Creative thinking is the way forward

We must rethink the way we use buildings and collections
Ellen McAdam
In a few months, Birmingham Museums Trust will be four years old. In many ways, the trust is a success: visitor numbers are up, audiences are more diverse and self-generated income has grown to more than 60% of turnover. But like all local authority or former local authority services, we face an existential crisis created by the decline in public funding. To survive, we need to think creatively.

The city’s demographics continue to change, and 46% of the population is black and minority ethnic. It is also the city with the youngest population in Europe. The professional middle classes, who traditionally supported culture, are being hollowed out by technology. People have less leisure time – and more ways to spend it. They look for social experiences in which they can participate actively as a family or group.

To meet the needs of new audiences, we must rethink the way we use buildings and collections. Heritage sites such as Aston Hall, Birmingham’s first museum, are increasingly successful at engaging local communities and generating income. Thinktank, the science museum, is popular with family audiences. The museum and art gallery in the city centre offers gracious top-lit galleries, but has infrastructure and access problems. A capital project addressing these will also afford the opportunity of redisplaying one of the UK’s great civic collections to engage people with diverse cultural heritages.

Audience research informs how we shape future displays. Visitors and non-visitors tell us that they want museums to be safe places in which people can explain their differences to each other. Being a safe place does not necessarily mean having safe conversations. We will address topics of current interest such as faith, migration, health and gender.

Research also shows that a wide cross-section of our audience is interested in Birmingham’s history. This goes beyond local history to the city’s role on the world stage. We have a great collection precisely because Birmingham was the second city of the British empire, making it one of the wealthiest places in the world. The collection has the potential to tell stories about the impact of colonialism on people all over the globe, putting the city in its international context and explaining how today’s Birmingham developed.

We are developing a research framework with local universities. It is important that interpretation is underpinned not only by accurate information but by stimulating ideas.

However, knowledge is not confined to curators or academics: there is a huge range of expertise among our audiences that we can tap into through joint decision-making and crowdsourcing. Our Heritage Lottery Fund-supported Collecting Birmingham project and new Faith in Birmingham gallery reflect our commitment to co-production.

Digital and social media offer exciting chances to transcend traditional interpretation and communicate in different ways with different audiences. But the contact between the individual visitor and the real object remains at the heart of the museum experience. Growing and diversifying audiences at all our venues is key to increasing income from traditional commercial activities. We are also exploring new sources of income, including international touring, teaching, consultancy and licensing. Arts Council England is supporting the creation of a network of local authority and trust museums that will enable us all to share experiences and good practice as we tread the somewhat rocky route from publicly funded service to self-sustaining business.

The UK’s regional museums care for collections of unparalleled richness and variety. Let’s hope we can rise to the challenge and find ways of ensuring this national asset continues to inspire, educate and entertain the people of Britain for another century.

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