Profile | 'Museums have a spiritual part to play to give people solace and hope' - Museums Association

Profile | ‘Museums have a spiritual part to play to give people solace and hope’

Director Christopher Breward on the shift in priorities for National Museums Scotland
National Museums Scotland
Christopher Breward has been the director of NMS since 2020
Christopher Breward has been the director of NMS since 2020 Photography by Philip Sayer

The view from the offices of National Museums Scotland (NMS) is one of the most breathtaking in a city that has no shortage of beautiful vistas. On one side are the spires and turrets of Edinburgh’s most distinctive architectural treasures; on the other the craggy, green face of Arthur’s Seat, the mystical volcanic outcrop that dominates the city’s skyline.

“We’re looking out from a place that was built in order for us to understand what is so special about this landscape,” says Christopher Breward, who has been the director of NMS since 2020. “You look across and you see where James Hutton [the 18th-century geologist] first understood the concept of deep time, which is reflected back here in our galleries. It’s all there within touching distance.”

It’s no surprise that Breward is savouring the view from his Chambers Street headquarters. He took over from former director Gordon Rintoul on April Fool’s Day 2020 – not a date when there was much to laugh about – and was barely able to set foot in his new office for the first few months thanks to the pandemic.

“I was saying hello to everybody through a screen in their kitchens from my own home,” he says. It was an unconventional beginning but, looking back, Breward wouldn’t change a thing.

“As frustrating as it was, it allowed for a really useful sense of intimacy,” he says. “Everybody was on the same level in the context of a crisis and we built some wonderful bonds. If I had come into the job in a normal way, we wouldn’t have been able to face into some of the crunchy discussions we had to have, as well as the necessary the supportive discussions.

“It would have been a much more distant relationship – not just internally but with all of our stakeholders. I’m glad of the opportunity, although hopefully it will only come around once in our lifetime.”

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More than two years into the role, Breward is now relishing what he describes as “a fresh moment” for the institution as it emerges from the pandemic. “I’m continuing to enjoy that synergy between creativity, collections and audiences. It feels like a new beginning.”

Throughout his 35-year career, Breward has alternated between the museum, arts and university sectors. An early interest in fashion led him to take a PhD in design at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Royal College of Art in the early 1990s.

Christopher Breward

Christopher Breward has been the director of National Museums Scotland since 2020.

He was trained in London at the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Royal College of Art and has previously worked as director of collection and research at the National Galleries of Scotland, head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and as principal of Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh.

Breward’s published interests include the relationship between art and fashion, visual and cultural histories of masculinity, and histories of city life.

A stint at the London College of Fashion followed – “if you break me in half like a stick of rock there’s always fashion in there” – where he led on the research and acquisition of objects for the college’s collection. He later became the V&A’s head of research.

In 2011, an intriguing offer came up to lead a merger between Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh. Moving to Scotland was a breath of fresh air, says Breward: “The ecosystem in Scotland is different to the rest of the UK. There’s an energy to get things done, to work in partnership, without the same hierarchies and bureaucracies as there might be elsewhere.”

A view of the Grand Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland Photography by Philip Sayer

After a few years at the university, Breward became director of collections and research at National Galleries Scotland, as well as joining NMS as a trustee.

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“I’ve always got this itch to get back to museums and galleries,” he says. “There’s this electricity when our context, buildings, collections, ideas and people all come together in a way that creates pure magic, and I’ve never seen that happen in other areas of public life.”

When the role of NMS director came up, Breward jumped at the opportunity. The institution had just come to the end of a 15-year masterplan that saw the renovation of the Great Hall at the National Museum of Scotland and the redesign of most of its permanent galleries; it was the perfect time to plot the next move for the organisation.

Lockdown afforded Breward the scope to consult widely with staff and stakeholders and the result is a new five-year strategy that launched this summer.

NMS’s five new strategic aims
  • Our audiences will be more diverse, and more people will connect with our collections and their stories.
  • We will be recognised as the world leader and preferred national partner for the interpretation of and engagement with Scotland’s material heritage.
  • We will be well advanced on the path to a carbon neutral footprint and a respected resource for understanding climate and biodiversity challenges.
  • The unique potential of our collections, expertise and programmes will be shared and valued internationally.
  • We will be financially secure, supported by diverse income streams and confident in continuing to invest in our people, places and collection.
In the vanguard of change

Like many cultural institutions, NMS has moved away from the “growth, growth, growth” mindset that dominated the first decades of the 21st century.

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“That millennial idea of massive projects that are not carbon friendly and don’t necessarily result in the best experience for every visitor has become far more nuanced and we’re thinking carefully about that,” says Breward.

That doesn’t mean capital projects will stop. “Museums are like the Forth Bridge”, he adds, “there’s always something that needs attending to.” The displays in the Chambers Street site’s modern extension, which opened as the Museum of Scotland in 1998, are coming to the end of their first lifespan and will be one of the areas next in line for a refresh.

But the institution’s priorities have shifted, with a set of new aims that include enriching relationships with audiences, promoting Scotland’s natural and material heritage, and working internationally to develop cultural policy and connections.

Helping audiences connect with the “meta challenge” of the climate and biodiversity crises is one of the strategy’s most pressing goals, says Breward. It cuts across the whole organisation, with each of the institution’s five sites planning to address the crisis differently.

Recent initiatives and programming at NMS include the Extinction Bell by the sculptor Luke Jerram, which tolls at random intervals to indicate the number of species lost worldwide every 24 hours.

As part of its environmental agenda, the institution is also a partner in the CryoArks biobank initiative to preserve natural specimens for non-commercial research.

“This is one of the unique roles a museum can play – it can use its collections, experience and world-class research to start to provide better understanding so that people don’t feel helpless. It is one of the strongest areas of our activities,” says Breward.

Photography by Philip Sayer

“I’ve always thought museums have a spiritual part to play to give people solace and hope. For me, it’s not about battering visitors with pessimism or a sense of helplessness, it’s about inspiring them.”

The ethical issues that have moved to the forefront of the museum sector in recent years, such as decolonisation, representation and restitution, are also addressed in the new strategy.

“One strand is about coming to terms with and understanding our role historically as an organisation that, from its foundation, had a part to play in empire, and working with communities of origin to understand that history and build new relationships,” says Breward.

The museum is working to reinterpret some displays, particularly its Discoveries Gallery, which looks at Scotland’s role in the world.

“There’s been a positive change – coming from a position where the exhibition might have been critiqued as an example of how not to do things – we’ve seen over the past two to three years a more trusting, equal relationship there and an ability to listen to other stories. But it’s not something that you can produce immediately.”

National Museums Scotland

National Museums Scotland (NMS) is a non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government.

It oversees five sites: the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, Edinburgh; the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian, the National Museum of Rural Life in East Kilbride; the National War Museum within Edinburgh Castle; and the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton, Edinburgh.

NMS is headquartered in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, which was created in 2006 following the merger of the Museum of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Museum.

NMS is currently undertaking a number of projects looking at legacies of empire and slavery in its collections. These include Baggage and Belonging, a research project on colonial military collecting practice
and provenance at the National War Museum, and Reveal and Connect, a review of African and Caribbean collections
across Scotland.

The organisation is also working with London’s National Maritime Museum on an Arts and Humanities Research Council project, Exchange, which will fund museum partners across the UK to work with community groups exploring experiences of empire, migration, and life in Britain through their collections.

With what Breward describes as a “supportive and collaborative” relationship with central government, Scotland’s museums have been somewhat sheltered from the culture wars that have taken hold in other parts of the UK in recent years, as society has grappled with legacies of empire and a growing distrust in experts amid the pressure of the pandemic.

“People were under fire from both sides, feeling unsupported – it was a horrible, horrible position to be in – but we haven’t seen that in Scotland so much. There is vigorous debate, but it happens in a small ‘p’ political context.”

As a leader, Breward says he feels protective towards colleagues and defensive of the sector. “Museums have been an easy target in the culture wars,” he says. “I know a lot of my colleagues do the job they do because of their love for collections, visitors and the values museums bring.

“I like to think I’m a leader who defends those values. We need to stand up and protect expertise and show it’s not elitist, it’s something that can help provide solutions to the world’s problems.”

Amid an ongoing, contentious debate about what the definition of a museum should be, Breward says he is passionate about the proactive role that the sector can play in transforming society.

“If museums are to exist in the future, they have to play a useful and inspiring function in public life,” he says, defining museums as: “That unique space where collections, visitors, knowledge and inspiration come together physically and virtually to create a better world.”

It’s easy to feel idealistic against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Edinburgh skyline – but as museum definitions go, it’s not a bad one.

The Museums Association’s Annual Conference is on 3-5 November at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. The main party will be at the National Museum of Scotland

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