Levelling up – a UK Government programme to create opportunities for everyone across the UK – is a worthy aspiration. But the government hasn’t yet realised that it’s got in the national museums collections a goldmine to help realise this ambition.
I spent my professional life in the so-called “regions” – first in Leicester then Durham, and eventually as director of galleries in Sheffield, Manchester and the vast museum service in Glasgow.
Writing my professional memoires, Art Exposed (Pallas Athene, 2023), not only helped me recall many funny and telling stories about the people I met and of life behind the scenes in galleries and museums, it also enabled me to reflect on what went wrong and is still going wrong with the museum scene in Britain.
There’s an unhealthy divide between national and regional museums that needs to be totally rethought. Funding has to remain from national and local government – museums and galleries need all the funding they can get!
But the current “class” system, with the nationals above and the regionals below, must be transformed into a creative partnership. If developed imaginatively, this could stimulate increased funding from both national and local sources, not to mention from the private sector as well.
The basic fact is that the national museums have literally millions of objects hidden in their stores that are relevant to local communities and could, if creatively displayed, provide local attractions to enhance community life and identity as well as providing foci for economic growth.
The objects in national collections are owned by everyone and can be shown anywhere. Meaningful, safe public access must take precedence over scholarly use in storage.
In my book, I tell the sorry tale of my attempt to create a National Gallery of Scottish Art and Design by combining the Scottish national collections with the regional ones in Glasgow.
The V&A Dundee is no substitute for this – for a start it’s too small and separates art from design, which Scotland’s greatest artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, so brilliantly demonstrated is a belittling misconception.
I will end by giving one personal example of what will happen when "Levelling Up" embraces museums.
I was brought up on a council estate in St Mary Cray, South London and used to cycle out as a kid into the countryside. One of my favourite places was Shoreham, a beautiful village just outside Sevenoaks.
It was only much later that I discovered that Shoreham had been the home and main inspiration for the visionary painter Samuel Palmer. I could see all the scenes I’d loved as a child in his tiny pictures – a revelation of art’s intense relationship to life.
It is perfectly possible for a gem of gallery to be established in Shoreham, celebrating Samuel Palmer (with space too for showing modern local artists’ work) without in any way depleting any national museum displays.
I’d be delighted to answer any questions anyone in government wants to ask me about what next steps need to be taken to level up museums. These are simple and won’t cost anything; they just require a different attitude of mind.
Julian Spalding is a Fellow of the Museums Association and a former museum director. During his career, he established many museums including the Ruskin Gallery, St Mungo Museum of Religious Art and Life and Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. Since retiring from the museum world, he has written several books including his memoir, Art Exposed, published by Pallas Athene Books