Old Heritage Archive

Debate: Should museums charge for entry? #museumhour


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?
Old Heritage Archive

The Tintagel Controversy

“Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows.”

In recent weeks the ancient site of Tintagel in North Cornwall has been the subject of controversy. The conflict is between the re-interpretation of the site by English Heritage and Cornish groups and individuals who say that the Cornish history of this major heritage site has been sidelined or ignored in favour of the mythos of King Arthur which has become synonymous with the site and attracts many a tourist to visit this part of the world.

The controversy is a great shame and may have been avoided if Cornish stakeholders had been more involved in the re-interpretation process from the beginning. Artistic interpretations of Merlin (a representation of his face carved into the hallowed rocks), a proposed giant sculpture of Arthur and other artistic representations from Arthurian Legend (Round Table, Sword in the Stone) have been the focus of conflict but so have other forms of interpretation and narratives presented at the site. The bridge (apparently representing Excalibur) has probably been the least controversial and most exciting part of the new developments.

Tintagel is English Heritage’s fifth most popular heritage site. Even before the former English Heritage split into Historic England (who now take care of the statutory and academic duties) and English Heritage (now an historic property charitable trust) EH was not best known for novelty in interpretation or presenting visitors with anything other than well-preserved ruins. It was EH’s style to remain faithful to the state in which they found and preserved an ancient site or property, perhaps maintaining a well-manicured lawn to set off the old stones or walls.

It is therefore easy to see how a breath of fresh air into this enigmatic site was both desirable and overdue. The castle’s visitor centre houses several of the archaeological finds from the site and has been recently redisplayed. Now sights are turned to the ancient monument and landscape themselves including the famed rock, hard to access by foot owing to erosion of the old land bridge (cue: Excalibur). Principally led by Kernow Matters to Us, but also supported by Cornwall Association of Local Historians and some Cornish politicians and other knowledgeable individuals, the frustration and anger at the changes to the site have made headline news.

The national press like competitions for bridges and they like a bit of historical controversy so the combination ensured that words such as Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows—to the detriment of the real issues that the Tintagel Controversy represent. Following the protestations against the new additions (some of which are already in place) and also the nature of the new interpretation at the site, various parties have come out in favour of the changes, not least the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, an art critic who occasionally lapses into historical comment.

…a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians.

In a piece written last week in response to the points made by those who are against the new additions to the site, Jones rallied his readers to revel in English Heritage’s changes at Tintagel to keep “Britain’s greatest legend alive.” (Read the full article.)

Those who follow me on Twitter saw that I got angry enough to provide a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians. It’s always difficult to do this without bringing even more attention to a pretty poor article. Even if it was intended to provoke a reaction, it is so full of holes that it would be wrong for this to stay on the internet without some kind of retort so those that are interested enough in the subject may have an alternative viewpoint to reference.

So here’s an essay of responses to everything that is questionable about Jones’s piece on Tintagel, medieval history and Cornish historians:

He said: “King Arthur forged our Britain.”

Not really. The medieval British Isles were fragmented, politically and culturally, and even if you did believe there was an historical King Arthur his efforts to create Britain can’t have been very effective. However, King Arthur has been a foundation figure in European literature since the early Middle Ages and a powerful persona set up in opposition to invading and settling forces including Anglo-Saxons and Normans—arguably more instrumental in forging the Britain we know (or at least the England we know today).

He said (image caption): “Tintagel in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur – and mythic seat of England.”

England did not exist when Arthur was reputed to have been born some time in the fifth century (400s) (Cornwall did, though, known as Dumnonia). England did not start taking shape until the mid-tenth century when the fractious Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and fiefdoms were variously united under one king since the reign of Athelstan (924-27).

He said: “What’s wrong with carving Merlin’s face into a rock? Nothing, if you care about keeping Britain’s greatest legend alive.”

Would you carve a random Druid’s face into Stonehenge? Or a dinosaur into Dorset’s Jurassic coast? Probably not. Arthur’s legend has been doing quite nicely without needing a Merlin to stare out of Tintagel’s rock. But this kind of thing is always going to divide opinion, and as the artist Peter Graham commented, it is a “temporary intervention” as the wind will eventually erode it away. That’s my opinion as a heritage interpreter. Interpretive sculptures date quickly, add to the monumentalisation of historic sites, can detract from authenticity and often do not provide the kind of wow factor many assume they will. I am more in favour of using programming to bring drama to an historic site i.e. live interpreters, theatre, plays, performing artists.

He said: “Tintagel is a real medieval castle, ruined but spectacularly posed over the sea – but the main reason most people would make the trek there is a fascination with King Arthur.”

Tintagel Castle has a fabulous (and real) history beyond its literary associations with King Arthur just as other sites related to the Arthur myth such as Glastonbury (Avalon) do. Tintagel was for a time the seat of or at least strategically important to Cornish leaders, some of whom have been attributed as kings. In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the idea of kingship varied enormously and powerful kings were tolerated (loyal) petty kings of places that were not politically sensitive to them (the Isle of Man had kings at least in title until the role was absorbed into the Crown. Now Elizabeth II is also Lord of Mann).

The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth grew from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College were founded (1216)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England

The current castle ruins relate to the period of Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, in the 1230s. Richard was the second son of King John (of Magna Carta fame) and courted legitimacy that mattered in royal European circles (he later became King of the Romans or Germans) and Christian immortality (he went on the Barons Crusade in the 1240s). You certainly get some of this history through EH’s new interpretation on slate blocks around the site and the addition of Kernewek (Cornish language) titles is a nice touch.

New interpretive slab at Tintagel (c) S. Greaney
New interpretive slab at Tintagel (c) S. Greaney

Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors.

The gaining popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century retelling of the Arthur Story in his History of the Kings of Britain brought Tintagel to Richard’s attention and proved an alluring prospect full of the symbolism that excited him and would help him authenticate his dominion in Cornwall–a century later cemented by the formation of the Duchy in 1337.

The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth continued to grow from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College in Penryn were founded (1265)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England but one with social and cultural networks stretching—by sea—to mainland Europe and beyond (some amazing archaeological late antique/early medieval finds from Spain and the Mediterranean at Tintagel corroborate this view).

Some of the Cornish kings themselves are shrouded in myth such as King Mark (uncle of Tristan of the great romance with Iseult) but others seem to have more historicity attached to them depending on your attitude to the contemporary sources that contain reference to them, from mid-fifth century Erbin ap Constantine recorded in the Welsh annals to King Geraint attributed to the early eighth century in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and contemporary ecclesiastical letters. A thorough shake down of our sources for this period is probably long overdue, but not for now. Nevertheless, Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors. Come on, this is more than the story of grain stores and lime mortar that Jones jests about later in his piece.

He said: “I am impressed that Cornwall can boast 200 historians – the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus must be huge – but come off it.”

Here Jones refers to the Cornwall Association of Local Historians (CALH) but assumes for some unknown reason that the only historians worth taking notice of must work for the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus. Well you’ll be hard pushed to find more than those than you can count on one hand there, but beyond, there are a huge number of people who have studied, researched and written on Cornish history and even professional historians outside Cornwall who might count themselves in their number. I am not a member of CALH nor an employee of Exeter but I do have two degrees in History and have studied and analysed more medieval charters than most–so me included.

He said: “Arthur was already famous when Britain was just a minor island off the shore of medieval Europe.”

Yeah well. Go back to school. These were not the Dark Ages and while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s literary weavings definitely did launch the Arthur myth into medieval courtly circles Britain was definitely not a minor island off mainland Europe. See above, the English monarchy was deeply entwined with those of France and Germany. All the aristocracy, even the Cornish aristocracy of the 12th-14th centuries spoke French—you did if you wanted to get on in life. There was no fog on the horizon of the English Channel or Atlantic seaboard and people and ideas in mainland Europe and Britain were more connected then—by constant sea travel—than in many ways they are now. They went on Crusades together. They went on pilgrimages thousands of miles long together.

A note on the Dark Ages: Medieval historiography has eschewed this outdated term for 30 years or more. It is therefore disappointing that EH has carved it into a slate slab at the site. This is not good interpretation as it is going to perpetuate a very outmoded and unsubstantiated view of the past.

Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.


Dark Ages--an outmoded and inaccurate term to describe the early medieval period (c) S. Greaney
Dark Ages–an outmoded and inaccurate term to describe the early medieval period (c) S. Greaney

He said: “These historians who say English Heritage should tell the real story of Tintagel rather than focus on the “mythical fantasies” of King Arthur fail to grasp the nature of cultural history.”

I think it’s fair to say who here has failed to grasp the nature of cultural history. Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.

He said: “In many ways, the myth of Arthur created medieval civilisation.”

This is definitely a go back to (a good) school moment. There is no such thing as “medieval civilisation.” Medieval historians and archaeologists and art and literary historians have spent decades debunking the teleological and pejorative, origin of nations, 19th century view of the Middle Ages.

I highly recommend Prof. Patrick Geary’s seminal (and bloody good read) book, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe if you want a decent understanding of how medieval history was later (ab)used to influence popular perceptions of the period. However if you want to talk about medieval cultural history in Cornwall in the Middle Ages there is no shortage of sources if you look hard enough, from unicorns at St Buryan and beast-headed Evangelists at Gulval to the mystery plays written in Cornish contained in the late 14th-century Ordinalia.

He said: “The British may have invented Arthur, but Arthur in turn legitimated the idea of Britain as a great nation.”

See above. Anachronistic.

He said: “Arthur is woven into the landscape and identity of Britain, and we’re very lucky to have such a great global myth written into our rocks. People visit Greece to see the land of the Greek gods; in just the same way this is the land of Arthur.”

Yes, there are many claims to different stations in Arthur’s life around Britain—almost as many as lay claim to Jane Austen. Here is a pretty long list of locations associated with Arthurian Legend both in Britain and abroad.

I haven’t yet come across anyone who has travelled to Greece for work or play who has done so to experience the land of the gods—I think it exists better in the imagination and on film. Certainly if that is what people come to Cornwall for, we are not short of some of our own fabulous and rich stories of fairies, giants, monsters and other-worldly folk that make some of the Arthurian stuff seem a bit pedestrian. Go and find the giant’s heart at St Michael’s Mount.

He said: “English Heritage is evidently aiming its Arthurian reboot at families, and doing its bit to keep the mystery of the grail alive in the 21st century. I think anyone who really loves history, and wants a new generation to love it, should applaud their efforts.”

From an interpretive point of view, there is no better site to explore Cornwall’s post-Roman and early medieval history and archaeology than Tintagel. Who should have the final say in how this site is presented to the public whether they come as families, school visits or otherwise? English Heritage and other custodians have a duty and responsibility to treat the site and its communities with sensitivity and respect, and that means respecting and presenting the Cornish narratives of Tintagel (which also include plenty of Arthurian intrigue).

Archaeologists have already pointed out which elements of the developments at the site may or will be detrimental to the site’s archaeology. If this happens future discoveries may be lost to future generations of Cornish communities and visitors. English Heritage’s official PR and communications refer constantly to their visitors but there is little or no reference to their local communities. Ironic, considering the pledges and posturing currently contained in the UK Government White Paper and those of other stakeholders such as Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund that claim diversity, reflecting the communities they serve and working better for young people should be at the heart of all culture.

Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.

Did you know, the Cornish have been officially recognised as a National Minority in the same way as Welsh, Scots and Irish (and English in Scotland) since 2014, by the UK Government and in Europe? Public bodies have a moral and ethical responsibility not to ignore this. Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.

Consultation is a process of mutual education and ‘deep listening’ not a tick-box exercise singed [burnt] with cynicism. This is more than just showing pictures of different bridges to see what the very local population would like to see. These are hard and difficult conversations but they have to be had and resources to act upon them need to be made available to make these conversations meaningful, constructive and long-lasting.

The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here.

But, and it’s a big but, as a heritage professional that has developed interpretation and exhibitions for various subjects and sites over the last 16 years I know that you cannot please all of your audiences all of the time and that at some point some stories will take prominence over others to achieve coherence. A paucity of resources, manpower, expertise and time mean that you are often on your own trying to make sense of a story based on history or evidence that are hard to navigate and difficult to access to tough deadlines. The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here. In addition, protestations can sometimes be born from false information or base-less assertions that are hard to counter and very soon the situation gets toxic.

Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.

Developing a narrative or set of narratives within the constraints of interpretive toolkits (word counts, artistic impressions where contemporary imagery is not available, signage, lack of provenance…) is quite a stressful process so I have sympathy with those that have ended up bearing the brunt of this conflict as it can make exceptional professionals lose confidence and faith in their abilities.

I hope that lessons have been learned and that in particular those national agencies that have a responsibility to interpret culture and heritage in Cornwall do so in the future with adequate consultation with their Cornish communities and with an acute awareness and respect for those narratives. Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.

Old Heritage Archive

Boaty McBoatface, Bligh and the Beagle

NERC's new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)
NERC’s new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)

On 17 March NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council opened an online  competition and poll to name their latest, state of the art research vessel that will ply polar waters carrying 90 researchers to the Arctic and Antarctic, hashtag #nameourship.

The newspapers and online media are full of risible delight that the current frontrunner is Boaty McBoatface, which it has to be said, cannot fail to raise a titter, but which has launched this superb maritime research endeavour into the popular spotlight.

NERC said, “We’re looking for an inspirational name that exemplifies the work it will do.The ship could be named after a local historical figure, movement, or landmark – or a famous polar explorer or scientist.”

As soon as this story broke, I wanted to find out more about the ship and its projects straight away–a great entry into an otherwise closed and difficult world for the general public to penetrate. I also wanted to find out what other names had been put forward. Boat and ship naming (I’m amazed that I haven’t found more comments claiming it’s a ship, not a boat, and therefore perhaps ought to be Shippy McShipface–don’t say that quickly–update: damn you Jeremy Vine for getting there just before I published this) have been imbued with symbolism and feeling as long as people have been naming their vessels. Usually referred to in the third person as “she” I wonder whether Boaty is a good female name? If the ship is named after a person I bet it will be a man.

But I couldn’t penetrate the website, it keeps timing out and isn’t displaying any sensible content at the moment.

It was NERC’s own Comms Manager James Hand who was announcing the competition that gave birth to this friendly, Mr Man-image inducing name and the eager masses of the internet have proclaimed this name as a triumph, sort of like the sectors of society who follow the Jedi religion.

This article from the Independent has generated a slew of comments in the last 2 hours, such as:

“This is ridiculous. Anyone who doesn’t believe that we are turning like Americans is wrong.”

“It’s a great name and will probably attract far more public attention and interest in the ship’s research and exploits than the proposed “serious” names. But, sadly, I suspect the ship will be given a boring name.”

“I do a bit of sailing and find the best boat names are the ones that are both easy to pronounce and come across clear on the radio.  This certainly ticks both boxes.”

What’s in a name?

Historically, Britain has led a fine tradition of scientific voyages on the seven seas. James Cook and Endeavour, HMS Challenger–giving rise to modern oceanography and deep sea exploration. These ships have lived on in maritime history and the history of science not because of their egregious names but because of the deeds that were conducted by their crews.

A Bounty chocolate bar (Wikimedia Commons)
A Bounty chocolate bar (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s take HMS Bounty for example. Who even remembers that this scientific voyage originally set out to find breadfruit in Tahiti? Captained by supreme navigator and Cornishman William Bligh, Bounty is better remembered for a mutiny and a string of pretty dodgy films that barely acknowledged its original lofty scientific purpose. Or in modern times, perhaps more well known as a coconut flavoured chocolate bar (do you prefer milk or dark?) Incidentally Bligh went on to captain more successful scientific voyages on equally wistfully-named ships such as Providence and Assistant and Director.

A beagle (Pixabay)
A beagle (c) Pixabay

And then there’s Charles Darwin and his voyage on HMS Beagle. Yes, as in the dog. But who cares now? Darwin and the Beagle is almost a rallying cry for every thing that is wondrous and fascinating about the history of science, maritime exploration and the quest for knowledge. It doesn’t conjure up images of the beardy scientist with an unemployed fox hound.

So RRS Boaty Mcboatface may have an illustrious future in front of it, sending us news of the effects of climate change, survival in frozen waters and more but it’s not going to be successful because it has a suitably establishment name but because its scientists will be brilliant. The rest is up to NERC to make sure its messages are spread to the public as well as the scientific community.

However, NERC may get a head start if it went with public opinion. I think that the world will await news from the research vessel with great delight and who knows, may actually act on some of the most pressing and difficult environmental issues our society faces.

It would be a great exercise in public engagement if NERC honoured its massive exercise to garner public opinion about naming its flagship. I’m not the only one saying this but I expect that when NERC name the ship something a bit more – well – boring the ship’s achievements will lose something of the power it could have had. But it will still be a great ship going on some phenomenal missions.

Now, NERC, fix your website so we can find out about the real business of your amazing ship!

Old Heritage Archive

#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:

Old Heritage Archive

Museums and the UK General Election 2015


Culture and museums find themselves off the menu this election.

This is a summary of excerpts from the policies and manifestos of political parties standing candidates in the UK General Election on 7 May 2015.

Monday 4 May at 20:00 in the UK will see a #GE2015 election special #museumhour so please do come and join the debate if you are on Twitter.

I was looking for mention of specific policies and commitments towards museums, and in lieu of that, their views on culture.

This is not an exhaustive list of all parties standing in the upcoming election and I would welcome news from other parties and especially independent Prospective Parliamentary Candidates if they are standing on a culture or museum platform, to leave their pledges in the comments below.

Business as usual for museums after the election?

What is clear is that culture and museums find themselves off the menu this election. Museums are not a political hot potato or even on the radar of politicians, and particularly pundits who control what we hear from the media about this election.

This is in spite of the last 5 years seeing a significant transformation in the governance and landscape of the museum sector in the UK, especially England, namely cuts to grant-in-aid and revenue funding for those museums who were used to receiving it.

Coupled with the huge inequality between museum funding in London compared with the rest of the UK, both remain moot political points, except for the Green Party which makes a specific pledge to reverse this situation (see below).

Purdah (the pre-election period) has prevented the participation of government and local government civil servants engaged in administering, advising and funding museums from commenting or passing opinion on this election.

It is these arms-length or quango organisations that administer public funding to museums that are most likely to be affected by the election result, namely Arts Council England, Historic England, Historic Scotland, Scottish Arts Council, Museums Galleries Scotland, CyMAL, Cadw and RCAHMW in Wales and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland.

UKIP pledges to abolish the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which governs public museum bodies in England, suggesting the role of DCMS would be absorbed into other departments (not stated, see below).

For alternative analyses see the Art Newspaper and the Heritage Alliance. Museums Journal also published an analysis of the BBC Culture Debate on 7 April in May’s edition (article access only to Museums Association members).

Free entry for Nationals (again)

Several parties affirm the commitment to free entry to National museums but little else. The Conservatives alluded to an extra-manifesto commitment towards the creation of an India Gallery in Manchester Museum (in partnership with the British Museum).

Northern Ireland and Wales talk museums more

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) makes specific reference to the Ulster Museum and its role in promoting the Northern Ireland brand in its manifesto and one Sinn Féin candidate has made a public commitment towards the Derry Walls.

Twitter conversation of politicians using Derry Walls in #GE2015

Plaid Cymru make a tantalising pledge to create specific apprenticeships in the fields of historical documentation and culture in order to preserve specialist skills and knowledge. Indeed the party makes nine separate pledges towards the arts, culture and heritage of Wales–the most of any of the party policies I have read so far.

So what are the other parties saying about museums? Listed in alphabetical order.

What parties say about museums

Conservative party

From their manifesto 2015, they pledge to voters in the section Enabling you to enjoy our heritage, creativity and sports, to:

  • Keep major national museums and galleries free to enter.

Democratic Unionist Party

From their manifesto 2015:

“Whether at Westminster, Stormont or Europe, the DUP is pro-active in developing Northern Ireland’s cultural wealth and encouraging creativity to develop new opportunities in our economy.”

  • Display appropriately our cultural assets at the Ulster Museum to promote the Northern Ireland brand
  • Reduce the number of arms-length bodies associated with DCAL (Dept of Culture, Arts and Leisure)

Green Party

From the Culture principles stated on their website:

“CMS414 The body of historical creative work forms the basis of our culture at national, regional and local level; the preservation of this culture is a responsibility of the state through support for cultural stores such as museums, archives, libraries, heritage and major performing arts venues and companies.”

From the Media, Sports and Arts section in their manifesto 2015:

  • Increase government arts funding by £500 million a year to restore the cuts made since 2010 and reinstate proper levels of funding for local authorities, helping to keep local museums, theatres, libraries and art galleries open.

Labour Party

From the section on the Arts and Culture section in their manifesto 2015:

  • We reaffirm our commitment to universal free admission to ensure that our great works of art and national heritage can be enjoyed in all parts of the country.

Liberal Democrat Party

From the Pride in Creativity section of their manifesto 2015:

  • Maintain free access to museums and galleries, while giving these institutions greater autonomy.

Mebyon Kernow – The Party for Cornwall

No specific mention of museums. From the Recognition for Cornwall section of their manifesto 2015:

  • Greater local control over all aspects of Cornwall’s heritage, culture and identity, including the transfer of responsibility for work currently undertaken in Cornwall by agencies such as English Heritage.

Quizzing one of the candidates on Twitter I asked if that would include include Arts Council England and the reply was affirmative, that all organisations dealing with Cornwall should be devolved:

Tweets between me and Mebyon Kernow screenshot

Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales

From the principles stated on their website Plaid Cymru says:

“Wales has a huge amount of priceless national treasures, including our National Museum, the National Library, and countless CADW monuments, and we believe that every child ought to have the opportunity, free of charge, to visit one of the National Museums or Libraries during their school years.”

In the Arts, Heritage and Culture section of the manifesto 2015:

  • We will ensure that free access to National Museum Wales continues.
  • We will create apprenticeships in the field of historical documentation and culture so that staff skills, knowledge and experiences are retained and nurtured.

Scottish National Party

From policy outlined on their website the SNP makes a commitment towards museum loans:

“We will continue to support the International Touring Fund for Scotland’s National Companies and co-ordinate overseas cultural and economic promotion activities. That means bringing together, where we can, national company tours, museum and gallery loans and trade missions for an ‘all Scotland’ approach to cultural and economic promotion.”

There is no mention of museums, heritage, arts or culture in the SNP’s manifesto 2015.

Sinn Féin

I could not find any mention of museums, heritage, arts or culture on Sinn Féin’s website nor the policies published on their website. The only glimpse into the party’s view of museums is the brief event stated above of a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in the Foyle constituency using the Derry Walls (see above).

I tweeted the official party account for link but have yet to receive a reply.

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

There is no mention of museums in the published policies of UKIP. From the Heritage and Tourism section of their manifesto 2015 they pledge to:

  • Abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Want to have a say?

Join #museumhour to take part in a special #GE2015 debate on Monday 4 May 20:00 in the UK. Some of the questions we are asking:

  • Why aren’t museums politically important?
  • Should all museums be politically neutral?
  • Has your museum petitioned local candidates?
  • Have your local candidates visited your museum and its staff and volunteers?
  • Which party will offer the best deal for UK museums?
  • Should politicians be more interested in museums or is it better to be left alone?
  • Has your museum got involved in campaigning to encourage people to vote?
  • What, if anything, will change after the election for your museum?
  • What, if anything, will happen to national museum funding and advisory bodies after the election?
  • What message would you like to send out to your local candidates before election day?
Old Heritage Archive


#Follow @museumhour
Mondays 7-8pm UST (UK time).

#museumhour tweets

#museumhour is (yet another) new UK-based museum movement which took 24 hours to set up by Sophie Ballinger (@sospot) and me (@tehm).

Sophie had a while back posed the question of whether a #museumhour existed in Twitterverse and received the sound of tumbleweed in return.

I was travelling back to Cornwall from London after a meeting of Museums Association Regional Reps in which there was much discussion about the best forums for museum people to get together online to exchange news and views, particularly to debate the Museum Association’s new agenda Museums Change Lives (I almost wrote Loves).

Place-based Twitter hours have been well-established across the country, from #CornwallHour to #ScotlandHour as have profession-based ones such as #legalhour.

Searching for the existence of a #museumhour Tehmina found Sophie via Eureka! Museum’s twitter feed and after a few tweets exchanged after working hours during commutes and baby feeds we claimed the hour every Monday 7-8pm. Sophie set up a Twitter account @museumhour to help field the exchange of tweets and an automatic retweet of its accompanying hashtag #museumhour

As long as people used the hashtag #museumhour or replied to @museumhour participants can follow tweets easily.

After some initial campaigning in between our day jobs Monday 6 October, 7pm arrived. We had about 57 followers at the beginning and by the end of the evening this grew to over 100.

We had no idea what would happen. We didn’t want to control proceedings by forcing a topic but to encourage people to share #onecoolthing about their museum or their favourite museum.

Although a UK-based social meet we had willing tweeters from Virginia, USA to South Australia. And those working in museums were joined with museophiles.

Astonishingly 99 people sent 349 tweets during the first #museumhour

Tweets ranged from Brighton Museums’ football table in their World Stories gallery, Kids in Museums’ Youth Panel meeting at Geffrye Museum, the launch of iBeacons at Roman Caerleon, the famous cat mummy of Derby Museums (it is essential to include cats in all Twitter conversations–Ed), Lowewood Museum’s community project and exhibition on World War 1 display, finding out Sir Walter Scott used to be a Sheriff and his courtroom museum is there to be visited in Selkirk, a museum geek’s Elk, two major development projects at Surgeons Hall Museum and Epping Forest District Museum, and news from the Welsh Museum Festival. And more.

In fact it continued beyond the hour.

Look, just take a look at #museumhour tweets.

The idea is to let #museumhour grow organically and steadily and begin to introduce some hard hitting topics to the weekly discussions.

Policy-making museum people were notably absent or quiet and yet tend to be the ones always wanting our opinion on things. We hope they join the talk.

I also hope that #museumhour will remain good fun, be a new, additional way, for museum people to meet each other and network, as well as providing a forum for opinions to be exchanged.

Follow @museumhour now.

Old Heritage Archive

The Aftermath of Suffrage – New for Reviews in History

My review of an important volume of essays on the impact of the Suffrage Movement on British politics after 1918 has just come out in the Institute of Historical Research’s Reviews in History.

I was delighted that one of the editors Julie Gottlieb had the opportunity to respond.

Should we be returning to women’s history and is there scope for getting women’s history “out of the ghetto” and into the mainstream?

Read the review and the response.

The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender, and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945
edited by: Julie Gottlieb, Richard Toye
Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, ISBN: 9781137015341; 268pp.; Price: £19.99.

Aftermath of Suffrage cover (Palgrave Macmillan)



Old Heritage Archive

In defence of history by women

The visibility of the resurgence of women’s voices has launched into the stratosphere these last two weeks, from the triumph of the campaign to get a woman back on a UK banknote, to the rather seedy and distasteful rape and bombing threats aimed at women by anonymous so-called trolls.

But what is worse than all that is the society-sanctioned, media-fuelled defence of such revolting behaviour because ‘you can just ignore it’. I am assuming the same people who ignore such things probably in a past life also ignored the inhumanity of slavery – if you don’t want a slave just don’t have one! For there is no virtual world and real world. Twitter, Facebook and anything else online is the real world.

She’s rubbish because I don’t like her

So amongst the flurry of comment and opinion about all this I read the latest post on Prof. Mary Beard’s blog A Don’s Life reflecting on her latest TV programme about Caligula, the First Century Roman emperor. I must admit that I have not seen any of Mary Beard’s programmes but I have heard a lot of good things about them, and about her, and I have read some of her published work. I don’t have a TV but I do sneak the occasional fix well after the event on iPlayer etc. so maybe I will watch them some time.

In her post Mary was rather putting her own experience of being a woman on TV, and that too a woman presenting much of her own research, in a serious history programme, in the context of the overt and aggressive sexism experienced by so many women in their everyday lives both online and offline.

Distaste for her TV history manifested in a dislike of her and how she looks. But what really got her goat was the flippant accusation by someone who called her history like that of Wikipedia.


Now, there are two problems here. The first is that Wikipedia is not a source of original information, that is, first time published thought, argument or opinion. It is, if you remember them, meant to be like a set of encyclopaedias (-paediae??), and is entirely reliant on the sources the writer references as to how decent an encyclopaedic entry it is. So some are good and some are bad.

Mary Beard’s chagrin came from the fact that, albeit she is a Cambridge Don with over 40 years of experience in Caligulan history, she is still not taken seriously by those moved to damn her and her work by calling her ‘Wiki-lite’. The second is that if you find yourself not understanding what a historian means then they are not explaining it properly. This is not uncommon and many historians make a career out of being obtuse to dazzle their audience and get promoted in the process. On the opposite end of the spectrum if you find a ‘historian’ enthusiastically saying a lot but not saying very much then they probably don’t know their stuff.

So this post was shared on the Women For Cornwall group on Facebook and there has been a bit of debate about it and the problem women have in being, for want of a better term, taken seriously simply because they are female.

Part of the debate was also about how history is taught in schools. I’m going to blog again about this and the Govian view of school history so won’t dwell on it here. Someone brought up the old S-Level – remember them? I came at the tail end when they had just scrapped the examination but we went through the motions of it anyway. The idea was that those most able to grasp key concepts could spread their wings by inserting some original thought into debates and learn to construct their own arguments rather than clutching a knotted string of others’ opinions. Until this time, apparently, A-Level students were just taught ‘facts’ [those who have taught history undergrads in recent years may feel this comment still stands].

Why don’t you prove it?

I reflected on my own experience. Until GCSE I really did not get school history very much. I enjoyed it but it was not on top of my list. I was after all going to be a scientist of some sort. But I had a cracking GCSE and A-level teacher who did teach us to critique, challenge established facts, learn to understand historical opinion and find bias according to authorial origins. Even my fourth-year primary school (inner London comp) teacher (today’s Year 6) stopped a lesson one day and said, “why don’t you ask me to prove it?” I think we were talking about the troubles in Northern Ireland, no less. God bless you, Mr Hadfield.

That was a turning point in my understanding of the world. The interesting predicament Mary Beard finds herself in is that people’s dislike originates in the fact that she is damn good at both argument and backing it up with evidence – such as being a good historian entails unlike the Starkeys of this world. But saying they don’t agree would be putting the critics on the same level as her, whereas dismissing her as opposed to her arguments is much easier, it’s lazier but hey, it’s online and you can say anything and a few people will Like you for it.

So you think you’re a historian?

And I would like to have a continued go at people who think they are historians because they watch it on TV or cherry-pick information on the web or indeed osmotically absorb other people’s ideas and frankenregurgitate them as their own.

On two recent occasions I have had my own thoughts and ideas quoted back at me, and even ascribed to another speaker, following my giving a paper!

Good historians do argument and evidence very well. They compare. Then then explain by creating a narrative which can be followed. I have said in other fora that one of the main problems with the way that Cornish history is done is that it lacks comparison and lacks an audience in journals and books outside Cornwall, but that’s for yet another post. It is also unsurprising that the arch-narratives of Cornish history, the good and the bad (and there is an awful lot of bad), are all written by men. This has to change.

Would you have a hernia operation by someone who dabbled in a bit of Holby City and YouTube or someone who had studied abdominal surgery for many years? Sorry, in defence of my profession a bit. Especially those women who are in it.

Old Curatorial Archive Old Heritage Archive

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.

Originally written and published in 2010 on Past Thinking. Republished here for archival purposes.

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.

Old Heritage Archive

Cornish heritage beneath our feet

Have you ever looked down when you’re walking about outside (do you walk about much)? We’re often encouraged to look up when we’re in the middle of towns and cities to admire the architecture of urbanisation above the modern, slightly jarring, signage of our high street shops.

But do you look down?

Local foundries made street ironmongery – that’s stuff like manhole covers, gutter grills, bollards, lamp-posts and railings. Here in Cornwall foundries were better known for building gigantic pumping and winding engines for the mining industry. Names like Harvey and Holman are household names, still.

Some of their iron and steel founding can be seen in our towns even though many have been replaced with less distinctive metalwork.

So next time you are out and about, take a look down, check out where that hydrant cover was made and by whom. I’m going to start collecting photographs of Cornish street ironmongery. If you want to add your own, just leave a comment or link us to your own images.




Last week I was in Truro which turned out to be a real find for Cornish ironwork. This gallery traces my route from Old County Hall to Truro Cathedral. Avondale Road was most interesting, the site of ironmongery from four different Cornish foundries.

Newlyn and Mousehole

Some additions from Newlyn and Mousehole, including an unusual triangular manhole cover. All made by local founders N. Holman, St Just.