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Film: Museums tackling global challenges

This presentation by Tony Butler, Executive Director of Derby Museums Trust was filmed at MuseumNext New York in November 2016. He discusses why what happens ‘out there’ is as important to museums as what happens ‘in here’ . The presentation explores how museums address the long term global challenges such as climate change and inequality, when it is short term disruption such as Brexit, which cause most organisations to act.

A few weeks ago I was coming back from lunch and I walked around the side of museum to find a man injecting methadone into the top of his leg.

Later that afternoon I presented certificates to a group of 14 year olds who had been identified as at risk of exclusion from school, who were involved in a project to encourage them to get interested in engineering.

They work with the historic collections, understood the various processes in making some of the material, going back 100 years. We work with a firm called Pentaxia who make components for Formula One cars, based in the city. So they spent time in that factory talking to engineers and they came back to the museum to make casts of screwdrivers.

Built alongside this was, interview practice, encouraging them to build up a portfolio, thinking about how they need to present themselves for when they get their first job.

This was a fairly low-key project, which took 12 young people through, but the transformation of those young people during the 3 months that they were with us was absolutely palpable.

One lad, a sullen, sulky early teenager, lacked confidence, wouldn’t engage with new teachers and we had real trouble teasing him out. Yesterday, at the awards ceremony, he got up and spent 10 minutes explaining to 40 people what he’d done during his time here.

This work could not have been achieved without working with in partnership with the public sector (Education advisors), the volunteer sector (Institute of Engineering and Technology) and the Private sector (Pentaxia).

This ‘there for the grace of God moment’ reinforced to me that what happens out there is as important and what happens in here.

So if the Brexit vote has made the country more introspective I suggest we need a world view more than ever. And this applies to long term global challenges such as Climate Change, and inequality as much as it does temporary disruptions such as the Brexit vote.


More than ever, we need a global perspective.

I love looking at Joseph Wright’s painting A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun in Derby Museum. Painted in 1766 at the height of the British Enlightenment, it shows a group of children and adults listening attentively to a learned man explaining the wonders of the planet and the universe. The people in this picture are curious, eager to learn and attentive to the teller –

Our museums, inspired by the human instinct to acquire, categorise and show off objects, help us to make sense of our place in the world.

The Blue Marble was one of the first pictures taken of the earth from space. It represents the first time man was fully confronted with the fragility of the Earth.It was a clear message of the finite nature of our home planet and the moment has been credited with the birth of the modern environmental movement – with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace setting up within two years.

Nearly 50 years since that photo was taken, however, we continue to treat the planet like there is no tomorrow. We have entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene – an era defined by the impact of humanity on our ecosystem.

Economic growth – or GDP – is currently the way we measure societal progress. However it has some crucial flaws. It encourages resource depletion through a focus on growth – and can’t differentiate between spending on good things (like education) and terrible things (like the rebuilding required after a natural disaster). It doesn’t measure services that nature provides, such as fresh water, or those without a market price, such as raising children. As Robert Kennedy once put it, GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Our obsession with growth isn’t matched with a desire to redistribute the proceeds of prosperity more equally. The gap between rich and poor has grown faster in the last 15 years than at anytime during the previous 100. A study published by Oxfam only showed that the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (3.5 billion people). My children are likely to be the first generation to be poorer than the preceding one.

Atomised, unsustainable societies, which do not share equity, are far less likely to withstand external shocks such as financial meltdown or the consequences of conflict like the current refugee crisis.

It is complacency around the effects of inequality which has driven many to the arms of populism and to seek simple solutions to complex problems.

We need a more nuanced view of community

Populism promises to make countries great again by protectionism, building walls or vapid statements like taking back control. The challenge for our time is how we deal with complexity in a post-truth age. This year of elections has shown that however hard politicians make their arguments rational, emotion is more likely to succeed.

Moreover, the harder politicians make their case, the harder the divisions. The algorithms of cyberspace and more aggregated news content mean social media becomes an echo chamber, cementing rather than broadening people perspectives.

We must prove that museums are meeting points for their communities, bringing people together, showing pride in city or neighbourhood – showing that there is more in common than that which divides us.

But communities are diverse and complicated. They are muddled and made up of individuals who share, disagree, find common cause or show indifference to each other. Some neighbourhoods are diverse, some are monocultural to the point of exclusion but every local public body I’ve worked with has been anxious to promote cohesion above all else.

In my country, this has led to a Pollyannaish approach to multiculturalism. The result is an aversion to exploring difference and conflict, and a lack of understanding that communities have multiple identities which overlap or disconnect, based on elements such as family, neighbourhood, culture and nation.

Nat Edwards writing in the Museums Journal recently noted that in the EU referendum “many ordinary, rational people were prepared to overlook misogynism and xenophobia, communities with whom we have been working to engage seem to be kicking back against the pluralist, progressive multiculturalism that has underpinned much museum practice.”

The challenges of the future, such as climate change and mass movement of people respects no boundaries. The solutions are complex and rely on interdependency or pooling sovereignty to tackle global issues.

Neil MacGregor, the former Director of the British Museum spoke of his new position in creating the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

“The Humboldt Forum will succeed if it provides no simple answers to our complex world”

We must capitalize on the public trust we have earned.

The EU referendum campaign had a deleterious effect on public trust towards institutions, from Parliament to the Bank of England. This was exacerbated by right-wing anti-establishment shtick, dismissal of facts and former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s [explain who he is] mendacious claim that ‘the British people have had enough of experts’.

Nevertheless, in surveys museums are consistently seen as institutions worthy of public trust.

To amplify that trust museums must renew their civic role to strengthen their value as institutions

In the UK the Gulbenkian Foundation’s enquiry into the civic role of the arts is timely. It is suggesting new practice in a less hierarchal more networked world.

We must strive to be more open and democratic, viewing the public not as consumers but citizens who can participate in every aspect of making culture. Curators should develop their practice with the public, governing bodies should be prepared to discuss ethical dilemmas rather that hide behind commercial confidentiality. (Witness the Art not Oil protests in the Tate and British Museum a series of 18 month demstrations over the ethics of oil sponsorship for the arts).

Trust is enjoyed only by public consent.

Public ownership of expertise

We need to be confident that the liberal values of knowledge and tolerance shine through our work. As Brian Cox, everyone’s favourite British physicist says, “Being Anti-expert, that’s the way back to the cave. “

Expertise, wherever it comes from (from us or from our communities) should be celebrated and viewed as precious. To borrow from Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom expertise should be viewed as common pool, held mutually by our institutions and our communities. I think we should take the fight to the anti-experts not as elites but as open, participatory organisations.

In the creation of Natural History exhibit at Derby Museum Notice Nature Feel Joy, we opened up the museum to a phalanx of specialists, professional and amateur. They came from universities, the local wildlife trusts, birdwatchers, artists, musicians and scientists each bringing their own slant on the natural world in our locality. We made the exhibition in an open a gallery space, a project lab, where members of the public contributed time and ideas to research, display and interpret. Local volunteers were then able to fabricate displays in our fully equipped workshop. The result was a beautiful melange of specimens and stories and deep engement.

Never has the maxim that no one of us is smarter than all of us been true.

Participation and Inequality

Over the last ten years there have been huge strides in making museums more participatory. This clearly has the effect of making many of our organisations more relevant to our communities. Nina Simon’s latest book the Art of Relevance

Relevance is not something an institution can assign by fiat. Your work matters when it matters to people—when THEY deem it relevant, not you.

True participation has to mean democracy and social justice, not just finding new and imaginative ways to involve an already engaged audience.

A fortnight ago the latest data sets of the UK’s Taking Part Survey were published by the Department for Media Culture and Sport. It showed 52% of the population visited a museum in the last year. However is also showed that the gap between partition between well-off and low income groups was not closing, more people are visiting museums than ever before but they are predominately Middle Class despite many of our museums being free.

The soft power of culture may lead to regeneration of down at heel urban neighbourhoods but gentrification often means the fruits of this soft power are not shared equally.

Nicholas Serota, outgoing Director of Tate wrote in April “Young artists that might have thought of coming here no longer do because they can’t afford to live in London. That must give us pause for thought.”

We hail the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio as it explores how we might sustain of endangered planet. But in the favelas, museums are under threat, the Community Museum de Mare, which has worked with the most marginalised people in the city is facing the threat of eviction

What use is soft power, even in the rich North, when your citizens are living in tents on the streets? [San Francisco]

We need to ask whether our own agendas been as progressive as we had hoped. We need the courage to engage more deeply and more meaningfully with communities which appeared to have taken a step back from us – and listen to them

Change happens

It’s a cause worth fighting for as civic spaces; museums are well-placed to contextualise complex contemporary issues like race, globalisation, economic inequality and migration – issues upon which many based their vote in this Election or our EU Referendum.

When change happens, it’s at a confluence. It is grass roots action combined with indivuduals within museums committed to internal transformation.

Here at Museum Next the Museum Social Action project showed how museum folk can learn from community activist gaining skills from each other around community asset mapping, and really listening to local community voices.

I founded the Happy Museum Project to provide a leadership framework for museums to develop a holistic approach to  wellbeing and environmental sustainability.Since 2012 we have funded 22 museums in the UK to explore how museum staff and public can work together, with different expertise but equal status and for public good.

  • The Garden Museum in Lambeth, worked with a group of women facing eviction from the nearby Heygate Council estate. They established a winter cutting garden and explored the ethics of the environmentally unsustainable flower trade which. Profits from the garden went back women to support their campaigns.


At Tate Modern in London, the new Switchhouse extension is soon to house the UK first museum of Homelessness.

Jess Turtle, its diooirector says

Homelessness has always existed. It has a history and is alive on the streets today. But the stories of homeless people and the lessons they teach us about society have often been hidden.

We don’t think these stories can be told by a small group of experts. That’s why we’re creating a new kind of museum, one run by people, with all kinds of backgrounds, working and learning side by side.

In Berlin at the Deutsches Historisches Museum the Mulkata project saw Syrian Refugees employed as guides. They brought their own expertise to the interpretation of the Middle Eastern Collections. More importantly many of them spoke of renewed hope for their country as they saw the effects of reconstruction of the ruins of Germany after World War Two

And museums are now acting more rapidly. A fortnight ago Kathryn Hill of the Levine Museum of the New South Charlotte, spoke of her museum’s response to the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. In the tense days after the shooting the museum remained open, hosting events museum, staff talked about the racial divides in the city an exhibit exploring the lives and stories of those involved in police shootings was brought forward. Hill noted “Charlotteans cannot address the issues at the core of these events – the issues of social mobility, institutional racism and implicit bias- without understanding the long history that has given them root.”

But without the impetus to act change happens too slowly. It was nearly fifty years between the Founding of The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (now the Anacostia Community Museum) and the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Why did it take so long? It opened in the same year that the country elected a President endorsed by former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Museums and the New Economy

As well as reacting to social movements in the here and now, we must anticipate futuresocial change and global challenges. Our museums need to be a platform and offer a glimpse of a new economy and a new set of human relationships.

Traditional manufacturing will further decline as automation increases. Museums should explore what to do in a world where automation begins to eradicate work. If we accept – as Oxford researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne stated in 2013 – that 47% of jobs are susceptible to automation, the most obvious problem is: how are people going to live?

Air BnB and Uber offer but one an atomised, technology driven libertarian future in which economist Paul Mason suggests Uber-ised public services, hailing the cheapest social care worker on an app, or the cheapest eye operation. In this scenario what happens to institutions as bodies you can trust? places to meet others and rallying points.

I think a thriving future for museums is one which embraces open-sourced technology and the exchange of non-market goods like care, ideas and creativity.

At Derby Silk Mill we are attempting to address this challenge.

Here at the site of the world’s first factory we are creating a Museum of Making, illuminating a 300 year old story of creativity in Derby. Since 2013 we have worked with Makers in Residence, artists, makers, hackers, tinkerers and members of the public to shape and design a new museum. We invested in high spec machinery and tools in a new refurbished workshop at Derby Silk Mill.

The Silk Mill’s workshop is full of equipment which stimulates creativity and learning. The public can learn new skills and make things using a Raspberry Pi, CNC router, 3D printer, laser-cutter alongside more traditional tools and techniques. Volunteers have made museum display cases, designed a mobile kitchen and told new stories about Derby’s cultural heritage. They have encouraged and looked out for each other as part of a collective enterprise.

Our community is at the heart of the museum. They are the Us in Museum.

They give time to hack fixtures and fittings and solve problems for the museum; in return they use the equipment or develop skills for their own endeavours. For example, one volunteer uses the workshop to develop his ideas to make bespoke skateboards, in return he teaches coding to year 8’s from the local high school during our Wednesday afternoon Code Club.

It’s not just the making of the museum which is open sourced; there is also a knowledge exchange. We propose a crowd-sourcing of knowledge and experience around collections. This, curated by the museum, stimulates further dialogue with audiences and enhances understanding of objects, narratives and place. Curation becomes the assemblage of the interaction of the public not just the interpretation of knowledge by the institution. This is real public history.

This level of participation should help stimulate a new kind of civic institution, at a time when many of our political institutions are discredited. If, as Jon Alexander from the New Citizenship Project contends, we see visitors not as consumers but citizens then the museums of the future will need to build mutual relationships with the public, be non-hierarchal and, be a platform for the free exchange of knowledge, creativity.

Our Institutions must change

Change happened in Derby because we believed that the best museums are places for encounters, where all visitors feel that participation is an entitlement. The founders of Derby Museum in 1881 pledged that “the New Museum and Art Gallery should not be the preserve of the exquisites.”

And Change has to happen in the way we all behave inside our institutions. Mutual relationships with other organisations and greater participation should give individuals the confidence (and indeed the cover) to make the personal, professional. Theirs will be but one voice in a newly participatory institution.

Here in Derby we feel authority is by consent.

This rebalancing of relationships requires empathy. How can our institutions connect people with the complexity of the world if decision makers do not share a lived experience? How many of our leaders have held a minimum wage job, worked in McDonald’s or as a career? How many leaders live in or near neighbourhoods where non-visitors live?

We have to accept and call out priviledge be it economic or racial. No matter how well meaning many organisation are, they continue to show an unconscious bias in what they do and who they employ. A recent study carried out by Goldsmiths College in London 8.1% of Britain’s cultural workforce were brought up by parents who did traditionally working-class jobs, as compared to 34.7% in the country as a whole.

This was the Museum Detox Flash Mob of museum employees of colour at the Museum of London but this week I would have attended the quartley meeting of the National Museums Director’s Council, this represents the largest 60 National and Regional museums in the UK – amongst those Directors there is one person of colour.

Here in the US there are energetic discussions that are attempting to address directly the legacies of racism, white priviledge and colonialsm.

  • Museums and Race – a movement to challenge and re-imagine institutional policies and systems that perpetuate oppressions in museums
  • Empathetic Museums – The qualities of 21st century museums are impossible without an inner core of institutional empathy: the intention of the museum to be, and be perceived as, deeply connected with its community.
  • Museumhue – advances the viability and visibility of people of colour using arts, culture and museums

In Britain in the wake of Brexit as we all explore our place in the world there is now more than ever a need to interrogate our colonial past, not just within lour large National Institutions. Especially as most of our regional museums are littered with the spoils of Imperialist adventures.

Museums as part of a progressive alliance

The current shrill, divisive political discourse in the UK and US will not be a solution to the complexities of the world and the challenges of the future. But I’m not sure we can be certain that it’s a blip rather than a tip.

This is the Lampedusa Cross acquired by the British Museum in 2016. It was made Francesco Tuccio a carpenter from the island of Lampedusa in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. One day at Mass in his local church among the congregation were bedraggled groups of newly arrived Eritrean migrants, weeping for loved ones who had drowned during the Mediterranean crossing

After the service Lampedusa’s carpenter went to the beach and began collecting the blistered, brightly coloured driftwood from the wreckage of migrant boats that had washed up on Lampedusa’s shores.

Alone in his workshop, Francesco carved crosses from the timber, shivering at the wood’s strange touch which he said made him think of holy relics and which smelt “of salt, sea and suffering”.

He asked his parish priest to display a big, rough cross above the altar to remind the congregation of the migrants’ desperate plight and he offered every migrant he saw a small cross as a symbol of their rescue and of hope for a new life.

British Museum curator Jill Cook heard this story, Here, she thought, was an object she could acquire for the museum and which would put the migrants and their story firmly into the museum’s record, so she asked Francesco directly if her would make the Museum a cross.

Hchose the wood he’d used carefully – it came from a boat which capsized off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 with the loss of 366 lives.

This was the disaster that prompted the Italian navy to launch their Mare Nostrum sea and rescue mission.

“I was so happy and proud when the museum contacted me. And then I asked myself a question,” he said.

“If this message has reached such an important museum, visited by people from all over the world, is this enough to break down the wall in the hearts of people still indifferent to this terrible crisis?”

More than ever museums should exploit their innate qualities which enable reflection and interaction, where the global and local, personal and social connect.

It’s not just about reconnection, it’s about our civic institutions playing a role in a humane, progressive coalition that won both the New Deal, the Second World War and in my country built a National Health Service. We join with civil society groups, the unions, the ethnic minorities, the liberal middle class, and the corporate world that eschews “locker room talk” We must be a midwife for a common story to emerge that puts the defence of global connection, racial tolerance and gender equality at its heart.

And they must place themselves alongside the rest of civil society to work towards a flourishing, resilient public realm because there are hateful alternatives waiting in the shadows if we don’t.

Tony is a social history curator at heart and has been Executive Director of Derby Museums Trust since January 2014. Derby Museums includes Derby Silk Mill, the site of the world’s first factory and a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Derby Museum and Art Gallery which contains the world’s finest collection of works by the 18th century artist Joseph Wright. From 2015 he will oversee the £17m redevelopment of the Silk Mill as Derby’s Museum of Making.

Prior to that, Tony was director of the Museum of East Anglian Life for nine years. He repositioned the organisation as a social enterprise and led a major capital development programme. In 2011 he founded the Happy Museum Project, to create an international community of practice to explore how museums could contribute to a society in which well-being and environmental sustainability were its principle values. Happy Museum has supported 22 UK museums to develop projects which build mutual relationships with audiences and ‘steward the future as well as the past.’

Tony read History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University and has an MA in Museology from University of East Anglia. He was the Fellow for Museums on the Clore Leadership Programme in 2007-08, a Director of Mission Models Money, a member of council for the Association of Independent Museums and is a trustee of Kids in Museums. He lives in Derbyshire and Suffolk with his partner and their two children.


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