Letters - Museums Association


The value of investment at the Geffrye Sara Selwood’s critique of the Geffrye Museum’s new 17th-and 18th-century displays (Museums Journal …
The value of investment at the Geffrye
Sara Selwood's critique of the Geffrye Museum's new 17th-and 18th-century displays (Museums Journal February 2007, p46-47) missed the point. These are representations of rooms as they might have been experienced by people at the time, when the panelling and textiles were new and the colours were bright, and when rooms were less cluttered because their occupants had fewer possessions. The fact that this seems to remind people of 'Ikea' interiors is actually very revealing.
She is right to point out that the displays were not quite complete, but quibbles aside, she ends with a more weighty question over the value of investing in refurbishments of this sort, which surely begs a response. Investing in new displays is emphatically important and worthwhile for all museums. It helps to attract new visitors and gives existing audiences reasons to return. It allows the interpretation to be refreshed by new knowledge. It provides opportunities to use more engaging language suitable for today's audiences, in our case informed by working with focus groups. It stimulates education programmes. And it means better conservation standards and environmental controls for the objects. It's money well spent and worth every penny.
Selwood's concern was prompted, I believe, by a misreading of our visitor statistics. They were forecast to be low in 2006-07 because half the museum was closed for the gallery improvements. In fact they have held up better than expected, buoyed by a dynamic education and events programme, and since the new displays opened in November, they have risen dramatically and we have had close to record numbers. This is not 'back to pre-lottery levels' as Selwood claims, which were around half the current figure; on the contrary, it provides evidence that raising standards and achieving continued investment makes for better museums which attract more people.
David Dewing, director, Geffrye Museum, London
The dying art of dioramas
I read your article on dioramas (Museums Journal February 2007, p33-35) with interest. Although I agree with the sentiment expressed and some of the statements in the article, unfortunately the plight of natural history dioramas is far from safe. I am certain that I do not need to highlight the situation within the Natural History Museum in London. Across Europe many dioramas have been destroyed and many others are under threat from neglect. Over the past year the International Council of Museums and Collections of Natural History (ICOM NatHist) has been highlighting the plight of natural history dioramas with a number of papers published in our
journal. We have also recently had a full discussion at our annual meeting, which was held in New Zealand last November.
A discussion on this subject will also be taking place at the ICOM triennial
meeting in Vienna later this year, for which we are at present appealing for papers. Perhaps I can point you to our website where you will be able to access four
published papers and further details of the meeting taking place in Vienna:
Adrian Norris, co-chair, Working Group on the Art of Taxidermy
and its Cultural Importance
Scotland expects a better deal
Recent commentary on the widening divide in funding opportunities north and south of the border and the ambiguous relationships and roles that British national institutions have in Scotland rightly bring these issues out for open debate.
Since Scotland's much-heralded devolution, few would argue that this has been to the advantage of Scotland's museums. Whilst Renaissance has its supporters and detractors, the net result has been an investment in the sector south of the border that proportionately outweighs investment in developing Scottish museums by at least 2:1.
Yet the work undertaken on Scotland's Culture Bill, the National Audit of museums and galleries and now the Significance Scheme has been substantial. It is right to review strategy, take stock and understand the importance of our collections, but at what point does this knowledge translate into real investment into what everyone knows is a chronically underfunded sector?
With regard to the second point, if British institutions wish to remain truly British we must look to develop their next projects in partnership with the other home nations. After Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool, we look forward with relish to the new Tate Dundee!
John Stewart-Young,
project director, McManus Galleries and Museum, Dundee
Gainsborough criticism is premature
Your 'review' of the recent building renovation project at Gainsborough's House (Museums Journal January 2007, p42-43) was based on several misunderstandings. The author had not fully understood the remit of the project, which is Phase II of a larger scheme and encompasses the restoration of the historic house that was the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough and the establishment of an education and outreach programme.
The central error was that it was a review of a project that was unfinished. Although the major structural building work and refurbishment were finished in autumn 2006, there are still several additional tasks that are awaiting completion. These include the construction of a covered walkway, and the installation of new light fittings, window blinds and the production of signage and interpretation material. The reviewer's criticism of the lack of good lighting and interpretation was therefore premature.
The article failed to mention any of the major aspects of the project, such as the creation of a study gallery for storage, the installation of a lift or the great improvement to the environmental controls.
Gainsborough's House (unlike many museums) took the brave decision to stay open throughout the entire building project. Perhaps it is for this reason that definite start and finish dates are not so easily apparent.
Diane Perkins, director, Gainsborough's House, Suffolk
Race should not be the sole criterion
Having read Claire White's letter (Museum's Journal February 2007, p14), I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with everything said. I thoroughly agree that ethnic diversification of the museum workforce is a good idea and one worth pursuing in earnest. However, as pointed out, there is little provision made specifically for those who wish to pursue a career in the museum's profession from less wealthy backgrounds, irrespective of ethnic identity.
In the interests of full and equal diversification of the workforce, the needs of those who wish to work in museums, but find the cost of such an action prohibitive, need to be met. Typically, someone attempting to follow this profession needs to study for a first degree, a master's and then undergo a period of voluntary work. All of which is extremely expensive and rules out the possibility of attempting to find professional employment within the museum profession for those who come from less wealthy backgrounds.
Closing the doors financially on prospective museum professionals because of social background is not only unfair, but robs the sector of a fully diversified workforce and a large number of potentially excellent and committed members.
Neil Lees, collections documentation assistant, Hull Museum Service

I am writing in response to Claire White's letter about unfairness in the Museum Association's (MA) Diversify scheme. I also have had mixed-feelings about this scheme, but have found it hard to air my views due to the political sensitivity of
the issue.
I speak from the point of view of someone who would be classed as from an ethnic minority and, were the scheme available when I undertook my master's degree six years ago, I would have been eligible. However, I would not have applied to the scheme on principle. I want to make my way in the museum profession through the merit of my work, not the colour of my skin. Even though the financial help would have been appreciated, I could not have countenanced having an elevated position that was not made on the basis of practical need and ability.
If the museum sector wishes to be truly diverse, then it should look at all the practical problems faced by people who want to enter the profession. Inevitably, these are financial. Undertaking postgraduate study is expensive. The prospects for a decent wage straight after graduating are slim, so there are some years before the benefits of an extra qualification are realised.
Are we shutting doors to those who demonstrate flair, creativity and dedication by ignoring barriers to the profession faced by those of limited economic means because this problem is just not sexy enough?
Tehmina Goskar, University of Southampton

I completed my master's in museum studies over a year ago; I also have three years' voluntary experience within a museum. I still have had little luck with museum jobs. Nearly all entry-level jobs that I have had interviews for have gone to people with apparently more experience. It is ludicrous that there are very few opportunities for people starting out in museums. Diversify might be good, but why are there no schemes for people outside ethnic minority groups?
Paul Barrell

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