In the offices of the Museum of Marco Polo we’ve been asking:  ‘So what have local museums ever done for us?’ Local museums, as we all know, are struggling to survive, their budgets lopped, their opening hours reduced, their expertise consolidated and pulled back to the centre. The big London museums, although under pressure, are sustained by the tourists who are pouring into London, but out beyond the M25 and in those places where international tourism doesn’t reach? – well, that’s another matter.   So these are the four things that local museums have done for us.

1. They’ve made history from the bottom upwards. No one has ever added up the numbers of curators, men and women, who have rescued pieces of demolished buildings;  gathered local fossils; recorded the local landscape; saved the momentos of protests and movements; and taped endless local memories, songs and stories.  Each piece saved has been a judgement that this too one day will be history.  And sometimes local history has made big history, and the latter has been rewritten because of it.

2.  They’ve changed museum-making.  It was in social history museums (and therefore in local museums) that the museum revolution of the last 30 years really took place.  Social history museums started to think of themselves differently, began to collect contemporary artefacts, started to see themselves as storytellers of the momentous things that were happening all around them, not least the collapse in manufacturing in the north.  Class got into museums, then was overtaken by race, gender and post-modernism. Audiences were invited in.  Museums became argumentive, even experimental.  Who would have thought it?  (Would you have ever got an imaginary museum, like the Museum of Marco Polo, in the 1970’s?  I doubt it.)

3. They tell our Story (and if they don’t who will?).  It’s in local history museums that you can see that museum-making is like storytelling – but of a very particular kind.  In fact it’s quite like quilt-making.  You tell the story piece by piece.  Each time you add in a new element you shift the balance of the story – making the overall effect lighter, darker, more or less contemporary.  It’s not like writing a novel nor making a film – it’s its own form of storytelling – and we’ll miss it if it ever goes because it’s the perfect way to tell the story of a town or a community.  You can (should?) be able to pitch up in any town in the UK and by going to the local museum make sense of where you are.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles poster in Dorchester Museum

Tess of the D’Urbervilles poster in Dorchester Museum

4.  They’ve made museums popular.  Well, they and a lot of other things as well. Because something has turned round the fortunes of museums, which back in the 70’s were considered unbelievably dowdy.  One reason, I think, is the new emphasis on Memory.  Because social history is often recent history and so is reachable through the intensely personal route of remembering, rather than the more formal routes of top-down, written history.  That and their emphasis on people stories and their diminutive scale is what gives local museums their special appeal.

And some local museums that we like?  In no particular order, Blackburn Museum for its amazingly eclectic mix of artefacts and for its surprising stories;  Dorchester County Museum, because it knows that the Imaginary Landscape (of writers and artists) is just as important as the real one; Kelvingrove, the biggest small museum in the UK;  and the Museum of London, because it’s our local museum.  I’ve lived in London long enough to feel a sympathy for all the people who’ve come this way before me.

So this is what local museums have done for us.  Tell us what they have done for you?


How A Museum Ends

Museum Of Marco Polo

The Reverend Collyer and Elsie Fletcher would be turning in their graves.  It was these two, along with many others, who saved the Roman history of Ilkley and fought to keep a museum going in the town. Now I am standing in the half-emptied galleries and tomorrow (in fact by the time you read this article) the museum will have closed.  It’s a fairly typical example of how these things happen.

Google the subject and you will uncover a series of bitterly fought local scraps, the length and breadth of the country.  Each fight is different although there are certain repeating threads.  Typically the money is reduced, hours are cut, staff laid off, and as the expertise vanishes the museum goes into decline until there is no one left with the skills to reverse it.  Then when the museum is weakened and the stamina gone, the decision seems obvious – to withdraw from the edges, to consolidate, to have one good museum rather than three scrappy ones.  All over the UK local museums are working desperately not to be the weakest link.

But if a local museum can survive anywhere you would think it would be here in Ilkley.  It’s a prosperous town with plenty of tourists, good train connections and a museum in an old manor house that’s bang in the middle of town.

And Ilkley has an interesting history.  Patterns occur.  Time and again this small town seems to have become the centre of something.  First it was in prehistory when the moors around the town were filled with barrows, cairns and prehistoric rock carvings.  Then the Romans came and built a fort here that remained in use for the entire Roman occupation. (We know the name of at least one of the fort’s commanders, Caecilius Lucanus.)  And then again in the 19th century the town revived itself and became one of England’s spa towns.

Manor  House Museum, Ilkley

Manor House Museum, Ilkley

On the day that I stand in Ilkley Museum the galleries are largely empty, although two of the museum’s stars – a couple of Roman tombstones – have not yet gone.  One shows a family of three – a husband, wife and child, so maybe a soldier’s family? – each dressed in a tunic and with that engaging look – big eyes, big heads, short legs, bare feet – that you sometimes see on Roman tombstones.  These three also were the people of Ilkley.

One tombstone was pulled from the foundations of the Congregational Chapel;  another came from the yard of the ‘Rose and Crown’ during the 19th century when there were so many Roman antiquities being dug out of the ground that they were being carried off by the cartload.  One local antiquarian wrote, ‘The remains of Roman brick, glass and earthenware everywhere appear on the edge of the fort.’   Another reported, ‘Bits of red Samian ware, fragments of glass, tiles, pottery and bones were protruding from the ramparts or have fallen into the brook below.’  By the time that anyone thought to survey the fort large amounts of it had vanished.

It was precisely because of this that people like the Reverend Collyer and Elsie Fletcher fought so hard to maintain this museum. They saw themselves as saving history. It has had a bumpy ride, closed at least once but brought back to life again.  This time though it looks final.  There are several local bodies who might want to use the space;  no one though who shows any sign of wanting to keep the museum.

Meanwhile outside on this cold spring day life in Ilkley goes on regardless.

Does it matter if we have no local museums?  So ask my friends who don’t work in museums, to which there are three answers –

Firstly, local history is fine-grained, personal, detailed, expressive, in a way that top-down history rarely is.  Give it enough time, allow it to build up its case detail by detail, and local history sometimes changes top-down history.

Secondly it might look obvious to consolidate museums but when you take an object away from the place where it was found you change its meaning. A Roman brick means one thing when you see it next to the fort of which it was a part, and something completely different when you see it ten miles off.  And anyway at what point do we stop consolidating?  When we have ten, five, three super/local museums in the north of England?

And thirdly there’s the fact that the history of local museums is threaded through with amateurs, visionaries and eccentrics, who fought night and day to piece together our history.  Their stories are now part of the museum’s stories.  When the museum goes who will tell the next chapter in the story?

And there’s one other thing.  Why, you wonder, are the struggles of local museums only a local story?  Surely all history belongs to all of us, in which case why isn’t it our story also? And why is there no bigger strategy, just a series of local crises?  All of which questions will get more pressing as the cuts go on.

Bradford Metropololitan Distric Council, the local authority, said (18th February 2014):  ‘Over the last three years the Government has cut Council funding by over £100m.  Now more cuts mean that we have to find another £115m over the next three years. Cuts like these mean the Council having to change beyond recognition.  Services will be reduced and some stopped altogether.’

In the next issue we will be coming back to these questions.

By Rachel Morris