Museums on the box

Rebecca Atkinson, 09.10.2013
BBC arts programming unpicked at #museumcamp
At the pub last week I mentioned to a group of friends, all of whom work in the private sector, that I was going to Birmingham for an unconference – a comment that caused much amusement.

Apparently only the museum sector could think of something as “right on” as a participant-driven, unprogrammed event. (The term was actually first used in relation to a technology event, according to Wikipedia.)

Unfazed, I attended Museum Camp in Birmingham on Monday full of enthusiasm, and intrigued – the whole point of the day is to do away with traditional conference programmes and speakers, and instead raise issues on the day and deliver sessions that all participants can contribute to.

The day proved to be really varied with lots of productive discussion (and cake). You can see some of the tweets from the day on twitter under the hashtag #museumcamp (or archived here) and I’m sure other participants will be blogging about their experiences elsewhere.

One session that worked really well for me was a discussion about BBC arts funding.

Proposed in response to the announcement that the Beeb is increasing funding for arts television programmes by 20%, relaunching the Space and commissioning new arts programmes for BBC One and BBC Two, participants were quickly engaged in a lively debate over whether it was elitist, London-centric and “the same old names and faces”.

The new arts programmes being commissioned include a five-part series presented by Simon Schama exploring the history of Britain through portraiture and a three-part series presented by Andrew Marr looking at the greatest writers from Scotland.

Who is the BBC’s target audience for its arts programmes? I suspect it could be me (professional, higher education, pre-existing interest in the arts), rather than some of the many diverse audiences that museums and galleries across the UK have been working to engage for many years.

To be fair, another new programme is a sort of Masterchef for artists – a prime time six-part series showcasing the hidden heroes of British art, with 10 amateurs competing to be crowned Britain’s best artist.

The show will no doubt be popular, and will raise awareness of artists, although it does rely on a safe but tired formula that may not actually be compatible with the making of art.  

While getting more arts programming on the telly should be a good thing, I would love to see a bit more imagination going into the subject matter, the presenters and the format.

And I wonder if museum professionals might be well placed to commission some programmes that widen the appeal of arts and objects to new audiences, and raise awareness of museums outside London.

Share your ideal museum telly in the comment box below – I can’t promise they’ll ever be made, but you never know who’s reading.


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Oliver Green
MA Member
10.10.2013, 15:57
I'd like to see better engagement with the BBC and other tv programming from the museum end, which is pretty passive apart from the V&A, the blessed Neil at the BM and no doubt the reliable IWM for the upcoming WW1 centenary. As for museum curators as presenters, where are they apart from the ubiquitous Lucy, who now seems to have moved on from museums to juicy murder stories (where do you get those leather gloves, Lucy?).
I think we've had quite enough food and cookery programmes, and the potential link to museums is slim, but Rebecca why are you just thinking about 'arts' programmes in the culture box?
The BBC is quite good at developing new programmes on science and technology past, present and future but unlike arts and history progs they never go near museums and their collections. Why can't science museums do better at actively engaging the media and showing off what they can offer on tv? They are absolutely hopeless at it, and the rest of the museum sector doesn't help by marginalising anything scientific and technical as boring and nerdy because it's not part of the 'arts' as they see it. It's a sad prejudice because science and technology has huge popular interest.
Unfortunately we don't deal with it very well in museums, so no wonder programme makers aren't knocking on the doors of NMSI or any other science museums. Did anyone talk about that at your Museum Camp?
Lucy Harland
MA Member
Director, Lucidity Media
14.11.2013, 10:51
As an ex-BBC producer, I'd say there's a big leap to be made for most museums in understanding how broadcasters tell stories - though the gap should be closing as more museums use a storytelling approach - and also understanding production logistics and timescales.

For example, I wrote a letter to every museum in Scotland when I was making a history programme for Radio Scotland, asking for stories about local characters, objects with a story to tell, buildings with an interesting past. From memory, that was about 60-70 letters. I got less than 10 replies or phone calls, many of which simply said 'Come and see us'. Production schedules and budgets for radio are really tight and so that kind of location research just isn't possible. I knew the stories were there but just didn't have time to hunt them down.

Broadcasters are always on the hunt for stories and people to tell them but museums will need to learn to package their stories - whether arts or science based - and accept the fact that the story might not be the museum itself.

That said, there are also plenty of people in other sectors - some of them working in PR - who don't follow some really basic rules, like - if you want to target a particular programme with a story, make sure you've listened to the programme.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
09.10.2013, 12:32
Oh, Rebecca, isn't questioning whether art can fit into a masterchef format just a bit elitist...

More to the point, when are we going to see more trash TV (and cookery) in our nation's great galleries?
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
09.10.2013, 12:47
No, I don't think so. I love Masterchef - all I was pointing out is that it's not an original format and there is more to making art than winning a competition (in my opinion anyhow).

I really like the use of museum collections in programmes such as Great British Bake Off and The Wonder of Dogs - but when will we see a programme about art/culture that attempts to engage new audiences rather than pre-existing ones?
Mark Mitchell
Fine art dealer, Paul Mitchell Ltd
09.10.2013, 11:20
A programme following the progress of public art commissions would be interesting (NPG London & 4th plinth, but also elsewhere in the UK).
Another programme to replace the Late Review, for exhibitions, art books, &c.
Programmes on the NT v. private historic houses, restorations of industrial sites such as mines & mills.
A programme on art education in the UK, including public/private, secondary/tertiary, & regional.
A look at crossovers between art forms (art/ ballet; art/poetry, &c.&c).
Think that's all for now!