Profile | 'Our exhibitions can be broader, bigger and bolder' - Museums Association

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Profile | ‘Our exhibitions can be broader, bigger and bolder’

Douglas Gilmore, the managing director of the Museum of London Docklands, on his plans to raise the profile of the venue
Leadership
Photography by Philip Sayer

 “I don’t suppose I’m a typical museum director,” says Douglas Gilmore, the managing director of the Museum of London Docklands, which is on West India Dock, next to Canary Wharf. He began his post in April last year and is the museum’s first managing director.

The Museum of London Docklands tells the diverse story of the port, river and city. With a focus on trade, migration and commerce, the venue has one of only three permanent galleries to tell the history of the transatlantic slave trade in the UK.

Gilmore has joined the museum at a pivotal time as the main Museum of London site at London Wall shuts its doors until 2026, when it reopens at a site nearby at West Smithfield. The Museum of London Docklands is taking on a bigger remit during a period when it will be the organisation’s only open site.

Douglas Gilmore

Douglas Gilmore was appointed managing director of the Museum of London Docklands last April.  His career has focused on retail and franchising, and in 2009 he became the trading director of London’s National Gallery, where he stayed until 2020.

He was commercial director at the Ashmolean in Oxford before moving to his current role. Above and left: permanent galleries feature displays of artefacts related to the port, river and city and include an immersive recreation of Sailortown, a district near the docks during the years 1840 to 1850.

With the main venue closed, Gilmore is keen to expand the Docklands museum’s brief to tell even more London stories. “As long as there’s a connection to London, our exhibitions can be broader, bigger and bolder,” he says. “And we’ve kicked that off with the show Executions.”

Tracing the history of public executions – starting with hanging, drawing, quartering, burning and boiling in medieval England – from the 12th century to the 19th, the exhibition (until 16 April) was originally scheduled to run at the main Museum of London site.

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“It was planned pre-Covid for London Wall, but because that site is closing, we moved it here instead,” he says. “It’s great.”

With an exhibition such as this, there are opportunities for macabre merchandise. “You can bring a bit of humour even into execution,” says Gilmore. “We’re selling a tea towel that says, ‘a well-executed gingerbread’ and shows a gingerbread person with the head snapped off. It’s relevant in that gingerbread was a popular snack sold at public executions.”

Visitors in the Executions exhibition at Museum of London Docklands Museum of London
Capital ideas

The business side to running a museum is one of Gilmore’s strengths, having been trading director at the National Gallery in London for 11 years. “I increased the profits there by running a bigger events business and being bolder with licensing, by selling images to Louis Vuitton for handbags for example,” he says. “I refitted shops and renegotiated the catering contracts to increase revenue. I hope to bring some of that to Docklands.”

He is passionate about the Museum of London Docklands and its place in history and wants it to thrive and grow. “It’s in the East End for a reason – the building is incredibly important, and intrinsic to the stories that it’s telling,” says Gilmore. 

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Housed in a Grade I-listed converted Georgian sugar warehouse, the brick building was completed in 1802 for the West India Dock Company. 

“Before the docks were built, ships could wait months for their goods to be unloaded at one of the few Legal Quays between London Bridge and the Tower,” he says. “But so much was stolen or wasted; so the idea behind building the docks was to provide complete security for vessels and their cargo. It was the first of the seven docks to be built and it had 30ft walls around it. You couldn’t enter unless you worked here – it was a secretive place.

“Dock workers would queue up at the gate and wait for a foreman to decide who could come in to work and for how long – it might be for a day; it might be for a few hours. So, this building very much represents a social working history. And never forget, the same ships that brought the produce here, also transported enslaved people from Africa to the Americas.” 

On show in Executions, this axe was made specifically to execute the five ringleaders of the Cato Street conspiracy, who in 1820 plotted to kill the prime minister and members of government Museum of London

One of the main challenges for Gilmore is the museum’s location. The fact that it is opposite Canary Wharf and so many banking headquarters means he has to bring the crowds out to Docklands.

“We’re doing some research into this, and what we’re finding is quite positive in the sense that people don’t find us hard to get to,” he says. “You’ve got the DLR, you’ve got the Jubilee line, and you’ve now got the Elizabeth line, so you can come from further west and east London quite easily where you couldn’t before.”

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So, with good transport links, bolder exhibitions, a history that Gilmore is passionate about and his expertise in running a business, who does he see as the museum’s new audiences?

“We have an aim as an organisation to represent London, and this city is 40% minority ethnic. We do well in the sense that 23% of our audience is minority ethnic,” says Gilmore. “There are only two other museums that get near 20%, and that includes nationals. But as I said, London is 40%, so we need to improve that.”

He sees recruitment as key to changing audience profile. “How and who we recruit has an impact, but inclusivity is important as well. It’s not just about being diverse, we have to make the museum known to diverse communities,” he says. “So we have to get out there and tell people about us, as well as give them a reason to visit.”

One of the cornerstones of the museum’s conversation on inclusion has been to remove the statue of Robert Milligan from outside the museum. “He was once chairman of the West India Dock Company and was instrumental in getting these docks built,” says Gilmore.

However, Milligan was also a slave trader and owner. “His statue was originally erected near the dock offices in 1813 and has moved
several times before being placed outside the museum building in 1997,” he says.

“After the reaction to George Floyd’s murder, and the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston being toppled in Bristol, the museum worked with our local authority of Tower Hamlets and the Canal and River Trust, who own the land on the quayside, to take it down.

The London, Sugar and Slavery gallery is one of just three permanent exhibitions on the transatlantic slave trade in the UK Museum of London

“It was removed in 2020 and then in 2021 it was decided that it would become part of our collection. So, we actually own it now,” says Gilmore. “It is not on display; it is in our object store in Hackney. And with our senior curator, we will undertake community consultation before making a proposal to our board of governors on what we do with it.”

Another aim is to increase international ties. “We have an obvious one in the connection with the West Indies,” he says. “We’re already in conversations with the West India Committee about how we can link ourselves up better and increase the profile of the museum.

“It’s about building connections, bigger, bolder exhibitions, getting more sponsorship, getting more people in,” he says. “There’s a lot to do.”

The Museum of London Docklands

The Museum of London Docklands opened in 2003 and is a branch of the Museum of London. The Docklands site is taking on a higher profile as the Museum of London has closed its London Wall venue prior to opening in its new home at West Smithfield in 2026.

The Museum of London Docklands is housed in what was originally No 1 Warehouse at West India Docks. Opened in 1802, the West India Docks were London’s first enclosed dock system. The museum examines the history of the area, with one of its three permanent galleries being devoted to the transatlantic slave trade. Key aims include growing awareness of the Museum of London Docklands brand and increasing  visitor numbers.

 

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