How can museums stay relevant to the UK’s rapidly changing population?

Visitors to the British Museum. Image: Getty.

In the age of Brexit and government funding cuts, the UK museums sector runs the risk of being as outdated as the objects they contain.

“Cultural capital is the biggest barrier to people coming to museums,” says Tony Butler, executive director at Derby Museums: the “it’s not for the likes of us” argument is one museums have to contend with a lot, he says. Instead, museums are often seen as something for the likes of the Jacob Rees-Moggs and Boris Johnsons of this world – older, whiter, posher people.

This image obviously does a disservice to the contents of a museum and closes off a whole world of knowledge to large parts of the rapidly changing urban populations who surround those institutions.

But the museums sector is trying to address this: this summer saw the culmination of a project that intended to act as a catalyst towards change. Open Up Museums saw around 100 museums present their findings on how they are going about to improve diversity in their audiences and workforce; these have since been compiled into an online guide.

“We were all concerned that – although there are lots of reports on how to improve diversity – because there is lots of churn in the museums sector, the knowledge gets lost. So we wanted to create a permanent resource,” says Pam Jarvis, director of consultancy Sam-Culture and one of the orchestrators of Open Up Museums.

The recurring theme in projects that have successfully improved diversity, according to the online resource, is thinking about who the audience is, reaching out to them to ask what they want and tailoring accordingly. This may seem obvious - yet it still sadly needs to be spelt out. “Some museums suffer from a huge colonial leftover,” says Jarvis. “With their stories of great white men, it doesn’t accord with what people want.” Tapping into local history, and giving voice to all sections of society within that history, is a great way to bring in local audiences to your regional museums.

A number of museums, some of which were involved in Open Up Museums and some which weren’t, are channelling this thinking effectively. Take the Black Country Living Museum which is collating an oral history of locals’ experiences of migration – 17 per cent of people in the museum’s catchment area are from BAME backgrounds – after discovering this is what locals wanted to learn about from its two community advisory panels.

Meanwhile the Holbourne Museum in Bath is reaching out to Syrian refugees in the area. After conversing with local refugee charities, and talking to key members of the Syrian community, the museum hosted a popular family arts day based around its exhibition ‘From Bath to Baghdad’, which put on specific arts and textiles activities it was thought these Syrian families would enjoy. Part of this project’s success also stemmed from covering the cost of transport – a factor which the museum discovered through its community engagement work was a big barrier to visiting. But after visiting the exhibition, many of the participants expressed a wish to come back.

But engagement shouldn’t end at asking what people want though, as several museums around the country have discovered. Derby’s status as the home of Rolls Royce was a fact the Derby Museums group seized upon to widen its audience; the group encouraged the public to come in and help build the cases for the artefacts in the new natural history gallery.


“We live in a city of engineers and want to draw on the knowledge that exists in our communities,” explains Butler. Derby Museums also gets locals passionate about history to co-curate and volunteer in the galleries too to make it a more dynamic experience for visitors. “We systematically put co-production at the heart of what we do,  and there is more engagement and support as a result.”

In other words, getting locals involved in all aspects of an exhibition means they are more likely to visit, recommend others visit, or – in the case of the most knowledgeable volunteers – actually be the reason more people want to visit.

Another way to make content more relevant to diverse populations of the UK’s cities is to actually ensure a diverse workforce. Using Arts Council funding, Colchester  & Ipswich Museums ran a three-year project that saw the group revolutionise the way it hired trainees and apprentices. Instead of just relying on traditional application forms with a shortlist invited to panel interview, it also asked all applicants to record a video of them discussing a historic topic of interest. It also didn’t advertise the role in typical places like the Guardian, but instead posted ads up in places like the local libraries.

“Video interviews meant that candidates could chat more and we could get to know them better,” says Lib Fox, project co-ordinator, at the group. “The people we ended up taking on actually only scored middle of the road,” in the traditional written applications.

Among the cohort the museums employed in the first year, only half had degrees; what's more, they included representatives of several races, someone who identified as gay and someone from a low socio-economic background. In other words, it worked.

Changing workforce make-up has already had a positive effect on the trust – for example, a trainee from China overhauled the trust's Chinese display. “They improved interpretability around the exhibition, and that brought in another group of people who would not normally have showed up before,” says Fox.

How museums use their physical assets is also a savvy way to engage local groups. Historic manor Compton Verney is situated in a very rural part of Warwickshire, and has to entice people from urban dwellings. To do so, it’s making the most of its gorgeous parks and “really pursuing the health and wellbeing agenda” according to chief executive Professor Steven Parissien. 

As a result, Compton Verney has created an early years’ forest school on site and pioneered a dementia café. A “gallery of paintings can be intimidating,” says Parissien; but by using the natural space, it can entice a wider demographic to the site and then encourage them into the museums.

The Jerwood Gallery, Hastings. Image: geograph.co.uk.

The Jerwood Gallery, a museum of contemporary British art in Hastings, adopts a similar ‘wellbeing as a driver’ approach. The museum has big light and airy galleries – this works well for the elderly with conditions such as dementia who need to avoid being overstimulated. Jerwood also runs a programme with a local children’s hospice whose patients have similar needs.

So many organisations are trying to take the right steps in terms of diversity. The obvious question is, what’s next? How will an online resource that has distilled all the learnings on the subject affect change?

To Jarvis’ mind, “The next step is for the funding bodies involved in Open Up Museums to make sure it is implemented.” Those who control the purse strings, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council and so forth, are the ones who can ultimately influence all museums to embrace diversity.

The people want to speak. Let’s hope all museums and their funding bodies are listening – or museums could end up a relic.

 
 
 
 

Why exactly do Britain’s rail services to the cities of the South West keep getting cut off?

You see the problem? The line through Dawlish. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever looked at some picturesque photos of British railways, perhaps in a specialist railway magazine – we’re not judging – then you’ve probably seen images of the South West Railway sea wall, with trains running tantalisingly close to the sea, either framed by blue skies and blue water or being battered by dramatic waves, depending on the region’s notoriously changeable weather.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and open since the 1840s, the line was placed so close to the water to avoid the ruinous cost of tunnelling through the South Devon hills. From Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth the line is, with the odd interruption, exposed to the sea, affording the striking images so beloved of rail photographers. Its exposed placement also inevitably leads to speed limitations, closure and damage to the infrastructure. This would be a matter of purely local interest were it not for the fact that the sea wall is an unavoidable link in rail routes to the South West.

Main line trains run from London Waterloo and Paddington down to the Devon hub of Exeter St Davids, before continuing on to Plymouth, Truro and other destinations on the peninsula. Trains leaving St Davids reach the bottleneck very quickly, following the river Exe and its estuary, before dipping behind the sand dunes and emerging on to the sea wall.

What happens to the track at the small seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Dawlish therefore has an impact on the whole region. South Devon and Cornwall are inaccessible by rail when the sea wall is temporarily closed or, as happened in January 2014, when storms breached the sea wall altogether, damaging it so severely it took weeks to repair.

While it’s easy to understand the economic logic of building the sea wall in the first place, unsurprisingly the economics of maintaining the damn thing have proven less compelling. The sea wall is considered to be, per mile, the most expensive stretch of Network Rail’s network to maintain. It’s also baffling to modern eyes why the main line rail services for a whole region would flow through such a vulnerable bottle neck.

The Devon rail network. Image: Travel Devon.

As with so many oddities of the British rail system, these perversities emerged from the rapid change that came in the mid 20th century through war, nationalisation and Dr Beeching.

The need for a Dawlish Avoiding Line was identified as early the 1930s. This would have diverted from the existing route at Exminster, and rejoined the line between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, passing through Dawlish inland. Tweaks to the plan were made, but by 1939 construction was under way, only to be suspended when war broke out. Work on the project did not resume after the war, and when the Great Western Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways it was not a priority. The land for the Dawlish Avoiding Line was later sold by British Rail and has subsequently been built on, so that was that.

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching’s axe fell on rail routes across Devon, including the lines through North Devon that had provided an alternative rail route through the county. Those closed lines have also been extensively built on or converted to other uses, leaving a single main line through Devon, and rendering the sea wall unavoidable.

In recent years the condition of the sea wall has become increasingly precari


ous. That’s not only due to storm damage to the wall itself, but also due to the potential for erosion of cliffs overlooking the rail line, resulting in falling rocks. While this has been an ongoing issue since... well, since the sea wall was opened over 150 years ago, the storm of 4 February 2014 brought the matter to national attention. The visual of twisted rails hanging out into empty space illustrated the problem in a way pages of reports on the precarious nature of the line never could.

An army of Network Rail workers descended on Dawlish to get the line re-opened within two months. But repairing the damage hasn’t resolved the base problem, and climate change increases the likelihood of further major storm damage. In October 2018 the line was hastily closed for weekend repairs when storms resulted in a six foot hole appearing under the tracks near Teignmouth.

Supportive noises of varying intensity and occasional oblique funding commitments have come from government in the last five years, and investigations and consultations have been conducted by both Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force, a group set up by local councils in the wake of February 2014. Proposals currently on the table include Network Rail’s plan to extend a section of the sea wall further out to sea, away from the crumbling cliffs, and reopening the Okehampton line across Dartmoor to provide an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth. 

But in spite of talk about investment and grand plans, no major work is underway or funded, with Network Rail continuing their work maintaining and repairing the existing line, and the situation seems unlikely to change soon.

Massive spending on rail infrastructure in the South West is a hard Westminster sell, especially in the Brexit-addled political climate of the last few years. And with the parliamentary map of the region dominated by blue there’s been little political will to challenge the vague commitments of government. One of the South West’s few Labour MPs, Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, is particularly damning of the failure of Tory MPs to put pressure on the government, using a recent column for Devon Live to describe them as “feeble”.

But regardless of the political will to solve the problems of rail in the South West, barring a string of unusually gentle winters, the issue isn’t going away soon. If the South West is to be an accessible and successful part of the UK, then it needs stable rail infrastructure that can survive whatever the weather throws at it.