Stuart Davies, who died on 13 October 2022 after a long illness, was a major figure in museums, social history and academia, influencing and shaping government policy and transforming the way museums related to their collections and their audiences.
Born near Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire in February 1953, Stuart was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Hartlebury, Worcestershire, Westfield College, the London School of Economics and the University of Leeds.
Stuart was an AMA and FMA of the Museums Association. His PhD, on the economic history of Bewdley and the Wyre Forest, was awarded in 1981. Throughout his working life Stuart wrote and published extensively – from pamphlets on pin-making, articles on museum strategy to books on local and social history. He was an active member of the Social History Curator’s Group.
He was appointed to his first museum job in 1977 as folk life assistant at Gloucester Folk Museum, where he worked toward developing an oral history archive, something he was able to develop much further in his subsequent posts at Birmingham and Kirklees.
In 1979 Stuart took up the post of assistant keeper at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and was soon promoted to deputy keeper of the newly created Local History department. Here he worked tirelessly to extend the reach of the museum to ordinary people’s lives, appointing a team of young curators armed with professional recording equipment collecting personal stories of Birmingham people and applying their knowledge to give a greater understanding to the local history collections. His scholarly yet accessible centenary history of Birmingham Museum – “By the Gains of Industry…” – has become a model history of a provincial museum.
Whilst at Birmingham he established relations with the University of Leicester’s Department of Museum Studies, working closely with the academic staff there, talking to their students and ensuring that Birmingham offered useful placements for the required practical experience in a busy social history department. He continued to support and encourage young curators throughout his working life and created opportunities for diverse people to enter the museum profession.
In 1984 Stuart moved to Yorkshire when he was appointed to head the museums and galleries service in Kirklees. Here he proceeded to build a team of young professional curators who worked across different disciplines partnering with the communities they served. The service developed a reputation for innovation, academic integrity and public engagement, and attracted major funding, enabling the refurbishment of Oakwell Hall and regeneration of the estate, redisplay of Tolson Museum and Bagshaw Museum, and a major redevelopment of Red House.
His expectation of cross disciplinary working and flexibility of purpose was the foundation of the success of the service and many of those curators that he mentored and supported went on to apply those methods in their subsequent careers in other services across the UK.
Frustrated by local authority funding cuts, and with a passion to guide the future generation in developing their management and business skills, Stuart left Kirklees to become lecturer in strategic management at Leeds University and advocated the need for greater strategic planning for the museums sector.
Particularly significant was his work at Leeds which led to the influential publication By Popular Demand: A Strategic Analysis of the Market Potential for Museums & Art Galleries in the UK (Museums & Galleries Commission, 1994). He was seconded to work as museums and access policy advisor at the then-Heritage Lottery Fund in 1997, where his advice based on many years of practical experience was much in demand. In 2000 he was appointed director of strategy and planning at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.
It was in this post that his experience of practical museum work and knowledge of strategy came to the fore as he sought to address the worrying state of regional museums and how their real potential couldn’t be realised due to the decline of public funding.
Way back in the 1970s Stuart and his museum colleagues had talked about the possibilities regarding these great regional museums, which were losing visitors and staff, their budgets declining and their potential unappreciated. This long-standing passion drove Stuart to develop the review that culminated in the publication of Renaissance in the Regions: A New Vision for England’s Museums (2001), which the government accepted as the blueprint for regenerating regional museums in England, supporting its principles and priorities with direct funding.
The results were spectacular, enabling the great civic museums and art galleries in cities like Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol to demonstrate what they could achieve in a government levelling-up campaign regarding cultural provision.
In 2004 Stuart set up his own consultancy, Stuart Davies Associates (SDA), advising and supporting museums across the UK to achieve their potential and in 2009 he won the first contested presidential election in 24 years to become the president of the Museums Association.
Stuart called on museums to “prepare for battle” to make the case for future funding. “Changes are coming” he said. “We will need the best arguments, our best case studies, our best data and statistics… Our negotiators will need to be at their best but backed up by the voices of many – not just us professionals but all our supporters out there. The time has come.”
Stuart had his demons and his struggles. He could be curmudgeonly and infuriating but to his friends he was loyal, supportive and a delight to debate with.
Above all it was his determination that all ideas from all sectors be considered, that inclusivity should not dilute academic discipline and that we should always be prepared to fight our corner that made Stuart one of the museum sector’s major influencers for a quarter of a century.
He will be missed.
Jane Glaister and Stephen Price are former colleagues from Stuart’s time at Kirklees and Birmingham respectively