Tributes paid following death of Leeds Museums head of service John Roles

Roles has passed away following a period of illness
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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John Roles had been at Leeds Museums and Galleries since 2004
John Roles had been at Leeds Museums and Galleries since 2004 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Friends and colleagues have paid tribute to John Roles, the former head of service at Leeds Museums and Galleries, following his death on 18 November after a long illness.

Leeds Museums and Galleries said in a statement on 19 November: “It’s with great sadness that we share that our friend and former head of service, John Roles, passed away yesterday after a long period of illness. It’s difficult to put into words what John meant to Leeds and the sector.

“His passion for museums was demonstrated by his generosity as a leader, and his willingness to share his expertise and empower us all. Under his leadership, our visitor figures alone rose from 358,000 to 1,698,640.

“John will be sorely missed, and we will be celebrating his life (and love of uttering expletives at the office printer) together as soon as we’re able. Our thoughts are with his family.”

Yvonne Hardman, interim head of Leeds Museums and Galleries, said: “John’s passion for the importance of museums was demonstrated by his generosity in mentoring many people over the years and his willingness to share his expertise in national and international initiatives.

“One of his greatest skills was to empower his staff to become leaders and influencers, supporting them to experiment and be creative. John was part of and encouraged his teams to be part of networks and partnerships, supporting the museum and gallery sector regionally and nationally.

“He demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the importance of arts, museums and culture for the whole community while playing a leading, dynamic role in the arts and culture life of Leeds. He will be very sadly missed.”

Roles was born in London in 1957. He began his museum career as the first curator of Royston and District Museum and Art Gallery in Hertfordshire before joining Brighton and Hove Museums, where he spent 18 years working first as curator, and later as head of collections. He was the internal project manager of the £10m refurbishment of Brighton Museum in 2002.  

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Roles moved to Leeds Museums and Galleries in 2004 and oversaw several transformative projects during his 16 years at the local authority-run service, including the opening of the state-of-the-art storage facility Leeds Discovery Centre in 2007 and Leeds City Museum in 2008. He retired last month from his post in Leeds due to ill health at the age of 63.

Roles was widely known and respected in the UK museum sector. He was a trustee of Thackray Museum of Medicine, and sat on the Museums Association’s Museums Taskforce in 2016-17. He also represented Leeds in the English Civic Museums Network and was a member of the National Museum Directors’ Council.

The MA’s director, Sharon Heal, said: “John was a lovely, straight-talking, decent man who was passionate about museums, Leeds and the wider cultural sector. He always made time for conversations and was a champion of community partnerships. It was a pleasure to work with him on the MA’s Museums Taskforce; he will be sorely missed.”

Thackray Museum of Medicine said: “We are deeply saddened to hear that our long-standing trustee and friend, John Roles has passed away after a period of illness. John dedicated his life to the cultural sector and his wisdom, expertise and kindness will live on through the museums he worked so hard to enrich.”

Isabel Hunt, executive director of business, innovation and insight at the National Lottery Heritage Fund and fellow Thackray trustee, said: “This is terribly sad news. John was a tremendous board colleague at the Thackray Museum; expert, thoughtful and hardworking.”

Helen Whitehouse, deputy director of museums and cultural property at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: “What a huge loss to the sector. John was the most engaging and inspiring person and leader. What he has done at Leeds and the amazing team he has developed creates a wonderful legacy. Sending love to his family, friends and colleagues.”

A full obituary of John Roles will be published in due course

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