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In the age of Brexit and government funding cuts, the UK museums sector runs the risk of being as outdated as the objects they contain.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

 
 
 
 

Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...


Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:

 

Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.