Many towns and cities created public galleries and museums in the nineteenth century or early twentieth century. Often housed inside exuberant architecture, they were statements of civic pride, while also having a didactic purpose. They were part of the wider movement to make education and learning available to the people, albeit this was done in a top-down manner. Don't touch! Just read the authoritative copperplate handwriting giving the scientific names of the exhibits.
About 30 years ago this all began to change. In tune with progress in educational methods, museums became more user-friendly. Hands-on replaced hands-off as the lietmotiff. The dawn of this new era coincided with deindustrialisation, which bequeathed large empty buildings seeking a new use, but also a nostalgia for signifiers of a way of life that had sustained generations, defined places, but was taken away within a very short space of time. New types of museums emerged to tell those stories, salve the wounds and anchor urban regeneration projects. Buildings brought back into use as museums or galleries became harbingers of gentrification.
Now times are hard. Culture policy in England has a strong (though unadmitted) spatial dimension. Funding is focused on the "national" - i.e. London-based - institutions. It is even proposed to transfer a major photo-archive from Bradford to London. Central government controls around 85% of local government spending, and has been particularly severe in its funding of deindustrialised northern cities, in the name of restoring the national economy after the London-based banks (plus the Royal Bank of Scotland) crashed it in 2007.
Integrating museums and galleries into the community
There is a notable contrast with the USA. A recent article explained how museums and galleries there are aiming to connect to the idea of community wellbeing. Issues like health and environmental sustainability are now seen as part and parcel of a museum's mission. Thsi can take various forms - e.g. offering alternatives to sugary drinks in the cafe. However, it is also bringing urban and landscape design into play as a way of enhancing the experience of visiting a museum or gallery. Part of the underlying dynamic is that younger consumers in particular are increasingly seeing their spending as an expression of their values, says the article.
The example that is showcased is a $13 million project in Raleigh, North Carolina by the North Carolina Museum of Art. It will create a new 17-acre park with gardens, bike paths and gardens in front of the museum. The designers, Civitas, see it as both a work of art in its own right but also a "catalyst for change". The museum's director is quoted as saying that they want to "create a framework for social engagements...so people can come here to see a film, ride a bike, come to a party, a wine tasting and, of course, enjoy our collection and exhibition.”
“We are purposefully putting design interventions into a space — high-quality, beautifully proportioned gardens and promenades designed with a level of care to stimulate the thoughts and feelings, the sense of connection and wonder that people experience in the galleries,” said Mark Johnson of Civitas.
Museums and regional development
The Raleigh example had the considerable advantage of a $13million anonymous donation to set the project in train. While it aims to widen the reach of the museum, it's hard not to feel that the joggers and cyclists drawn to the park where they will sip refreshments untainted by sugar while admiring the pond that absorbs storm water runoff, will be the hipsters and creative class who have been the focus of so many design-led developments in USA.
In contrast in rural Turkey there is the Baksi Museum in Eastern Anatolia, a region suffering chronic out-migration as its young men head to the cities in search of work. As I have written before, this is a museum that was created as a form of regional resistance to decline and poverty. The closures of regional and local museums across less prosperous parts of the UK, or other places being sacrificed to shrink the public sector, are likely to further erode local and regional confidence, identity and pride, while disregarding the role that culture and creativity occupy in post-industrial economies.