The William Morris Gallery in London also manages Vestry House Museum

A tale of two cities for London museums

Simon Stephens, Issue 116/03, p11, 01.03.2016
Non-nationally funded museums benefit from partnership opportunities and access to huge audiences, but lose staff who can’t afford the cost of living
Big nationally funded institutions tend to dominate the London museum scene, but how are the capital’s other museums faring in today’s challenging financial climate?

Bexley Heritage Trust’s recent decision to hand the management of Danson House back to the London Borough of Bexley is a sign of the pressures that some museums in the city are under. The trust has managed the Georgian mansion on the council’s behalf since 2004. But as a result of the severe financial pressures it faces, the council has withdrawn its grant to the trust over the next three years. This led the trust to review its commitments, resulting in the decision to withdraw from the management of Danson House.

The museum service in the London Borough of Waltham Forest has been through some hard times in the past, but the £14m redevelopment of the William Morris Gallery, which won the Art Fund Prize Museum of the Year in 2013, has helped transform the organisation, which also manages Vestry House Museum.

Developing partnerships

“In terms of being a smaller museum in London, there are the obvious issues, such as competition from other museums, but on balance it’s a good place to be,” says Lorna Lee, the head of culture and heritage services at the London Borough of Waltham Forest. “We recognise the appeal of central London attractions, but we have harnessed some of their popularity by developing partnerships to link specific programmes and audiences.”

Lee cites working with the National Portrait Gallery and Barbican as examples, but the relationship with the local authority is also crucial.

“We work closely with our regeneration colleagues as the borough’s cultural offer is increasingly seen as a reason for external investors and property developers to invest in the borough, which further raises the profile of the gallery and museum,” adds Lee.

The independent Florence Nightingale Museum’s location opposite the Houses of Parliament means that many of its challenges are different from museums in outer London boroughs.

“We are a commercial museum – people pay to come in and we have to offer a top- notch service,” says Natasha McEnroe, the director of the Florence Nightingale Museum. “We don’t see rivalry with other attractions as being a problem.”

Indeed, by using the London Pass, which gives entry to more than 60 attractions, tours and museums in the capital for one price, McEnroe knows that many visitors to her museum also take in places such as the Imperial War Museum or Westminster Abbey on the same day.

“With London comes access to a massive audience, and it’s exciting to see how the city’s smaller museums are engaging with their culturally diverse local audiences,” says Judy Willcocks, the chairwoman of the London Museums Group, which represents museums of all types and their staff. “However, competition from other cultural venues is an issue. With so much high-quality cultural entertainment on their doorstep, museums have to work really hard to compete.”

Willcocks says one of the big advantages of being in London is the rich opportunity for sharing skills and knowledge with the many other museum professionals who work in the city. But for many, working in London is also challenging.

Pluses and minuses

“The fact that there are so many young professionals trying to make their way in the capital means competition is stiff and it’s easy to recruit good people,” says Willcocks. “On the down side, young people are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in London. With rents rising and home ownership largely an impossible dream, many museum professionals on lower salaries are moving out.”

Like many other people in London, staff from all types of museums are having to balance the career opportunities that the capital provides with the challenges of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities.


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09.03.2016, 15:47

"and it’s exciting to see how the city’s smaller museums are engaging with their culturally diverse local audiences,”

And your evidence for this is?