John was born in north London before his family moved to Cheltenham in 1966, which became his home for the rest of his childhood. His passion for local history began while he was at secondary school, winning a school prize for his research into the history of Leckhampton. He went on to the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1980 with a BA Hons in history.
After university John returned to his hometown, gaining experience at Cheltenham Museum, initially on a voluntary basis and then as the museum’s education officer in 1981. He then returned to university, taking the MA in English local history at the University of Leicester, graduating in 1983.
While John was researching his first published book, Cheltenham in Old Picture Postcards, the opportunity came for him to become the first full-time museum curator of a new independent museum in Royston, Hertfordshire. He was at Royston Museum from 1983 until 1986, honing his curatorial skills across the town’s varied collections and sharing his love of local history with visitors.
John then joined the Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums in Brighton, initially as the keeper of local history, folk life and archaeology in 1986, progressing to become senior keeper and then head of collections from 1997 to 2004.
During his time at Brighton, John led an award-winning community history project, My Brighton, curated numerous exhibitions and authored several books and catalogues. He later took the role of project manager, leading a £10m refurbishment of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, which reopened in 2002.
In 2004 John moved north to become the head of Leeds Museums & Galleries (LMG), part of Leeds City Council; a role that he made his own and where he achieved great success. He stayed at Leeds for the rest of his career until his declining health forced him to retire just a few weeks, as it transpired, before his death from cancer in November 2020.
At the time he joined, LMG’s then seven sites were receiving around 350,000 visits a year. In 2018/19, the last full year’s figures available, just shy of 1.7m people were welcomed to the organisation’s nine sites. This was a key achievement of John’s leadership. He also allowed LMG colleagues to get on and do their jobs, and was rewarded with great loyalty and respect from his staff.
John led the organisation to major capital investment both from Leeds City Council and from external funders such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The seven venues became nine because this investment enabled the creation of a new collections store, Leeds Discovery Centre, in 2007, and the development of Leeds City Museum, which opened the following year. Numerous other projects are part of John’s legacy, including the visitor centre at Kirkstall Abbey, the Fashion Galleries at Lotherton Hall and a new roof at Leeds Art Gallery.
This work provided the facilities LMG needed, but John was always about people. He oversaw significant ongoing investment in staff teams, initially through funding from the Renaissance in the Regions programme and then through Arts Council England. Through this work John was able to champion learning and community programmes, which were at the heart of his passion for museums. He wanted to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together with each other and with museum collections.
He believed in participation and making museums accessible and inclusive spaces, a commitment that he imbued across LMG. Leading an organisation where around 70% of museum visitors are from Leeds or Yorkshire suited John’s strong sense of civic duty – he was working for the people and communities of the city and region.
John was an encouraging supporter of others – someone who could straddle the roles of director, colleague, mentor and friend with ease. He was a great sounding board for ideas or when you had a problem and would offer his insight as to a way forward. This applied equally to colleagues and friends in the wider museum world.
John was hugely supportive of the sector; he was a trustee of the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, formerly a trustee of Burton Constable Hall near Hull, and was involved in numerous groups such as the National Museum Directors’ Council, English Civic Museums Network and the Museums Association.
Many people have remembered John’s great sense of humour and what fun he was to be around. He said things as he saw them, which may on occasion have included the odd expletive. He was generous, warm and would always make time for people. He cared about the people he worked with, and they him. He is so greatly missed by all his sector friends and colleagues.
Yvonne Hardman is the interim head of Leeds Museums & Galleries. With additional information on John’s early life from his brother Brian Roles