The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #16 - KEYNOTE - Love the dinosaurs and mummies, the rest is boring: developing New Walk Museum & Art Gallery in the age of austerity

Our keynote this morning comes from Matthew Constantine, Collections, Learning and Interpretation Manager from Leicester Arts & Museums Service. Museum Metamorphosis has been a collaborative project between the School and LA&MS; so it is only appropriate that he should present here today.

His intention today is to give us an insight into the issues and challenges facing New Walk in particular and LA&MS more generally. He's been in post for just a year, and it's been an interesting one in which he has had to grapple with the context in which the Service finds itself.

New Walk Museum was lauded on its opening in 1849 - to paraphrase the Leicester Post, a place in which to to chase away the cares of the heart. But today, many people see it as dull, little changed, and whilst the dinosaurs remain perennially popular, not very much stands out. There's a familiarity for local people after 150 years, which breeds a kind of contempt, whether that is deserved or otherwise.

But New Walk has a significant collection - of German Expressionists, Egyptian artefacts, the dinosaurs and of course Charnia - crammed into a small space (which brings its own problems). Constantine shows us archive photographs of the museum, on its opening, and around the time of the Second World War. It is, truthfully, amazing how it has changed architecturally. It is, Constantine says, a building in a constant state of evolution.

So the question at the moment is 'What is New Walk Museum for?' What are they trying to do? What is a modern, 21st century local authority museum trying to achieve? Being a local authority institution brings its own challenges.

Currently, the City Mayor is a man with a distinct interest in heritage. He sees the cultural offer and the built environment as an economic driver - a way of making people come and visit, and even live, here. Leicester is also a very diverse city, and the mayor sees the museum service here as a way of helping people in the city develop a sense of identity and place. LA&MS is not separate from the wider concerns of the council - they are intricately intertwined with them.

The complexity of LA&MS is compounded by its multiplicity of museums; there are now four other than New Walk - Newarke Houses, Abbey Pumping Station, the Guildhall and Jewry Wall. Many of these are vital and important buildings, but not all of them have had the support they need. How does New Walk relate to these other four sites? New Walk, as the flagship and oldest museum, is often seen as the centre. Is New Walk the be all and end all? How do the collections housed in New Walk fit together - the fine art and the Egyptian gallery? How does the service deal with all the passionate people who love the other museums.

Who is New Walk Museum for? As it is paid for by local tax payers, it's important that the demographic of the audience reflects the local population. But the other collections, the Picasso works and the German Expressionist collection, draw people in from further away. Unlike other council services which are so tied to the city, the museum has an audience which stretches far wider - and this was seen as a problem, historically. But under the new agenda of the mayor, the city wants people to come from further a field. But, nonetheless, you can't ignore the local people.

So what populations are in the city and the wider county? Is New Walk interested in attracting the fine art aficionados? People with a more passing interest? People wanting to see the dinosaurs? Or is it more important that it be a social space for anyone to attend, no matter their background? In 1909, the curator E.E.Lowe said that the museum should be 'thoroughly popularised and prove proportionately attractive and illuminating to the average visitor'. Essentially, this is the attitude that holds today.

Leicester is a large, young, linguistically, socially and culturally diverse city. All of these things have to be taken into account. The county is much more dominated by middle class white communities, but with important pockets of deprivation.

How can we make all of this work, and these people be served by the Museum Service? New Walk is not, strictly speaking, a local history museum, but a place in which people come to engage with art, take part in creative activities, look at the natural world. In recent years, it took on the activities of the former City Gallery; a very contentious and problematic issue for the identity of the Museum and the identity of contemporary art practice and practitioners within the city. The Museum Metamorphosis exhibition is a product of collaboration between the School, local artists, and New Walk - a vital thing which Constantine wishes to continue.

But New Walk also needs to deal with internal building issues. Only one wheelchair user can be upstairs at any one time because of fire regulations. It is riddled with asbestos, and represents a patchwork of history and what were originally two independent buildings. Once they're clear with what they're trying to do, they need to work out how to do this within these confining physical circumstances. In an age of austerity, they can't build a new building, or even a new wing.

There mission and value statement, developed in collaboration with the School states that it needs to be a space where interesting things happen, where people can come to learn, change, and experience all manner of things. Constantine is positive that despite the problems this is achievable; there is a good team, a good Mayor, and goodwill. I hope to see the results soon.

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