I am looking forward to welcoming delegates to our beautiful city and region for the Museums Association Conference 2023.
For those who haven’t visited before you can be assured of warmth and good humour from local people and a region that can, at its best, take your breath away with the beauty of its architecture, coastline and wild spaces.
Hopefully you will also see how proud local people are of our museums and cultural venues, which are fundamental to the identity of the area.
Conference 2023: The Power of Museums
Don’t miss this year’s MA Conference – taking place online and in Newcastle-Gateshead from 7-9 November.
However, scratch the surface and it’s not hard to find the impacts of tough economic times, long-term austerity (stretching back before many of us commonly used that word) and a huge disconnect from the centre of decision-making in London and the south-east.
As always, it was great to see pictures earlier this year in local newspapers of celebratory young people collecting their GCSE results. The headlines, though, told a worrying story.
Once again, national figures, released by Ofqual, showed that the north-east has the lowest number of GCSE entries awarded the top grades in the country – some 10.8% lower than in London and the gap wider than the year before. It was also notable that the next two lowest performers were the north-west and Yorkshire, making it a real north/south divide.
Again, though, this failure by all of us towards the young people of the north-east is a symptom of much deeper and more concerning statistics. The region now has the highest levels of child poverty anywhere in the UK, with two in five children growing up in poverty and rates growing faster than anywhere else.
Shockingly, almost two-thirds of children from Black or minoritised ethnic communities in the region are estimated to be in poverty while more than a third of disabled children in the region are also living below the poverty line. Sadly, the region tops the national charts again in long-term ill health and low life expectancy.
Frankly it’s a national disgrace.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with museums and it’s a question that we have been asking ourselves at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam) for a while now.
As an organisation that runs nine museums, galleries and heritage sites across Tyneside, we are deeply rooted in our communities and have long been working to support health and wellbeing, and young people, with great success. Our collections speak of the entire history of the region and its communities, and our venues are much loved.
Many museums across the country discovered during the pandemic that it was possible to “pivot”, to react quickly and focus on supporting immediate concerns and pressures in communities at that time.
But what if we could pivot our entire mission and completely refocus the whole organisation over the long term on how we support our communities?
That’s exactly what we are trying to do. Our mission now is focused not on what we are but how we can make available our amazing assets – collections, buildings, brilliant staff team – to impact on the immediate challenges facing our communities.
It is opening up all sorts of interesting opportunities and a few conundrums, which I am happy to share with anyone who asks.
Of course the success of all of this lies in our partnerships, like our Ways to Play campaign offering properly free or low-cost days out at museums by removing the costs of transport thanks to the operators of the Metro system, or working with other cultural venues in Newcastle and Gateshead and third sector partners on turning volunteering into employment and a comprehensive work experience offer.
This whole-region approach to the challenges our communities face will take a further step forward next year with the advent of a new combined mayoral authority for the north-east with devolved powers to make change.
It is no surprise but still heartening to see that culture and heritage are, for the first time, specifically mentioned in such a devolution agreement, which underlines the continuing fundamental role that Twam and other museums in the region will have in supporting the people and economy of the north east in the coming years. We are more than ready to step up and fulfil that role.
My hope for conference this year is that, particularly for those of us in leadership positions, we can look beyond moaning about our own concerns of leaky roofs and funding cuts, and instead recognise the privilege we have of looking after museums, galleries and collections, and the responsibility this brings to make them work at their most effective for the communities we serve.
Keith Merrin is the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums