Thursday, 19 January 2012

Museums – the more things change, the more they stay the same…

While doing some research for an article, I came across Sir Henry Miers’ incredibly frank report into the state of British museums in 1928.  One thing that struck me was just how many of the issues Sir Henry mentioned are ones that are still prevalent in museums today – 84 years on.  Here are some of his comments, and my thoughts on how they relate to modern museums.


The demise of museum curatorship is a very current issue in museums, as the traditional role of the academic curator slowly degenerates into a generic administrative job (I’m not bitter, honest…).

Sir Henry took particular issue with the ‘disgracefully low standard of salaries’ of museum curators, which he found to be well below the guidelines that the Museums Association had produced in 1922, which proposed salaries based on the population of the town the museum was based in.  On average, curators were receiving salaries 50% below the recommendations and, shockingly, Sir Henry revealed that ‘in some cases the curator is paid less than the caretaker under him.’

Now, I’m not going to launch into some low pay sob story, but it is fair to say that modern museum curators are still paid well below the level that people in other careers with similar levels of professional knowledge and qualifications would expect to be paid.  Que sera sera…

Museum collections

In the late 1920’s most museums were still collecting a wide variety of objects from across the world.  Sir Henry divided museums into those which were entirely dedicated to specialist collections (such as natural history museums, art galleries, historic house collections, teaching collections and museums relating to specific companies), and the rest (the slight majority), which contained varied collections which ‘usually embrace at least something of archaeology, bygones and local antiquities, natural history and miscellaneous ethnological objects; frequently, applied or decorated art; and war relics.’

Sir Henry bemoaned the fact that this latter group of museums were often formed from unstructured private collections and continued to develop in an ad-hoc manner, as ‘there have been few curators with sufficient foresight and determination to control the process.’  He observed that private collectors 'aimed to gather as much material as possible' or to 'preserve mementos of places or people', and that neither of these two aims is the right one with which to develop a museum collection.

Sir Henry also complained that this random collecting meant that different museums contained broadly the same displays; meanwhile some museums possessed important collections which bore no relevance at all to their locality.  The attitude of curators, he claimed, ‘appears to be “how can I increase these collections”, and not “what better use can I make of the existing collections?”’

So how do Sir Henry’s comments fit with modern museum collections?  Well, I imagine any museum curators reading this will have spotted some similarities already.  Those outside of the sector will not be aware of recent developments in museum thinking – of documents such as ‘Collections for the Future’ and ‘Effective Collections’ which basically challenge museums to fix some of the problems identified long ago by Sir Henry and to make better use of their collections.  Museums still have too many objects, collected randomly and often with no local relevance and many still struggle to ensure that they offer something different from their compatriots in their displays and interpretation.

Displays and interpretation

Sir Henry pulled no punches in criticising museums for being ‘congested, and suffer(ing) from the overcrowding of duplicates and redundant objects ... which in large numbers, however interesting they may be to the specialist, have a deadening and confusing effect not only upon children, but also upon ordinary visitors … the excessive number (of objects) displayed confuses the average visitor, serves no useful purpose educationally, and is a flagrant waste of space.’  From a modern perspective, I find this a particularly interesting observation as many older visitors today seem to have rather misty-eyed memories of such old fashioned, crowded displays.  Sir Henry would definitely not be one of them!

In providing an example of such a jumble, Sir Henry cited an unnamed museum in which a single 12” x 24” display case contained ‘a Saxon brooch, a few feathers, several geological specimens and a couple of fossils.’

Sir Henry believed in variety, stating that ‘the cardinal principle (is) that there should be frequent changes in the exhibits, and that stagnation – a museum’s worst enemy – should be avoided.’  He also believed that museums should place objects near the entrance that would ‘challenge attention and arouse interest’ – objects that would stay in the memory of the visitor and continue to stimulate thought after the visit had ended.

Sir Henry continued his critical opinions when discussing interpretation, stating that ‘there are relatively few museums in which the labelling and arrangement can be regarded as satisfactory from the point of view of the average visitor.’  He complained that labelling was either incomplete or intelligible only to experts, and made the bold statement that ‘not more than six museums in the country have satisfactory direction labels’.

He finished by saying that a lack of money was generally thought to be at fault for the defects he perceived in displays and interpretation, but that in reality imaginative and engaging displays could be created for little outlay.  In the current time of financial strain, that still remains a message that rings very true indeed.

Education and research

School children are of course a staple visitor group of the modern museum, but in 1928 Sir Henry’s view was that museums (particularly the smaller ones) were generally underused by schools – partly because schools had their own cabinets of objects, partly because the museums weren’t making their displays accessible enough to younger visitors and partly because local authorities simply didn’t care about encouraging schools to go on such trips.

Sir Henry saw research as the least understood of the museum’s roles.  Although he singles archaeology out as an exception, he is disappointed that curators have otherwise been unable to research their collections or encourage others to do so to any meaningful degree.

Although answering enquiries and facilitating research is a tangible element of the modern museum curator’s life, to be honest many areas of museum collections are still underused – perhaps because they are genuinely not of interest, but more likely because their very existence is not widely enough known.

Communication between institutions

Although the benefits of museums focussing on their local areas are repeatedly highlighted, Sir Henry was keen to stress that museums in 1928 were working too much in isolation, and that increased communication between institutions was essential.  At that time the Museums Association only represented a quarter of museums, and Sir Henry recommended that the Association become more formal in its structure, introduce a degree of regionalisation and ensure that the costs of attending conferences be made more affordable.

Although it was noted that the British Museum had ‘no power to lend anything other than duplicates’, it was suggested that staff at national museums take a greater interest in regional collections and that in general, increased loans of objects between museums would be beneficial. 

In the present day, the relationship and communication between regional and national institutions has vastly improved, and inter-museum loans are a regular occurrence, made easier than ever following recent guidance revisions.  Having said that, though, silo working is still an issue facing the museum sector, and too many institutions (of all sizes) retain a tendency to work in isolation.

Public perceptions

Sir Henry was resolute in his opinion that ‘no museum, however excellently planned and furnished, can be of real public use unless it attracts and teaches the inquirer, acts as a stimulant to school children, and offers tempting opportunities for research to the student’.  Varied, inconsistent and inconvenient opening hours were criticised, as was the paucity of signage in town centres highlighting the existence of the museum and the lack of general advertising.

The modern museum stalwart – a café – was advocated as an essential visitor comfort, as was the now rather less common ‘smoking-room’. 

In his conclusions, Sir Henry made what seems today to be a rather controversial statement.  He writes, ‘to put it bluntly, most people in this country do not really care for museums or believe in them; they have not hitherto played a sufficiently important part in the life of the community to make ordinary folk realise what they can do.  The very word ‘museum’ excites quite the wrong impression in the minds of people who have never seen one of the few that are really good.’  It is to be hoped that such poor public image has been reversed to some degree in the modern age!

So does this all mean that museums are no better today than they were 84 years ago?  Well, I’d say that of course they are.  Museums have had to adapt to the changing needs of their audiences and museum collections today are more accessible and better interpreted than they have ever been. 

Sir Henry’s major points were to remind museums to collect strategically rather than prolifically; that displays of fewer, better interpreted objects are preferable to mass, unstructured displays; that the education and stimulation of visitors have to be at the heart of decisions; and that it is vital to keep the museum content changing and varied.  These are lessons that every 21st Century museum should continue to take to heart.

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