managed, stored and documented. The aim is to create a way for items to be more accessible and usable.
“We’ve got an offsite store,” Bagshawe says, “but it is not in an ideal place, as it got moved from city centre. We want to have something that is a lot more accessible.”
And environmental issues are a key concern for a museum service in a city that has the UK’s only Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. The local environment is also important for Bagshawe personally, who often spends her spare time walking on the South Downs National Park.
“The South Downs is lovely, and there are National Trust properties such as Wakehurst and Sheffield Park. It’s like a buswoman’s holiday, going for a walk, as you get to see one of these places en route.”
But Bagshawe says it is being able to turn off work emails and find the time to get into the countryside that is the challenge. With the transition to trust coming up fast, it does not look like she is going to have the spare time to do much else anytime soon.