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In the age of Brexit and government funding cuts, the UK museums sector runs the risk of being as outdated as the objects they contain.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

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.