Core course week 11: Museums of heritage

5 Jan
Paul Reas, from the series Flogging a Dead Horse, 1993

Paul Reas, from the series Flogging a Dead Horse, 1993Paul Reas, from the series Flogging a Dead Horse, 1993

Notes from  class: 14th December 2010

The final class of the term was taken by Fiona Candlin, assistant Dean of the home team in the Department of History of Art and Screen Media, and course leader this year for the Museum Cultures MA. One of the interesting things about the core course has been the relationship between the set reading and the content of the class. Sometimes the relationship has seemed tangential; sometimes more direct. In Fiona’s case, the set reading of Robert Hewison and Patrick Wright, critiques of the ‘heritage industry’ was something she set out from the start to challenge.

She began by describing the expansion of the museum sector, and particularly the private portion of the sector, in the twentieth century. In the early years of the century, Sir Henry Miers’ survey of the museums of the Commonwealth counted in the UK 23 national museums (ie directly funded by central government), 267 municipal museums (ie funded by local government), and only 139 private museums: the weight of museums lay firmly in the public sector.

By the 1950s, a post-war expansion began, and by the 1960s there were something like 900 museums in the country, but the proportion of private ones remained between a third and a quarter. It wasn’t until the 1980s and a huge boom in the number of museums (to over 2,500) that the balance shifted to what it is today: something like a 50/50 split between public and private museums.

‘Independent museums’ have been variously described and segmented by the Museums and Galleries Commission and its successor the MLA; the evidence seems to be that most private museums are small independents with incomes of less than £50k/year. Kenneth Hudson’s European survey of the 1990s suggested that 75% of European museums fell into this category. Many are volunteer-run and have a single subject or theme.

It’s in this context that museums of the industrial past emerged in the 1980s, at a time when the economic transformation and deindustrialisation of England’s North was at its height. The response: a sudden burst of scepticism from the likes of Hewison. Fiona passed round the catalogue to the Cornerhouse exhibition  Flogging a Dead Horse: Heritage Culture and Its Role in Post-industrial Britain, a collection of texts and photographs that describe ‘how tradition is being turned into tourism’. Paul Reas’ photographs of heritage centres in action have a dash of Martin Parr about them: photographs of photographers photographing the ‘inauthentic’, the family fun day out in an idealized past.

And here, the charge laid at the door of Hewison, and Reas et al seemed to be that of sneering (ironically, Hewison’s own account of visiting the Wigan Pier post-industrial theme park begins with an excoriating criticism of George Orwell’s own sneering at the inhabitants of Wigan in the book that made the ‘pier’ famous). Fiona pointed out that Hewison talks about the new heritage museums collectively, but picks out only large museums of the recent industrial past, like Wigan Pier and Ironbridge Gorge, as examples.

The ‘heritage-baiters’ in return were attacked in the 1980s by proponents of new community history like Raphael Samuel; and in quite vitriolic terms too. Wright’s additions to the new edition of ‘On Living in an Old Country’ bear witness to rifts that were never quite healed, though he seems genuinely fond and respectful of Samuel himself.

(Perhaps further reading would be profitable here, because without the texts, it seemed hard to understand the objections of what seems to be basically leftist historians with a critique of the commercial exhibition of the idealised industrial past. As a former Trotskyist and also former chair of a community arts/history organisation, I feel it should be possible to unite a commitment to telling working class history with a reasonably sophisticated theoretical approach to the ways in which it is routinely traduced and simplified. Moreover, in my capacity as the latter, I recall no great alliance between the old community history organisations and the newly-emerging heritage museums. We worked for years on an oral history of Brighton’s fishing community at the same time as a fishing museum on the seafront was being opened; I remember some struggle to get our book displayed in its shop with appropriate prominence. The council certainly didn’t give us the impression that they were greatefully building on our own achievements).

Since the 1980s, though, how has the museum landscape changed? Though some heritage attractions like Wigan Pier may have closed, activities common to them like dressing up, object handling sessions and interactions with ‘actors’ playing historical people, have become mainstream activities for many museums. Study may have failed to keep pace: independent museums are still more likely to be discussed in the realm of ‘heritage studies’ rather than museum studies.

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