It’s that time of year when we look into the future and predict where museums will go in 2015, as well as looking back on what we predicted for 2014.

Here are our seven predictions for 2015.

1.  The question of financial sustainability, already strong a year ago, now dominates the beginning, middle and end of every conversation in the cultural sector – particularly if you are outside the charmed circle of the M25.  Everyone is watching everyone else, looking to see if they have found the Holy Grail of making money.  Two interesting moves are Bury Art Museum’s journey to China and the coming of the North West’s spectacular collection to Two Temple Place in London.  But as everyone grabs at the same solutions and chases the same audience, some areas – such as building temporary exhibition spaces in London – are starting to look very crowded indeed.

2.  Local Authorities continue, as predicted, their schizophrenic attitude to culture.  Some still believe they can’t afford it but plenty more are hoping that museums could become a tourist gold mine.  We have even heard of local authorities taking back museums that they have farmed out into trusts – clearly believing that they could do a better job themselves.

3.  The ‘new building solution’, and even more so ‘the iconic new building’ solution, is looking increasingly problematic.  For every museum that wins an HLF bid to build a new building, there are dozens more who don’t – and who will have to find another way to bring in more visitors.

4. Digital. Ah, digital – which, as predicted, is emerging steadily from the shadows. In the staid world of museums it still has a wild west flavour (which is no bad thing because that way it will continue to experiment) but even the most cautious of museum directors is beginning to eye it up and to wonder if that way lies financial salvation.  As the digital cutting-edge races forwards, it leaves many gaps behind. Have you ever come across an online collection of artefacts so seductive and compelling that you’ve put down your novel and thought, ‘Wow, I have to look at that instead.’  No, I haven’t either.

5. Art installations.  In the aftermath of the Poppies there will be plenty more of these, some wonderful, some terrible, and some in between. But it was ever thus.

6. Fixed-ness versus Fluidity.  The old, fixed, thing-world of museums is starting to change.  It’s partly the love affair with events, festivals and performances (now seen as the new way to make money), partly the rise of the parallel universe that is Digital. I have even heard it questioned whether a museum and a building should be thought of as one and the same?  This an association that has been around since about 1750 so its demise would be big indeed. As for events, festivals and performances, as these get more and more important museums are learning the skills of cultural programming, and entering the domain of cultural impressarios. Truly the world is changing.

7.  And then there is the pursuit of Cultural Quarters, which are on everyone’s wish list. The success of South Kensington and the South Bank (both in London) means that every town and city hopes that they can use culture to bring people together, to build events and communities, and to encourage secondary spending. A cultural quarter has become the ultimate prize.  Museums which, up til now, have stood in glorious isolation are now rapidly trying to build one around themselves.  But creating a successful cultural quarter is trickier and more subtle than it looks.  This is a challenge that will run and run.

We can’t say that 2015 will be easy for museums, but it will certainly be interesting – because, alas, we live in interesting times.

Happy New Year.

 

The Museums’s Illustrator is into all things ‘meta’, by which she means (with apologies to those of you who have known this all along) breaking the fictional illusion and wittily revealing the mechanics inside a story.  According to the Illustrator, ‘meta’ is how everyone tells a story these days.  In fact she claims that the concept of ‘meta’ is so fashionable that it crops up six times a night in South London pubs.

Anyway I have been thinking about ‘meta’ ever since I was leaning up against the bookshelf in the front room (waiting for my old man) and picking up a book to pass the time – it was a collection of childhood writings by the Bronte children – discovered that the Bronte kids were using ‘meta’ about 200 years ago.

The Bronte children – Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne – passed their childhoods inventing imaginary worlds, filled with kings, queens, battles, rebellions, pirates and love affairs. They wrote their stories down in tiny notebooks – no more than a couple of inches tall – so small that the grown ups couldn’t read them.  They wrote in capital letters and with no punctuation, embellishing their stories with maps, illustrations and plans of imaginary buildings.  Sometimes they acted out their stories, with the children taking the roles of gods, jinns and geni, who interfered constantly in the lives of men.

Their first invention was an imaginary African kingdom called Glass Town.  After that they invented the Empire of Angria, which in turn was followed by Emily and Anne’s invention – Gondal, an island ruled by women – which the younger two invented because they complained that Charlotte and Branwell took the best roles. Glass Town was in West Africa but was bizarrely reminiscent of a northern mill town with its ‘lofty mills and warehouses piled up storey above storey to the very clouds, surmounted by high tower-like chimneys vomiting forth the huge columns of thick black smoke, while from their walls the clanking, mighty din of machinery sounded and resounded til all that quarter of the city rang again with the tumult’.

Branwell like stories of violent murder.  Charlotte liked stories of magic, mysterious events and romance – much to Branwell’s disapproval.  The children also ran a magazine of which first Branwell, then Charlotte was the Editor, and which was allegedly sold – because the children adored stories inside stories – by booksellers in the varous Glass Town capitals of the Glass Town confederation.  All the children were competitive and wrote exuberant and slanderous reviews of each other’s work.  So for instance in one edition Lord Charles Wellesley (Charlotte’s voice) criticises Emily’s Parry Land for its Yorkshire puddings and dull landscapes.  Verbal battles were carried over into footnotes, prefaces and afterwords.  They played with the narrative, making themselves both creators of the stories and characters inside them, and allowing their characters to tell more stories with yet more characters in them.  If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be comprehensively trounced for imagination and creativity by a gang of small children, then this is it.

Charlotte particularly enjoyed playing games with her own characters.  At one point she puts the following words into the mouth of the cynical and discontented Lord Charles (her creation) as he is musing in the Glass Town Public Library:  ‘Whilst I was listlessly turning over the huge leaves of that most ponderous volume I fell into the strangest train of thought that ever visited my mind . . .  it seemed as if I was a non-existent shadow, that I neither spoke, ate, imagined or lived of myself, but that I was the mere idea of some other creature’s brain.  And Glass Town seemed so likewise . . . ‘

In other words, a perfect and rather witty example of ‘meta’.

And how does all this relate to museums?  Well, only that most museums are the very opposite of ‘meta’.  Their voice on the graphic panels is always plain and direct. It is never personal, rarely witty, never ironic. It doesn’t draw back the curtains to reveal the doubt and conflict, nor the workings out in how they got to what they think.  In short museums are never ‘meta’. Which is interesting because in a world where everything is increasingly personalised they look to be the last of the plain and impersonal voices. So the question naturally arises, Is this the way it should be?  And, if it is, is it sustainable?

Or should museums go ‘meta’?  What do you think?

Once upon a time, when I was much stroppier than I am now, I would have looked down my nose at adults playing with dolls houses – I thought we should all have more important things to do.  But these days I am more tolerant, and also more susceptible to the magic of small worlds.  Which is why it is that I am at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, to see the exhibition there on the history of dolls houses.

Twleve miniature houses, beautifully furnished and maintained;  twelve small worlds, each packed tight inside four walls;  and each of these twelve, imaginary world within the bigger (but still imaginary?) world which is the Museum.

i thought the experience would be for children (which it is) but only for children (which it isn’t), so I am pleased to discover the threads of pathos and sharpness that run through the dolls house story – because who wants sweetness without the sour?  For hundreds of years women were only entitled to own ‘moveable property’, including cupboards and clothes, so miniature houses were the closest they could get to owning a home. Dolls houses were idealised worlds into which women could escape, and places where women could turn their lives into stories.  In other words, three-dimensional memoirs. Dolls houses and storytelling are intimately connected.

And it’s a piece of history in which women are disproportionately represented – as owners, makers and collectors – because the dolls house touches us twice, reminding us of our own childhoods but also of our children’s childhoods.  In their way dolls houses are a feminist story.

Dolls houses work on us because of the strange charm and power of miniature-ness, which evokes secrets, hidden treasures, the Borrowers, love letters, riddles, origins, beginnings, childhoods – in fact, all things magical.

And they also imply microcosms and miniature worlds, and connect me to one of the reasons why I like museums so much, for their quality of being the entire universe captured within the four walls of a building. In fact dolls houses and museums share lots of qualities in common. Each lures us in with the promise that one day we will build a complete and perfect worlds within those walls.

For such small things it’s amazing how much meaning and mystery they squeeze inside them.

So if you are seeing an echo of a dolls house in the design of the Museum of Marco Polo – with its front page that suggests boxes, walls and rooms – well then, you would be exactly right.  When we first started the Museum of Marco Polo I was startled by the toy-like quality that websites can have (and I mean this as a compliment) – as well as by the spontaneity of the medium. For someone who once looked down on adults playing with dolls houses, I have fallen entirely for my own museum-website with its dolls house connotations.