Mapping Museums: Why bother?

Readers who have followed our blogs to date may have realised how much work, time, and money is involved in mapping museums across the UK. The team currently comprises of two professors, and two full time researchers, one in computer science and one collecting and analysing data. By the end of its four-year life span, the project will have cost over a million pounds. On a more personal note, I spent well over a year planning the project and writing a proposal and it now dominates a good part of my waking life, all of which begs the question: why bother? Why does this subject merit such personal, economic, and intellectual investment?

There are pragmatic reasons for the research. The lack of data and of historical research means that museum professionals and policy makers do not have a clear idea of when or where the independent museum sector emerged in the UK, or how it has changed. There is no long-term information on patterns of museums opening and closing, or of their subject matter. Museum professionals who have spent their working lives in a particular region, have been involved with the Area Museums Councils, or with a special interest group, may have a good grasp of the museums in their locale or remit, but their knowledge is not always documented or relayed. In consequence, younger staff charged with supporting museums or staff who are responsible for making decisions about funding may not always have a clear overview of the sector. By compiling a dataset of museums, and modelling trends, this project has the potential to inform museum policy and funding at a national level.

There are also historical reasons for mapping museums in the UK. The museums boom of the 1970s and 1980s (or possibly 1990s) is generally considered to be one of the most significant cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century and yet we know very little about it. Commentators of the time generally linked the rising number of museums to the conservative administration led by Margaret Thatcher, to the economic policy of the time, and to consequent de-industrialisation. This led to the wave of new museums being characterised as entrepreneurial, nostalgic, and often as politically reactionary, but there is very little evidence to substantiate those claims. It might be that many of the new museums were dedicated to rural life and were coterminous with the industrialisation of farming, or they may have focused on religion, or writers, or teddy bears. The Mapping Museums research will enable researchers to revisit the museums boom, and potentially to recast the museums of that period.

For me, though, the main point of the project is linked to who established independent museums and to the people still running them. Museums are generally discussed in relation to the national or public sector, while curation and other forms of museum work are understood to be specialised professional roles. And yet, in 1983 the Museums and Libraries Council commented that most of these new, small enterprises had ‘been set up in an initial wave of enthusiasm and volunteer effort’, and my initial research suggested that the vast majority were founded by private individuals, families, businesses, special interest and community groups. It is likely that amateurs drove the expansion of the museum sector. In identifying these venues and in documenting the work of the founders and volunteers, the Mapping Museums project will show how the recent history of museums was a grass-roots endeavour, or as Raphael Samuels put it, ‘the work of a thousand hands’.

©Fiona Candlin September 2017

 

 

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