In Conversation With David Fleming
David Fleming, the Director of National Museums Liverpool spoke with Jasper Visser about his vision for museums that change lives at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016.
Jasper: to invite you all to feel a little bit more like we’re in a cosy campsite this morning, while we go into conversation with Professor Doctor David Fleming, or David, as he asked me to call him, about many of the great projects he’s done, many of his great ideas, a lot of his work. I’m very honoured to be able to host this presentation. As Emma said, you’ve read in your booklet his amazing biography, and if you haven’t, please do so right now.
I will just briefly say, David is the Director of National Museums Liverpool, where he’s done, over the past 15 years, a tremendous change project that is still going on, turning National Museums Liverpool into a fantastic organisation that addresses many of the topics that we’ve talked about at this conference before, as well as the President of the UK Museum Association, where he champions topics like museums change lives, which we will also very much talk about. Finally, David is – and I don’t know if he knows – a big personal example of mine, and I hope that he will be, if you don’t know him yet, for many of you at the end of this talk. There’s no pressure there. I also know he happens to say a lot of very Tweetable things, so feel free to do that.
Before we begin, Dave, maybe to make people who don’t know National Museums Liverpool understand a little bit better where you’re coming from, could you maybe introduce your work, and National Museums Liverpool?
David: Jasper, thank you, and thank you for inviting me. I’ve been working in museums since 1981 – 35 years, so thank you for allowing me to raise the average age of the people here. I realise that I’ve been working in museums for longer than some of you have been alive, so in that respect, there might be a few things that I’ve picked up along the way that you might find moderately interesting.
Jasper asked me to say a few words about National Museums Liverpool before we start with the conversation proper, just so that you’ve some idea of what it is that drives me. Yes, I’m looking at the direction of a big nationally funded museum service that’s based not in the capital city of London in England, but in the regional city of Liverpool, so it’s an unusual setup which came about when government nationalised the museum service, a term that nobody’s comfortable with. It has little meaning, but it basically meant that it took on the responsibility for funding a big regional – probably the biggest regional museum service in England, possibly in the UK.
So, we have eight museums, and we receive about 2.8, 3 million people a year. We employ several hundred people, so it’s a big organisation. I realise that not everybody works for a big national museum organisation; that’s where I spend my time, and my job has been to make sure that this big, extensive museum service is of real value, particularly to people living in the immediate area. The immediate area is one that’s full of challenges. I may not have brought the information, but I think I can probably remember it.
This is our mission – I was on stage in Birmingham at the annual meeting of the UK Museums Association last year, on a panel, and I think it was four museum directors, and we were all asked about our mission. It became reasonable clear that not everybody knows what their mission is. So, this is meant to be a mission that we can kind of remember – it’s short and snappy; it’s meant to be reasonably motivational, particularly for ourselves, but also for anybody else that might be interested in working with us, because this is what drives us – we aim to be the world’s leading example of an inclusive museum service.
So, if anybody here wants to work with National Museums Liverpool, you’ve got to get this inside your head before you even come near us. If you don’t like this, well, you know, let’s not party, as it were.
I was talking to Donna from BRC, a Californian Imagineering company – I don’t know what BRC is, really, but anyway, they’re concept developers; they’re master planners, and they worked with Liverpool staff closely when we were devising the Museum of Liverpool. It was really important that BRC got us, as we got them.
They were based in California, so it wasn’t easy working with a gang of Californians, from Liverpool, but it was worth it because they kind of saw the world through eyes that were similar to ours, and working with empathetic partners is a really important thing of what we do.
These are some of our values, not all of them. We’re an inclusive and democratic museum service. What do we mean by that? You’ve got to walk the walk; there’s no point in saying these things and not meaning them; you’ve got to be able to explain exactly what you mean, I don’t know, to our trade union officials – do they understand what we mean by democratic museum service? Do they agree with it? Do our staff like this? We like to think that we recruit people that sign up to these kinds of values.
We’re into maximised social impact and educational benefit. Museums are fundamentally educational in purpose. Not everybody believes that, you know. I don’t know what it is that they believe, but we strongly believe that they are educational in purpose, and it’s through education that we start really making a difference to the world.
Places for ideas and dialogue that use collections to inspire people. So, first and foremost, we believe that we’re educational, and we’re places for ideas and dialogue, and we use the museum structures and museum devices and museum techniques to do that, but actually, that’s what we’re trying to do to inspire a general public.
We believe in the power of museums to help promote good and active citizenship – slightly coy wording, which I think we’re changing. Well, I know we’re changing, because I’m changing it. When I go back to Liverpool next week, we’ll adjust this, but the meaning will still be there.
Acting as agents of social change is what our museum service is all about. Maybe we can talk a little bit about what we mean about that.
We believe in the concept of campaign for social justice. Again, Jasper has warned me that he might ask me about what does that mean, then, what does social justice look like, and why should museums bother? So, we’ll see.
This is some of our work, to illustrate some of those values. That’s a picture of the Museum of Liverpool on your left, and on my left, with a few of the projects that we’ve had there in recent times.
The April Ashely exhibition is part of our LGBT programme. We were very delighted recently when a Polish journalist described us as the Queer Exhibition Capital of Europe. We think he was trying to be complimentary. It was certainly the way we took it. But, the point is that trying to represent people who are marginalised in mainstream society often is what museums can do very successfully, but only if you work in partnership with empathetic people.
The people that we worked with on the April Ashely show, for example, called Homotopia, a gay activist rights group, they know everything there is to know. I don’t need to know it all; they know it all. All I need to know is that we can work with them, and we like each other, and we trust each other’s agendas, and we believe in each other’s values.
Poppies, the First World War, Now and Then, AIDs and HIV, and L8, Unseen L8 is a part of Liverpool that’s particularly noted that’s where the Liverpool black community inhabits, again often marginalised, and outside the mainstream of Liverpool life, and we believe in trying to correct these injustices through our work in museums.
A little bit about dementia, but I won’t talk for too long. International Slavery Museum – again, it’s a campaigning museum; it’s anti … It campaigns against racism; that’s what it does. Shoot me if you don’t like that, but actually I shouldn’t say that, because in fact, we do quite often get threats from people, from right wings who don’t like the idea that there might be a cultural institution that counters racism and the kind of racist nonsense that we hear nowadays.
Here’s some of the examples, which I’m slightly interested to see doesn’t reflect the fact that we tried to take apart the whole British Empire thing as well. Here we’ve got Dalits in India, Brutal Exposure, Belgium, Congo, White Gold, which is the cotton industry, particularly in Uzbekistan, and 42, which is the average life expectancy of women in Sierra Leone, which is a lot less than it is, I believe, in Ireland, or the UK, or indeed, most of western Europe. But, be assured – we don’t let the British Empire off the hook of looking at what it’s like to be racist and oppressive.
World Museum – it’s been around for 160 years or so. It’s your classic big, ex-municipal museum, now national museum, where we do everything from dinosaurs to zoology. [Mayors] was an interesting one, because we’re very strong on our human rights agendas, and Mexico has lots of human rights issues at the moment, as some of you in the audience may well be aware. It’s the kind of tricky decision that we have to make – can we work on this? How are we explaining ourselves to our own staff, who will come to me and say, ‘Why are we working with China? Why are we working with Mexico? There’s human rights issues in these countries; I thought we stood up for human rights. Why should we do it?’ There are no easy answers to these kind of things, other than the fact that you do try to discuss it very much, when we’re at work.
The Walker Art Gallery – our human rights work runs all the way through all our museums. Hockney, The Gang, Alive, which was living with death, which is a wonderfully popular exhibition, and the more traditional Pre-Raphaelites. So, we tried to do everything, but the point is that we have a social edge wherever we work. We’re very conscious of our function as a museum service.
Here are some facts and figures, which I can barely see, but it basically lists some of our museums and some of our statistics. 2.7 million visits, so it’s a big, popular organisation. That 2.7 needs to be seen in the context of the fact that that number was 700-and-something thousand about a decade ago, so our audiences grew by several hundred percent over the decade, and people often want to know, well, how did you do that?
One of the answers is, we started taking a strong line on issues, and miraculously, the audience grows because they quite like museums to do that. At that point, I think I’ll stop, and hand back to Jasper. I hope that’s given you some flavour of what we’re up to in Liverpool.
Jasper: Thank you, David. I’m pretty sure, in the audience, you’ve picked up quite some questions already, and there will be time for them later so keep them in your mind. The first thing that stands out to me is, you mentioned a couple of times, empathy, or empathetic partners and staff. What do you mean by that?
David: Well, I think that traditional museum work was based around scholarship, looking after collections, researching and so on. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but modern society demands more of their cultural institutions, particularly if they pay for them by going through the door or through the taxation system, or so on.
So, my own belief is that you need to be really clear and open, and overt about what your values and your mission are, and if you do that, it means that everybody can have some understanding of what it is that you’re up to. We’re very clear in Liverpool, for our own benefit, and for the benefit of the people that fund us and work with us, and maybe support us in different ways, about what it is that we’re up to.
So, I think it’s a matter of being really, really clear; it’s the communication thing, something that the museums didn’t used to do a lot of. The traditional, old-fashioned 19th, 20th century museum was a bit isolationist. It used to expect audiences to turn up to see the scholarship, and funnily enough, they often didn’t. You’ve got to work a lot harder than that if you’re going to engage with society at large, and I think working through clear values and clear objectives, and clear missions, and finding people to work with you is what makes the modern museum magic.
Jasper: Yesterday, at the end of the day, we had a fantastic panel, where we spoke about staff values, and how to engage your staff, and some of the messages that came back there was the [only] responsibility of museum professionals anywhere, not just directors, but anyone has towards making their museum a better place for everyone.
David: And, it’s not easy. I don’t pretend … I’m sure if this was an audience of National Museums Liverpool staff, there’d be various comments being passed about – it’s easy for him to sit up there spouting all this stuff. He doesn’t know my name, doesn’t talk to me, and so on, and so forth. I’m not suggesting it’s easy, but it’s a direction of travel; it’s a style that you try to develop. When I’m being very optimistic, I like to think that all the staff at National Museums Liverpool like our values, and so on, but of course, if we weren’t out there with them very overtly all the time, they wouldn’t even have the chance to do that.
Jasper: You already mentioned that it’s difficult. What would be your message to people there in the audience? I know we’re jumping to the last question I wanted to ask you, but it’s coming up anyway. What is your message to them, if they want to turn their museum into a more inclusive and social museum? How could they do that, not being a director, not having a podium like you have?
David: Yes, in my case, I realised many years ago that I kind of needed to be in charge if I wanted the place to look like I wanted it to look like, rather than what somebody else wanted it to look like. That’s just life. But, before I was a director – and I’ve been a director since 1991, so I’ve even been a director for nearly as long as some of you have been alive – before that, I wasn’t a director, and I had to try and cope with somebody else being in charge.
That was all right – it wasn’t the end of the world. You still do your thing; you still stand for what you stand for, and hopefully one day you end up being able to sort of set the agenda, call the shots. It’s just that what you can’t do is go into some kind of strange Captain Kirk command and control type mode. You’ve got to be more consensual. I’ve got this theory of leadership, which is that when a new director takes over, they may well need to be quite authoritarian and autocratic.
Sometimes, if you want things to change, and change within a visible timescale, you’ve got to try to make things happen. Over time, I’d like to think I’ve become more consensual as a director. You consult far more; you’re much more keen to talk to people about the direction that you’re going in, and get them signed up to what you’re doing, rather than telling them, ‘Like it, or bugger off and go work somewhere else’. That’s not necessarily easy, either, but it’s kind of an attitude.
Jasper: Thank you. In your values, one of your values, and also something you repeatedly mention in interviews and videos that you can find online is your thorough belief in that museums change lives. It’s also the title of a UK Museum Association Vision document, I think. Do they? Do museums change lives, and if so, what can they change in people’s lives, and especially for whom?
David: They’re capable of it. They don’t all do it. First of all, you have to want to have that kind of impact in society at large. In other words, you’re not just running a, I don’t know, a tourist honeypot, for example; you are conscious of who your audience is, and who your audience might be, and who your audience isn’t. You’re trying to be inclusive; you’re trying to do things that will win you friends and users. If you’ve got no audience, you’re not going to change many people’s lives, to be quite honest, so you’ve got to try and build rapport.
In Liverpool, our rapport, primarily, is with people that live in the Liverpool city region. It’s very important that they use their museum service, that they understand it’s their museum service; it’s there for everybody. It’s not some kind of exclusive club of which you need to be a member.
I think in terms of museums changing lives, I’ve always seen museums as a way in to a different way of looking at the world, for people like my family, none of whom ever had any education to speak of, but museums were still there for them all the way through their adulthood. You’ve not been … Some people get written off by the education system, and museums aren’t with the education system – they’re there forever, so they can be of value, and I particularly see them of value to people who have been a little bit, shall we say, short-changed by the education system.
So, I think their lives can be changed. Not by insisting that they change and insisting that they do certain things, or believe certain things, but just trying to expose them to ways of thinking. That’s really what we try to do, and in exposing them to ways of thinking, for example that racism’s bad, and inclusivity is good, that’s the way that I think great museums can start having an impact on people.
Jasper: Thank you. Your predecessor at the UK Museum Association, David Anderson, last week at a similar conference asked all the participants to engage after his talk, into a small conversation about when a museum changed their lives, and I found that a very interesting exercise, so if you need something to talk about during the coffee break …
David: It reminds me of books. It’s like saying, ‘Do books change people’s lives?’ Well, I can’t give you a specific example of how a book changed my life, but I’m pretty sure that reading is what enabled me to get on and break away from the background that I was brought up in and just opened my horizons, and museums are like that. It can be sometimes hard to come with specific examples. I mean, I do have some specific examples, but basically it’s an approach. If you don’t believe museums can change lives, you probably shouldn’t be working in museums, is what I would say.
Jasper: Clear, thank you. Another topic that repeatedly comes up in all your work is social justice, also a topic we discussed yesterday briefly, at the end of the day. You’re the convener of the Social Justice Alliance for Museums, and also within National Museums Liverpool, you play a very active role in social justice. What is your take on that? How do you see a museum can play an active role in social justice, and can you maybe give an example of either National Museums Liverpool or another museum that does so, and does so in a good way?
David: Yes, I think social justice, we all have different definitions of what we mean. Two or three years ago, I was speaking in the States at the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums, so it was a big audience of Americans, and they got me over there to speak about social justice. What I didn’t realise was that it was kind of a trap, because the American version of social justice, it’s kind of a bit like communism; it’s a bit anti-wealth – well, you know, best of luck if you want to go to the States and start saying that wealth’s bad, and everybody should be equal.
But, the AAM people wanted somebody from Europe to go and talk about, well, what’s our perspective on social justice, because it isn’t just about wealth equality; it’s about countering injustice. The opposite of social justice is social injustice, and to me, social injustice is when people from any marginalised grouping – and we’re all a member of marginalised groups at some stage in our lives; some people spend their entire lives marginalised; some of us just kind of hop in and hop out of different groups.
The social justice approach is what museums can do about that, so it sits alongside activism; it sits alongside doing something to correct ills in society. This once would’ve been seen as quite radical thinking in museums, because most people went into working in museums in the 20th century not thinking that they were going to right ills in society, but they were going to look after things. They were going to research things, and become experts, and so on.
As I say, I don’t dismiss that role from museums, but what I want to see, me personally, I want to see museums be much more activist in countering injustices in society – that’s the way I think; that’s the way we think at National Museums Liverpool; that’s the way I think lots of museums are able to behave.
Injustice looks different in different places. Injustice in Iran is not quite the same as injustice in Dublin. There are different issues that you deal with there. The point of having international gatherings, like the Social Justice Alliance for Museums, and the Federation of International Human Rights Museums, is to get international dialogue, where you are comparing and contrasting, so you’re not worried that Americans are obsessed with wealth, and that’s what they see social justice as attacking, because if you go to New Zealand, social justice and social injustice have an entirely different meaning, particularly to Maori and Moriori people, for example.
Museums, I think, are very powerful institutions in showing that these are not topics to be frightened of, and can be agents for positive change, positive addressing of social injustice. That’s, to me, what social justice is, and I happen to think that museums have a great deal of cultural power – people look to us.
What we’ve found with the International Slavery Museum, for example, in Liverpool, is that people love the idea that it’s anti-racist. Not everybody – you know, there are people that are probably going to vote for Donald Trump in the USA, I imagine – not everybody likes this stuff, but most people seem to.
Jasper: That’s good. Thank you. Social justice is one of the many ills in society. Well, it’s an ill in society, as you mentioned, that museums can transform. A lot of the participants here are from Europe, so fortunately they think about different things than wealth maybe, but I meet a lot of museum professionals who want to do more on some of the big issues of our day, for instance the refugees that we see in Europe, or inequalities in societies, not necessarily just in wealth, but in other areas as well, education, or even terrorism, the threat of terrorism. They feel museums can play a role, but they don’t know where to begin, or what to do. What do you recommend, and do you have examples where you stood out for a very specific topic and tried to fix a wrong?
David: Well, my answer to what you’d do is that you find like-minded people internationally. I mean, I’ve had people come to me from places like China saying, ‘Well, it’s easier for you; you live in a free, Western democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of expression; you can say what you like without fear of any retribution. That’s not necessarily the same for me’.
I understand that. It’s different wherever you go in the world, but one of the ways to counter that kind of problem is to have international friends, is to be involved in international dialogues. It’s one of the reasons that [ICOM] could be really important. I mean, in many ways, it just isn’t, but in other ways, it’s a wonderful international forum that helps protect people, and protect people working in museums, being activist, because if you just stick to talking about things with your local politicians, you can find yourself in quite dark and dangerous places.
In terms of what we’re doing in Liverpool, I suppose trying to counter ignorance about sexuality, for example, is something that we’ve gone for big time. Liverpool is a very liberal-minded, free-minded kind of place. It’s probably to do with the strong Irish influence there, but that’s what it’s like, and you’re kind of pushing at an open door in taking on these politicised social issues like sexuality, which is readily misunderstood, and becomes the subject of discrimination and hostility very quickly. To me, the museum role is to make sure that that hostility and discrimination is minimised by talking up these things.
It gives a voice to people that are otherwise voiceless – that’s one of the things that museums can do. It’s not just about the voice of the establishment, or the people that hold control of everything. I think our responsibility is also to make sure we give a voice to people that otherwise might not have a voice.
It’s one of the reasons that bodies like Homotopia, Anti-slavery International, Dalit Freedom Network, want to work with museums, because we have exhibition spaces, and great big audiences. The International Slavery Museum has been there about ten years now, and had about 4 million visitors during that time. That’s a lot of people encountering anti-racist ideology. So, people who otherwise live in … The three of them, they’re in an office in, I don’t know, London, or Dublin or Belfast, or somewhere, and they have a website, and they’re desperately trying to make the world a better place.
One of the ways that they can do that is partner up with museum services who tend to have big and diverse audiences. It’s a marriage made absolutely in heaven, because we get access to their knowledge and their resources, and their energies and their ideas, and they get access to our audiences. So, it works beautifully together, and that’s really the way that you can aspire, museums can aspire to help change the world, working with other people that think the same way, that might not have the resources at their disposal that you have.
Jasper: Make international friends is your recommendation. Yesterday we saw the Museum Workers Speak hashtag as one of these platforms, the Social Justice Alliance for Museums – do you have other specific recommendations where people interested in these topics can find these international friends?
David: Yes. I mean, both the organisations I’ve mentioned are free to join; anybody can join, individuals, institutions can join, and you immediately gain access to the resources that we have, and the resources that we have consist of lots of casework and case studies from countries all over the world, including some people that are working very hard in countries where it’s really not easy to express yourself openly.
Jasper: Thank you. One last question before I want to open up to the room, because I’m pretty sure there are many other questions from your side. You’ve mentioned a lot of, let’s say, adjectives, in front of the word ‘museum’. In the past, you’ve spoken about a political museum, the emotional museum, the inclusive museum, the empath … Sorry, that’s a difficult word for me. Anyway, that word, museum. At the conference here, and I remember especially vividly the talk by Koven Smith two years back in Newcastle, where he spoke about a post-digital museum; we’ve had Nina Simon about the participatory museum – that’s a lot of things a museum has to be, in this century, or in years to come. Which ones would you focus on?
David: Well, they’re all important, and what exemplifies is how diverse museums are. They are all those things. I tend to look at the ones that’ve been the trickier ones, like the political museum. I’m probably not alone in having been trained as a museum person to think that museums are not political. They’re neutral – you see this all the time – they’re safe, neutral spaces, and so on, and actually, I like to think of museums as, they’re not really neutral at all. They are very political. We’re at the heart of politics wherever we are, in every nation in the world. Just this week, it’s the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin – I mean, how museums are supposed to deal with that issue without acknowledging that it’s political, I honestly don’t know. Avoid it and just talk about – I don’t know – the Vikings, or something of that nature.
That’s what museums used to do. They used to deal with ancient, unchallenging stuff, where the most difficult issue was whether or not they were Swedes, Danes or Norwegians living in Dublin. Nowadays, we talk about Empire, we talk about the troubles, and so on. We’re ingrained in modern issues, and that’s exactly where museums ought to be. If we’re expecting the public to respond to what we do, we can’t just keep retreating into the esoteric, neutral territories.
I think the most important designation in my brain at the moment about museums is that they should be emotional. I think I realised … It’s one of the things I learnt over my many, many years in museums, that the public responds to museums when they feel an emotional engagement, and the old-fashioned, traditional museum was a very dispassionate, neutral-ish place, and modern museums are much different from that. A good example – it’s perhaps a slightly surprising example – is the Museum of the Second World War in Kiev in the Ukraine, which changed its name recently because of …
I think it used to be called the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which is what the Russians call the Second World War. Well, of course, at the moment, the Ukrainians and the Russians are at loggerheads, so among the many changes to language and expression in the Ukraine is that they’ve changed the name of this museum, and I think they’ve changed it to the name, the Museum of the Second World War, so immediately, it’s become one of the pivotal issues, in terms of what’s the relationship between Ukraine and Russia?
But, that museum, it’s just a complete tear-jerking experience from start to finish. It’s actually very angry. It’s a very angry museum. It’s very angry about the War; it’s very angry about the Russians. Apparently, the Ukrainians are known as cyborgs by Russian soldiers – this is one of the things I learnt when I was there – because they never stop; they’re like Arnold Schwarzenegger type figures, in legend. But, the point is that even in a museum of war, it’s very, very emotional, and there’re many museums where it’s easy to play on the emotions, and I think it’s actually a good thing that museums do that.
If you go to the Museum of Liverpool, people used to say to me, ‘What do we want a Museum of Liverpool for? How boring will that be? Can’t we have something interesting, like a Museum of the United States?’ I remember somebody saying to me once. ‘Now, that’s interesting’. But of course, the Museum of Liverpool is a very emotional experience. We have lots of reactions from people, and the more you know Liverpool, the more emotional you’re likely to feel with the language in there. But, it does put a responsibility on those of us who work in the museum, to feel an empathy with trying to be emotional, trying to tease out what it is that makes people tick, and not just be a place where scholarship is saying, ‘Well, on the one hand, this, and on the other hand, that’. Let’s find a middle way.
So, it’s dangerous, and it’s difficult stuff. I mean, I’m not underestimating any of this – you’re making decisions all the time, but that’s what we’re paid to do; that’s our responsibility on behalf of society, I think. It’s not just avoiding difficult stuff, that’s not what museum work’s all about; it’s actually looking for difficult stuff, and immersing yourself in it. But, I think the emotional museum is probably my favourite concept of the ones you mentioned.
Jasper: Right, emotional museums. Let’s try and find some difficult stuff, and give a voice to people who have not had a voice so far, the audience. Are there any questions? I see loads of hands. Sorry, I’m going to pronounce your name again, [Narry].
Female Voice: [Unintelligible].
Jasper: Can somebody bring a microphone? Yes, thank you.
Female Voice: David, thank you. Extremely inspiring, as always. I have a question for you: how much do you work with European museums? I’m conscious that, in fact, probably about a third of the world’s museums are here in Europe, and not always with a strong social justice neither mission nor action, and I’m curious how your work on the continent works.
David: Yes, well, it’s difficult working internationally, for a … It just is. You know, there are so many reasons not to do it, and yet you’ve got to kind of overcome them. I’m talking about technical reasons and language issues, and EU funding issues, and form-filling issues, etc, etc, etc.
I mean, I find Europe particularly very interesting, because you’ve got northern Europe and you’ve got southern Europe. I generalise a little bit, but in southern Europe, it’s still the home of the traditional museum approach. You go to places – I don’t know if there’s anybody here from Spain or Italy; they’ll probably hate if I say this … Oh, yes, but there you go – you have what I would categorise as a very traditional approach to traditional museum work. The further north you get in Europe, you get to Scandinavia – and, I was at the conference of the Association of Swedish Museums yesterday, and they love the idea of talking about migration and diversity in their museums, and their minister of culture was there, and she’s about your age; she’s black … So, she’s 30-something, she’s black, she’s very animated – it’s exactly the kind of person you’d like to think was your culture minister, and she wasn’t taking prisoners in terms of what she was expecting museums to be, to get really ingrained in modern Swedish issues.
So, I think it depends where you are in the world, but most of the radical activity, I find, is not in Europe. It’s in places like South America and Australasia, and in eastern Europe. It’s almost as if there’s an inverse relationship with how democratic your institutions are, and the less democratic you are, the more likely you are to find brave and bold museum people trying to change the world. A lot of generalisations there, but that … I’m a very, very strong believer in international dialogue, and trying to overcome the international barriers that there are. So much to learn from each other.
Jasper: Any other questions from the audience? Lady there in the centre?
Female Voice: Hi, yes, thank you. I think that currently, as a counterargument to the 20th century scholarship that existed, working on social issues is really important in order to bring some change in the industry, but isn’t there a danger that it can go too far, and that museums can then become kind of preachy in the way that they address these issues? Isn’t it important to keep some kind of neutrality, that you’re saying … in the argument, as well?
David: Well, you see, I don’t accept that museums have ever been neutral. They just pretend to be neutral, but they’re full of opinion and they’re full of bias, and even the most traditional – I don’t know – Italian museum, is full of the biases of the people that run the museum. And, sometimes that’s avoidance – they avoid talking about – I don’t know – fascism; they avoid talking about Mussolini. There are uncomfortable things that museums really ought to deal with, and they choose not to.
One of the excuses they’ve often given is that they’re trying to be neutral and apolitical – well, it’s just a copout, really, because there’s no such thing as a neutral museum. Everybody in this audience has opinions, and every time they do work, those opinions influence the decisions that they’re making, and all I say is, well, that’s not a very safe place to be, but you know, the world’s not a safe place – it is full of opinion and bias, and museums need to just face up to that, rather than pretending that they’re out with it, somehow.
I don’t see a lot of that around, to be honest, nowadays. I’m talking about what museums generally used to be like, and I think there’s a generational thing. I think the younger people are coming through, and they are more socially aware and socially activist than perhaps my generation were trained up to be. There’s progress being made.
Jasper: So, you think, you’re saying this, we just have to wait for maybe a decade or so, and then museums will be better, or does it require more … ?
David: Well, we don’t just have to wait. No, we’ve got to do it, but I think there will still be … I think they will still be better. No, you’ve got to … It’s a never-ending task, and it does mean acknowledging some of these uncomfortable truths about museums, and challenging some of the givens, like the myth of museum neutrality.
Jasper: Is that the furthest I pointed from where the microphone is actually? Yes, then that’s okay.
Female Voice: How do you go from a good idea like the emotional museum, to putting that in practice? I heard so many good ideas here, but I would like to know how you make that work, and how you … ?
David: Well, see, it’s easy for me because I can go back to Liverpool and initiate something. Not everybody’s in that happy position, but essentially, working with teams of people is all about communication and espousing views, and selling your case. I mean, we’re all doing that all the time. I have people that I’ve still got to report to. I’ve got trustees that don’t necessarily agree with everything I want to do. I’ve got funding bodies; I’m funded by the British Government. They don’t … They – there’s no such thing as they, really, but there’re always individuals there that might not like everything that we do.
So, it’s kind of a mixed culture, really, of doing things, but getting permissions and getting sign-off. I mean, this is what my job’s about, but at the end of the day, everybody in the audience is the same, trying to do the trade-offs to make change happen, to make happen what you’d like to see happen. You can’t just do it by unilateral action.
Female Voice: What I really mean is how do visitors in the museum actually experience the emotional museum, so how you go from a good idea, to how does the visitor experience your emotional idea, museum … ?
David: Well, yes, that’s sometimes been put to me, as though we’re manipulating people’s emotions. We’re not doing that. We’re presenting them with issues. We happen to think, for example, if 30 million people are living in some form of modern slavery, let’s talk about that. I’m not manipulating people to be emotional about it. That’s kind of up to them. But, my job as a museum person is to make sure that the dialogue, the debate is there, some facts and figures.
People are often very shocked at what they find in this slavery museum, but it’s the same in all types of museum. You don’t have to be a human rights museum to be emotional and have that kind of impact. You can be a museum of – I don’t know – butterflies, pencils, steam engines, you name it, all these things. But, there’s emotion there somewhere.
Jasper: Thank you. The gentleman, because that’s nearer to the microphone. Thank you.
Male Voice: Thank you. I’m from the UK, like David, and I just wanted to ask you about money, David, because in the UK and in western Europe, the public sector, local and central governments’ funding for culture is shrinking, certainly shrinking in the UK. Is your model of inclusivity and social justice, the role of the museum, predicated on significant public funding? And, the second question is, could it survive your vision in the marketplace?
David: Yes, it is predicated on significant public funding, and the more public funding we’ve got, the better we are, and the less we’ve got, the less able we are. But, there are ways of getting in touch with people. I think, yes, it could survive in the market, in the sense that we’re dealing in important issues. If you mean, for example, will people pay to come and see – I don’t know, LGBTQ exhibitions and so on, yes, they will. But, I’m a great advocate of public funding; I’m a great believer in the democratic systems that we’ve evolved over many, many years, whereby we tax ourselves, and then we make public provision.
So, I don’t pretend that watching that funding diminish is in any way a good thing. It’s just a bad thing, but we have to survive and keep going. And, if you believe in this kind of stuff, you’ll find ways. I do think that working with empathetic partners is an important part of the answer, but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I think that you can just keep reducing public funding, and we’ll still manage to do a great job somehow – I do believe public funding is terrifically important, so I’m all for it.
I mean, I certainly do my job less well if I’ve got fewer resources to do it with. It just means I have to do it in different ways, and I don’t think I’m quite as impactful.
Jasper: Maybe, I see somebody from Spain waving, and that’s … as you just upset maybe part of the population.
Female Voice: Hi, I’m Conxa from the National Museum of Art of Catalonia in Barcelona, and I have one …
David: I don’t consider Barcelona as part of Spain, anyway.
Female Voice: [Soon enough]. I have a comment and a question. My comment is, of course you said it’s dangerous to generalise, and I can assure you that in Spain and in Catalonia, there are many museums doing quite innovative work and inclusive projects, etc, and some of them are here, so we are trying also to be [updated]. The question is, what role does digital play in Liverpool museums? Thank you.
David: Digital – well, digital to me is the whole issue. It’s a technique of communication, so you can use it intelligently, you can … The point is to still get an emotional connection with the public, and if digital can help you do that, well, good, and if it can’t, well, find some other way of doing it. So, I don’t put it in the same category as collections, collections as a technique. Nonetheless, collections are there to be used, to have an impact on the public, just like technology is there to be used to have an impact on the public. So, it becomes a bit of a device, but at the end of the day, what we’re looking for is educational and social impact.
Jasper: Can I just take that question a little bit further? You, which is a great recommendation, David and the National Museum of Liverpool have participated in a future [learn] MOOC, Massive Online Open Course last year, about museums in the 21st century, which is a brilliant educational experience, free online, and I highly recommend you do that – one of the things you say there in this MOOC is that museums that use technology risk becoming [dull] very quickly.
David: Only if the means become the end. If everybody becomes terribly nerdy about the technology without thinking it all the way through, that’s all. There’s a purpose to using it – that’s all I argue for. I mean, I’m all for using the technologies available. My son – I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to mention this, because he makes a living … He works with the Oculus Rift headsets and things, so I have a great deal of sympathy and interest in the use of modern technology, but it’s all to do with, as it were, the software.
Many years ago, I realised that, as a museum person, I was at risk of working with techies who were more interested in the technology than they were in the software, and that’s just a risk. We run risks all the time, everybody that works in technology museums runs that risk.
Jasper: Thank you. Lady here in front? I’m really bad at pointing to people where the microphone is. right for me.
Female Voice: Hi. I have a question about audience engagement, because in the beginning you said it’s, of course, important to reach as many people as possible, even to have some impact as a museum, but the topics you address in Liverpool are not the most widely-spread ideas, so how do you balance between reaching as many people as you can, and addressing still the less easy topics?
David: Well, somewhere like the Museum of Liverpool, people just use it – they go there all the time and they’ll encounter surprising things. They’ll encounter stories that they didn’t even know were stories. So, it’s a mix, isn’t it, of communicating? If you have an exhibition on April Ashley, for example, there are some people that will come along specifically because it’s an LGBT, trans issue that they’re interested in, and they’ll want to come and see it. Lots of other people have no idea what they’re going to find, but the point is that they’ve become used to visiting the museum because they think they have an enjoyable educational experience that’s an emotional one at the same time.
So, our job is to make sure that there’s always something new and fresh, and hopefully challenging there. So, that’s kind of how we do it. We don’t sell ourselves on doing lots of minority interest exhibitions – we do it on, visit this great museum, it’s a fabulous thing to do, and it’s a big emotional experience, and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to find there. I’m just trying to think what we’ve got on at the moment. Well, we’ve got the Easter Rising, because Liverpool, although it’s in England, it’s often described as the least English of all English cities, the most Irish of all English cities. ;So, lots of Liverpudlians came to Dublin in 1916 to join in the rising rebellion.
I was chatting with an Irish friend last night saying, ‘what am I allowed to call it?’ in case I call it the wrong thing, but apparently rising’s all right. Rebellion’s all right. Anyway, so that’s what we’ve got.
Now, there are lots of people in Liverpool will go along and encounter that exhibition on the Easter Rising in Dublin, and think, what on earth is this all about? What’s this got to do with Liverpool? Well, the answer is, it’s got a lot to do with Liverpool. It’s got a lot to do with people fighting oppression, fighting for recognition, and so on, and so forth. I t’s the perfect kind of exhibition to see. But I’m not expecting that there will necessarily be hundreds of thousands of people going there specifically to see it. I think lots of people will want to see that exhibition; it’s got lots of publicity in Liverpool.
Jasper: Thank you. Gentleman there in the centre. Thank you.
Carl: Hi. Carl from Germany. I absolutely agree with you that museums should be more political, but don’t you find there is kind of a border where you cannot go over, if it gets too much into actuality? I mean, of course, when you talk about slavery, that’s fine; even now, refugees would become maybe a political subject in Germany, for instance, where you are on a border where it gets difficult, and would you address, in Liverpool, something about Brexit?
David: Yes, good point, the politicisation. But, I think if you accept that we are already political, and that most politicians, not all politicians, are quite happy to have issues discussed. Where many politicians start differing is if a different perspective from their own is on show, then you are at some risk of incurring their displeasure. This is the same throughout the world. I guess my point is that we’ve got to try to be intelligent about making sure that these debates are on … The whole Brexit thing is … I’m not even really supposed to speak about it, because I’m a Government funded employee, and anything I say could be utilised to suggest I’m either campaigning in favour of it or against it. But, that’ll be over soon – we’ve got a referendum coming up, and after the referendum, we can say what we like.
I’m not allowed, really, to talk about the Hillsborough disaster in Liverpool at the moment, because the inquest jury is still sitting right now, so anything I say could, in theory, prejudice their sitting. But, putting aside those technical restrictions, the point you’re making is that it’s dangerous territory, and I agree, it is. There are subjects which are really tricky for people to do, but you’ve got to show some integrity and courage, and learn how to be able to take those risks so that, at the end of the day, you do end up with exhibitions in Germany on migration. Most people would welcome the debate and discussions. They might not like it if you said it’s a good thing, therefore … But, I mean, you can do that by saying, ‘Well, what do you think?’ to the audience. ‘Let’s have an audience response – it is good that people are migrating?’
But, if you’re talking about migration, as historians, we can talk about migration throughout history, to give the context, to make more sense of the fact that it’s part of the human condition, is it not, migrating around the place?
Jasper: As National Museums Liverpool have turned more political, so to speak, over the past few years, have you noticed a response from government, where they were maybe thinking of technicalities to make sure certain topics stayed off limits, or other pushback? Or, maybe a positive response from them, that they reach out to you to work with audiences on issues they would like to see addressed [overtalking]?
David: Quite honestly, I personally have never, ever encountered a politician that’s tried to control what my museums have been saying. That might be being a little bit naïve. Maybe they have, and maybe I don’t know it, but I tend to have a reasonably high opinion of the integrity of many politicians. Not necessarily all of them, but many of them. They’re intelligent people; they understand the way politics works, and I have instances of politicians essentially saying to me, ‘I’m not in the business of censoring what you do’. That’s what good politicians do, intelligent politicians, and that’ll be the same in Germany, or Barcelona, or Liverpool, or anywhere in the world.
But, I don’t underestimate the potential, the risks and dangers of offending politicians. In the democracies, we really have it easy. If you’re living in an autocracy or a place where a royal family makes all the decisions, then it starts getting more difficult, but I don’t … I work in a western democracy – I have very great freedom of expression, and I’ve got to try and make use of that when talking to colleagues in countries who are less open to debate. Germany’s not a place I’ve ever, I would imagine, have any issues. It’s all to do with who’s working in German museums and how brave are they, not what are German politicians going to do to stop you from talking about migration, or national socialism, or any of the unpleasant things. It’s a bit like talking about the British Empire, or slavery.
I was brought up in the British educational system, and I learnt nothing about the transatlantic slave trade. 200 years and more of trading in kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic, and I learnt nothing. So, I kind of feel a little bit driven nowadays to make sure that there’s a bit of a corrective to that. But I’ve never met a politician that’s said, ‘No, it’s too uncomfortable’. I have met tourism industry people that’ve said, ‘Can’t you talk about something nice for a change?’
Jasper: We’ve all met them.
David: It’s a bit … I remember somebody, a tourism person, who shall remain nameless, came to visit the Museum of Liverpool just before it opened, and she said, ‘It’s a bit working class, isn’t it?’
Jasper: And you took it as a compliment?
David: Well, you know, from her perspective, what she was trying to make the point, that we might not get rich German tourists wanting to come to Liverpool to see this working class museum, but it’s probably the same kind of person that was saying, ‘Why can’t you have a Museum of the United States rather than a Museum of Liverpool? How boring is that?’ But, we kind of did take it as a bit of a compliment.
Jasper: We have time for one tricky question, or two simple questions, so I’m not sure which was we want to go. I see a hand in the middle there. I don’t see whose hand it is.
Female Voice: Hi. I’m a PhD student from Amsterdam, and I was interested in, your museum is very relevant, and it’s topics that are very current – how do you create space for visitors to tell their stories and their narratives? Are they included in the exhibition, or is there space for that?
David: Yes, it’s very much the modus operandi at Liverpool. In fact, Liverpool is a very … I always categorise it as a very talkative, garrulous and argumentative place, lots of opinions about everything. If you tried to run a museum without encompassing the opinionated nature of the city, then you wouldn’t last very long, to be honest. So, there are many devices of including people’s voices, whether that’s interviews and videos and so on, or involvement in content, involvement in what’s on show. There are many ways of doing that, and we’re very conscious of it.
Equally, I don’t pretend that we’ve handed over all decision-making to members of the community, or to interest and lobby groups. A good example of that is, when the Museum of Liverpool opened in 2011, we knew that we had to look at the international influences on the city, and that we couldn’t do everything at once. So, we started with the Welsh influence in Liverpool – well, you know, I had every other national minority in Liverpool complaining that it wasn’t them that we’d done, particularly the Irish. Where’s the Irish? And we’re, ‘It’s coming, it’ll be there one day – we can’t do everything at once. So, we knew exactly what we were doing, but even that, in itself, gestated debate and controversy about what was and what wasn’t in the museum. But, the point’s a fine one, yes – it’s very important that museums endeavour to do that, without handing over all authority.
Jasper: You mentioned Liverpool is a very talkative town, where this is almost obligatory. Do you think that’s unique to Liverpool, or do you think this applies to all … ?
David: Well, I think everywhere is different. I come from the city of Leeds, and I would never describe the citizens of Leeds as garrulous and talkative – they’re just not. I mean, again, big generalisation, because I’m sure some people in Leeds are like that, but generally speaking, you tried to read the runes; you tried to work out, what’s it like to work in a place?
I always remember going to Stuttgart – sorry, I keep looking at our German colleague down there. I was in Stuttgart a few years ago, and I was talking to the politicians there about the possibility of creating a Museum of Stuttgart. Similarly, not long after that, I was talking to colleagues, museum colleagues in Frankfurt, about a Museum of Frankfurt. We’re all learning from each other all the time. What lessons can we learn from the Museum of Liverpool about Stuttgart and Frankfurt? Answer number one is, make sure it’s about Stuttgart; make sure it’s about Frankfurt.
It’s not just copying what we did in Liverpool, because what we’ve done in Liverpool is to customise the museum service according to the city that we’re in. If I worked in Birmingham or Sheffield or Manchester, I would’ve done a different job. Some of the principles are common; nonetheless, sense of place is very important, because people are brought up in a place. It’s like, we’re in Dublin at the moment, a city with – I generalise – a very strong sense of its own identity. It’s just not the same as any other Irish city, and it’s certainly not the same as any other English city, although Liverpool’s not that dissimilar [overtalking].
Jasper: Thank you, David. That gives us, I think, time for one very quick question more, and it’s a quick one, right?
Male Voice: Of course. I was just wondering how you carry through your values of inclusion into the back of house, to the staff, etc?
David: Well, by being as clear as we can. Again, I’m not sitting here pretending that everybody in the organisation loves everything that we do. I’m sure that’s not the case. One of the issues of being a museum and being an employer, is that with your employer’s hat on, you’re negotiating pay, you’re negotiating overtime rates; you’re negotiating all sorts of issues that can get you into big arguments, regardless of what the museum itself might be trying to do.
You try to deal with that, but we have … We listen a lot to what our staff say. Our staff in Liverpool, they’re the guys that tend to meet the public, so it’s important that we have an understanding of what it is that they’re saying to us. It’s equally important that they understand what kind of an organisation we think we’re trying to run, but by no means, that doesn’t exclude us from having all sorts of arguments over terms and conditions and so on – that’s life as an employer.
Jasper: Arguments. Thank you. Thank you, David.
David: Well, you know, my … How can I describe her? My most outspoken trade union colleague messaged me last week and said … She was a bit begrudging, because she’s never that complimentary about management, but she did say, ‘Well, it’s all to do with mutual respect. If you’ll get mutual respect, we can rubble on’. I paraphrase what she said, but it’s about as good as you can get – you try to rubble on, and it’s not all about negotiations over terms and conditions, but it is an important part of any organisation work.
Jasper: One last quick question: you’ve talked a lot about National Museums Liverpool. You get around and you visit loads of museums, or you’re in touch with a lot of museums all over the world that do exemplary [work], and that may not be known to this predominantly European or Anglo-Saxon audience. If you had to name one or two institutions that we go and visit and learn from that are not the National Museums, Liverpool, where would you point us?
David: Well, the most exciting and bravest endeavour at the moment are the people who are making a museum of democracy in Argentina. Argentina has had issues of fascist military governments, very oppressive, complete absence of freedom of speech, and so on. So, what do you do? Let’s make a museum of democracy, where we’re … Admittedly, Argentina isn’t like that anymore. Argentina is a democracy, but the point is, it’s a fragile democracy. It’s not like the UK or Ireland where we’ve kind of been used to working this way for a long time.
So, I think that people in the city of Rosario making the International Democracy Museum, they’re worth watching to see quite what they do. They have a campaign against modern slavery running at the moment. It’s the last place in the world you would imagine was doing that, but hats off to them. They’ve got lots of Argentinian celebrities, including footballers, holding up cards saying ‘No to modern slavery’. There’s a lesson there for all of us in terms of bravery.
Jasper: Excellent. We can combine it with the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio we heard about yesterday, so that’s a trip for next year, Jim. I’m looking at you. Please join me in thanking David. You’ll be around today, right?
David: I’m here all day, yes.
Jasper: All day, for questions and comments, if you want to speak to him personally, but for now I’d like to thank you very much for all your insights and opinions.
David: Thank you.
David Fleming, the Director of National Museums Liverpool spoke with Jasper Visser about his vision for museums that change lives at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences, join our mailing list, follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.