Obituary | John Millard, 1950-2020 - Museums Association

Obituary | John Millard, 1950-2020

One of the profession's genuine superheroes, John was devoted to making people from all walks of life feel welcome in museums
David Fleming
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John Millard had a long career working in Newcastle and Liverpool
John Millard had a long career working in Newcastle and Liverpool

With the recent death of John Millard, the museum profession has lost one of its genuine superheroes. John had been living with Parkinson’s disease for some years and had tested positive for Covid-19.

I first met John in 1990, when I was told by someone who had clashed with him that whatever John said, he actually meant the opposite! Of course this turned out not to be true, though we had many a laugh over it in ensuing years. In fact, laughter is what I most associate with John - he was a great laugh, and he managed to see the humour in everything, no matter how serious things might have seemed to the rest of us.

John, who in 1990 was the curator of the Laing Art Gallery (he had been in charge at Gateshead’s Shipley Art Gallery and he later agreed to become the senior curator for Newcastle upon Tyne), was a talented artist. We had great fun concocting the series of Tyne & Wear Museums’ (TWM) annual reports during the 1990s that in so many ways encapsulated the changes that TWM underwent. John’s renditions of Alice in Wonderland characters, Shakespearean figures and Michael Caine in the Get Culture edition of those annual reports were artistic masterpieces that carried a serious, people-oriented message that was so typical of John.

After helping massively increase the size of museum audiences in Newcastle, John relocated himself and his family to Liverpool in the 21st century to become the head of the World Museum. Working for National Museums Liverpool (NML), his challenge was again to create cultural change and to develop the audience base, tasks that he relished. Once more, he delivered, and the World Museum became the flagship of management for the entire UK museum profession.

John used to go along with the fiction of having been educated at Charterhouse public school, despite being from a far humbler background. He fitted the TWM and NML moulds perfectly, right down to his penchant for lager (when it was someone else’s round he always asked for the most expensive lager available; he invariably had to settle for the cheapest).

John had the ability to get along with everyone, regardless of their background, from Princess Margaret (what an encounter that must have been!), to business leaders, to the most ordinary of museum visitors. Unlike many people in the art world, John was never snobby about art. He was a guiding light behind Art on Tyneside, which for years graced the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, leading to the gallery becoming far more popular with the public (and with the politicians who voted for the gallery’s funding) than it had ever been before.

What I shall remember most about John is that he was genuinely devoted to welcoming ordinary people, in all their diversity, into museums; that he was mischievous; that he was iconoclastic; and that he was always up for change.

He was a bona fide scholar who never forgot that scholarship needed to be understood if it was to be effective. He will be greatly missed by his family (he leaves Dorothy, his wife, and two daughters, Katherine and Rosie) and by those who were fortunate enough to call themselves his colleagues and friends. For all those who knew John, a light has gone out.

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David Fleming is a former director of National Museums Liverpool and Tyne and Wear Museums and is a former president of the Museums Association

Comments (5)

  1. Emma Heslewood says:

    What a wonderful tribute. So sorry to hear of John’s death. Art on Tyneside and TWAM both inspired me to work in museums. When I got my first paid job at Discovery Museum in 2000 I was delighted and got to work with John as he led the redevelopment team. Will never forget his drive, big smile and sense of humour. Rest in peace.

  2. Claire Benjamin says:

    A wonderful dedication David, for a wonderful man, the great John Millard. There were certainly big shoes to fill when John left World Museum, he had something special and many people remember his generosity, his mischief and his tireless work around diversifying museum audiences. Rest in peace John.

  3. Helen Fothergill says:

    I had the delight of sharing a tiny office with John for a period at the then Hancock Museum, surrounded by insect, bones and volumes of geological research. He delighted in where he was working, even though it was so far out of his comfort zone. Whenever we met up, years later, I would be hugged like a long lost relative. I remember his humour, empathy, wariness and down to earth approach. Inspiring. He will be greatly missed.

  4. Caroline Whitehead says:

    John’s creativity, energy and love of challenges was refreshing and inspiring. Working for John at the Laing Art Gallery and Discovery Museum was anything but dull! Even if meetings were sometimes dull he enlivened them with his doodles and caricatures. He encouraged his staff to be creative and to think big – and I will always be grateful for his support. I’ll never forget his laugh and his sense of fun. One of life’s great characters – he will be missed.

  5. Neil Sinclair says:

    I was a colleague of John’s for over twenty five years from the beginnings of Tyne & Wear Museums in 1975. I saw and admired how he transformed first the Shipley Art Gallery, an institution that had lost its way, and then the Laing, where he quite literally put the Gallery back into the Newcastle City centre through the new high profile and accessible entrance, in addition to greatly increasing its audience through displays and exhibitions. At Discovery he again impressively widened its visitor base as he led a major redevelopment. Having sat together through years of management team meetings, I also know how much John contributed to the wider policy of the museums service. When we met in recent times we talked about the achievements – and the occasional problems – we had experienced and it was clear that John had lost none of his zeal for museums. Many of the great successes of Tyne and Wear were due to John and he should be long remembered for these.

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