Debate: Should museums charge for entry? #museumhour

Update:

This debate has now happened. You can explore it on Storify.

Essential info:

On 11 April at 20:00 BST (UK time) Museum Hour is debating the thorny and loaded question of entry charges for museums.

We are helping the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) with their crucial research on this issue which is primarily being conducted through a sector-wide survey: The Impact of Charging Museum Admission. The deadline for taking part is 11 April as well but AIM may extend this by a couple of days following the #museumhour debate.

The research is being undertaken by DC Research and also in partnership with Arts Council England and also supported by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Museum Hour will Storify the debate shortly afterwards and the interactions will feed into the broader research into the question of museum admission charges.

Go straight to the museum charging survey.

There is a lot of misinformation about museums and entry charges, and a lot of misunderstanding within the sector and its audiences. Free museum entry to UK Nationals is pretty much the only manifesto pledge you will see on most political parties’ agendas that have much to do with museums in society. Is there a sense that the expectation of free entry confuses some museum visitors who hesitate when confronted with an admission fee–not helped by national radio DJs proclaiming that “we have to keep our museums free.” Lines could also be blurred with the socially-defining issue of library closure.

Echoing the social worth and function of their museums many Local Authority museums have supported free entry as a way to embed their role in their communities but in the Age of Austerity several museums face pressure to introduce entry charges to improve their income streams against a backdrop of falling and failing grants–that’s if they aren’t facing total closure.

Of course there is the huge (majority) independent museum sector for whom income from admission fees is a strategically crucial part of their sustainability and have happily charged for years without being at odds with their moral and social contract with society. Some have also gone free having seen that entry charging was limiting their work and also their resilience.

The national press has picked up on this issue, including the Financial Times. Sector commentators have put their views forward on this topic. The Museums Association has come out strongly in favour of defending free entry to civic museums. Civic museums are not well-defined in their context (except as Local Authority museums which used to be free) — another facet to this debate that needs better engagement.

On the other hand those running successful independent museums who are fully engaged in their commercial and market viability present a slightly different view. This Apollo Feature on museum charging contains both views.

This is a very complex and confusing picture which will not result in one answer that all museums can apply. But to have the starting point of good, solid research can only be a good thing to help the museum sector understand how it is they are seen by society and what society expects from us.

It is incredible to think that proper research on this fundamental issue for museums has not already happened. As the UK Government in its recent Culture White Paper announced it is going to review museums (which ones, how and why as yet undetermined) I cannot think of a more crucial issue for Whitehall and politicians to engage with than how museums are perceived by their communities, and the visitors to those communities, and surely the question of who pays and at what point is basic to this understanding?

Here is a taster of some of the questions and provocations that we are chairing on the night. We will be inviting new and different questions from the floor too:

  • Are we asking the right question? Free entry museums need money from somewhere so should museum funding change?
  • If people expect to pay for tickets to the cinema, theatre and football, why not museums and galleries?
  • Is museum charging a practical funding problem or an ethical and moral issue? And whose problem is it?
  • Free at the point of use? Do museums’ ethical responsibilities towards its communities mean #museumcharge becomes a barrier?
  • Do you charge entry for everyone? Which categories of visitor go free?
  • As a museum and gallery visitor, are you more likely to visit a free museum than one that charges?

#migration and #museums

A migration story at the NZ Maritime Museum in Auckland.

A migration story at the NZ Maritime Museum in Auckland.

How do museums represent, present and interpret migrant stories? Museumhour from 25 January 2016.

I was inspired to host this topic following my visit to museums in New Zealand in Auckland (National Maritime Museum of New Zealand) and Wellington (Wellington Museum and Te Papa National Museum). All these museums featured the stories of migrants heavily. In fact the whole human history of the islands is one of migration from the first Maori voyages to the latest migrations from other parts of the Pacific and the Far East. It was good to see them presented so honestly.

I found myself enchanted and enthralled by the stories because you can’t get more human a story than that of deciding to move away from home.

We captured our great debate on #migration and #museums on museumhour’s Storify:

https://storify.com/museumhour/migration-and-museums

A history of Cornwall through objects

Padstow's Obby Oss used for its world famous May Day celebrations (c) Padstow Museum

Padstow’s Obby Oss used for its world famous May Day celebrations (c) Padstow Museum

In September I was commissioned to help develop and create content for a digital history of Cornwall through its objects alla History of the World in 100 Objects format and fame.

A booklet of 100 objects chosen from collections across Cornwall’s museums had already been created by Museum Development Officers showcasing everything from a cork model of St Michael’s Mount made by one of its butlers and on show there, to a commemorative football medal from Mexico. The booklet had enjoyed limited circulation, and in particular, did not make much of an impact on audiences that did not visit museums and heritage sites in Cornwall.

This project, funded via a grant from Arts Council England, is available via the Museums in Cornwall website that showcases information and events from Cornish museums:

http://www.museumsincornwall.org.uk/100-Objects/

This was an exercise in writing for the web and exhibition interpretation. Using pre-selected (or curated) objects chosen by the museums themselves I was challenged with writing the stories that linked them together — some more seamlessly than others. Some objects appeared within more than one story while others found a place in some more unexpected themes such as Cornish Journeys or Customs but I think these work better than the more pedestrian, War, Mining and Sport. It’s an alternative history of Cornwall.

Journeys
Pilgrimage and plant hunting

It takes a long time to get to Cornwall from most places in Britain, whether by road, rail or air.

Until the introduction of motorised transport most Cornish people walked the long distance to get from town to town, or from home to work. Many of the surviving waymarking crosses we see scattered across our landscape still mark the ancient routes that people used.

Pilgrimage was an important motive for starting a long journey. From the early Middle Ages St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’s most recognisable landmark, was a very significant pilgrimage site. Pilgrims from Britain and Ireland would have walked the 12.5 miles (19.5km) along St Michael’s Way, a route from Lelant near St Ives, to Marazion and the Mount. From here pilgrims could also make their way by sea to Mont Saint-Michel and other pilgrimage sites in Brittany and beyond…

Read more from Cornish Journeys.

At heart, I am a creative organiser of information which makes me deeply sensitive to the dull ways in which many museums and academics categorise and class collections. One entire section of my PhD thesis was a critique of taxonomy arguing that although the common language of classification helps scholars and researchers share information (like a common metadata standard) ultimately the structural interpretation of our material culture can be a major barrier to wider understanding–yes it’s about our audiences.

The History of Cornwall Through its Objects was therefore an attempt to blend the expected and the unexpected together. To tell new stories from Cornish heritage as well as reassure by telling favoured stories perhaps in a new way. I’m not sure this piece of digital heritage has succeeded particularly well. I have no idea of the analytics or even who is using it or coming across it. I have my doubts about its discoverability. The CMS that structured the data was quirky and bizarre to say the least but I can hope that the content will live on and somewhere out there it will fascinate people who love Cornwall and Cornish history.

Exhibitions development at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall

In July 2013 I was contracted by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall to provide maternity cover for their exhibitions development role, and in particular to develop new shows for their small but multi-layered Quarterdeck gallery.

The first exhibition I was charged with installing From the Loft Floor (Sep 2013-Jan 2014). This show of reportage drawings by Anna Cattermole revealed the build of a traditional Scillonian pilot cutter by Luke Powell at his boatyard, Working Sail.20130918_100716

The thirteen drawings were interpreted in the artist’s words in accompanying captions. We complemented the artwork with a film by Steve Morris of Ideaplus, a display of authentic boatbuilding tools from the NMMC collection, a half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter, and a tactile display of tools on a workbench (sensitively secured to prevent over-excitement and caulking mallets getting the better of each other).

Tactile work bench with boat building tools and apprentice pieces from Falmouth Marine School.

Tactile work bench with boat building tools and apprentice pieces from Falmouth Marine School.

It was a joy to install–much credit to the previous work on the project by Anna Cattermole and the person whose role I am covering. An ideal show for the Autumn with its muted colours easy browsing layout. The artist also provided visitors with a free newspaper-style guide to her project. Anna’s drawings were started and completed on site, live. She did not use sketches or photographs to revisit them.

The opportunity to display objects from the museum’s collection was a particular highlight for someone like me who finds the act of object interpretation and display deeply satisfying. The half model of the Falmouth pilot cutter was a challenge to install owing to its age and size but it created beautiful lines and gave much needed height to the exhibition space.

Half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter made from the NMMC's collection.

Half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter made from the NMMC’s collection. 

The next show is a big one that is currently only partly developed in style and concept on smuggling during its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Time to get my historian’s hat on and also get inventive about how to make tax evasion an interesting subject.

 

Top ten for heritage digitisation projects

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Preparing for digitisation: Record photograph from an album in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust.

Digitisation usually refers to making collections data, including images and other media, available online. But it may also refer to making any quantitative (e.g. historical datasets) or qualitative information (exhibition and learning resources) available and discoverable via the web.

A digital collection usually comprises an object record describing the object, its composition or makeup and other descriptive elements. It may have an associated image, video, audio or document with it. Sophisticated digital collections will display links to related objects and information. Some are aggregated into larger digital repositories which allow you to search across several collections such as Culture Grid or Europeana.

The digitisation movement in the UK heritage sector started in earnest under the New Opportunities Fund Digitisation (NOF-digi) programme, funded by the National Lottery between 2001-3/4. One of my previous projects, Hantsphere, was part of this. NOF-digi projects taught heritage and cultural technologists a lot about good and bad practice, and most importantly about sustainability. A significant amount of data remains undiscoverable and in some cases has been lost altogether through lack of onward funding and resources within the organisations that ran these projects. Continue reading

A bad curator blames their tools

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

I have been a member of the Social History Curators Group (SHCG) for a few years now. Of all the professional groups and societies dedicated to museum and collections work I have found SHCG to be the most useful. Most degrees and qualifications in museum studies (or indeed heritage management) lack opportunities for sustained subject-specialist training unless it is part of an internship, vocational attachment or similar activity. That’s why SHCG and other curatorial networks are so important.

FirstBASE is SHCG’s recently launched online resources centre, an invaluable library of information for anyone dealing with social (and industrial) collections. SHCG also organises training events and when I saw one advertised for identifying tools I leapt at the opportunity. Here is my review, which will also appear in a forthcoming SHCG newsletter.

Training Review: What is it? Identifying mystery objects: trade tools

Venue: M-Shed, Bristol, 4 March 2013

I didn’t know a twybil from an adze before the training. By the end of the day I could enthusiastically explain the difference between a dado plane and a plough plane.

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Curating the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and Scilly

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (credit: Hypatia Trust)

My first commission since relocating to Penzance, Cornwall was an audit of the little-known Elizabeth Treffry collection held by the Hypatia Trust that serves to document the lives and works of women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Meeting Hypatia

Having heard much about the Hypatia Trust and its founder, Dr. Melissa Hardie, publisher, author and collector, I wandered into Trevelyan House on historic Chapel Street on a cold January morning to find out more. A warm welcome and two hours of chat resulted in the start of a working relationship and friendship that I hope will last for many years.

…to collect, and make available, published and personal documentation about the achievements of women in every aspect of their lives.

(Ethos of the Hypatia Trust)

The situation I was greeted with goes something like this. The Hypatia Trust exists to further the knowledge of and about women and her achievements. It has a strong basis in understanding women in their regional or geo-historical contexts and so Hypatia exists in several locales, including Hypatia in the Woods in Shelton, Washington in the USA. Its ethos is strongly based in academic and intellectual pursuits and so collecting, especially books, is central to its activities.

Melissa Hardie, in the name of the Hypatia Trust, has already donated significant collections to libraries across the world from Exeter to Bonn, with the sole motive to improve the knowledge and visibility of women in social and historical studies. Other landmark achievements are the creation of the West Cornwall Art Archive with Newlyn Art Gallery and the innovative Cornish Artists Index, a freely accessible online database of artists in Cornwall and their works, past and present.

Elizabeth Treffry Collection

Elizabeth Treffry Collection at Trevelyan House

Finding a room of one’s own

And so the Elizabeth Treffry Collection is one of Hypatia’s several efforts to turn the tide of male-dominated narratives of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by actively gathering knowledge about women’s lives and works in Cornwall and Scilly (not just those of Cornish and Scillonian women but all those who have made their lives and home there) and communicating it to a much wider audience through publication, education and participation. The collection’s strengths are in art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but its stretches far beyond Daphne Du Maurier and Dolly Pentreath, embracing the Cornish Land Army, women scientists, religion and more besides. And this was part of the attraction of wanting to get involved, to learn more about the relatively silent women’s stories in these enigmatic regions.

The collection comprises books, journals and archives (and a few artefacts) and mainly resides at Hypatia HQ at Trevelyan House with more stuff kept at the Jamieson Library of Women’s History, based in rural Newmill just outside Penzance. Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust wish to tackle the urgent need to find it a new, permanent home where the collection can be publicly accessed, intoning Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘A Room of One’s Own‘.

But before this search could begin in earnest, and an associated fundraising campaign could commence, a better idea of what the collection comprised and what its future might look like was required. And so I was invited to help Hypatia establish a professional basis for the curation of the collection by conducting a basic audit to quantify it, describe it and make recommendations for its future care and uses.

You can download and read the report to understand more about the collection and what I think its future could look like but I wanted here to write down some of my thoughts about auditing collections and the value of collections in our cultural lives.

Download Curating Elizabeth Treffry Collection report (PDF, 976KB)

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