Simon Stephens, Issue 114/04, 01.04.2019
Support those facing difficult decisions
Leicester City Council’s plan to remove specialist curator roles at its museum service has undoubtedly been the big news in the sector recently.
Many have been quick to pass judgement on the decision, which will lead to four curator posts being made redundant and the creation of an “audience development and engagement team” that will focus on using collections to engage communities and better reflect the city’s diversity.
The decision has polarised views and led to much soul-searching. On one side of the debate are those who are concerned that specialist knowledge is being undermined across the UK, as curatorial posts disappear in the face of ongoing cuts to museum budgets. On the other side are those who feel that the work of those employed in learning and engagement is undervalued by many in the sector.
Of course, as is often the case with such heated arguments, the reality is far more complex. Many curators work collaboratively with their learning and engagement colleagues, and are fantastic at sharing their knowledge of collections with audiences. On the other side, those in learning and engagement value and understand the power of collections and respect curatorial expertise.
There is no doubt that many in the sector are having to make some very difficult decisions in the face of deep cuts that show little sign of abating. Instead of criticising the people who are struggling to adapt to this new reality, a little more empathy, support and understanding is needed.
Hopefully, despite differences of opinion on how to get there, we all want the same thing – to deepen and expand the public’s engagement with museums and all they have to offer.
It is interesting to note that the two most successful exhibitions at Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in recent years, at least in terms of visitor numbers, were the May The Toys Be With You, based on the collection of Star Wars fanatic Matt Fox, and Fearless Foxes, which told the story of Leicester City Football Club’s remarkable 2016 Premier League title victory.
This is not to undermine more traditional exhibition programming based on research into historic collections, but it does illustrate that there are many different ways for museums to engage audiences.
Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal