Museums Work

Museums Work Blog

An experiment in education…

Following on from my previous blog, most of the local authority museums I have looked at in the East Midlands seem to have established their services for schools from the 1930s, often in conjunction with the Local Educational Authority (LEA) and in the form of objects for loan. That in Derbyshire, for instance, was set up by the Education Committee in 1936 as a three year experiment with a grant from the Carnegie UK Trustees for the purchase of exhibits, consisting of ‘material which would not normally be available in a classroom but had hitherto only been seen in public museums and art galleries’.*

The experiment was a great success, offering by the end of the three years over 500 artefacts, 100 framed reproductions of paintings and a library of gramophone records used by 80 local schools, which could exchange loans up to three times a term. Apart from a short closure in September 1939, the service continued throughout the Second World War and was also used up to 1946 by military hospitals in the area and the Army Education Corps.

The early exhibits for loan consisted of ‘things easily obtained…’ – natural history material, for example, and contemporary crafts such as pottery – ‘based on the requirements of the school curriculum, with particular emphasis on local material of all kinds’. These were displayed in small glazed oak cases ‘in the belief that the specimens needed some form of protection from inquisitive or mischevious fingers’, but by 1957 most specimens were ‘freely available for the child or teacher to handle, to examine, and to arrange in a manner most suited to the purpose’, only fragile or rare items being presented in cases.

The service was described as ‘a pioneering scheme in its particular sphere’, attracting visitors from Australia, Israel, Cuba, Mexico, Trinidad and Uganda, as well as within Britain. The list of members of the Museums Advisory Committee in 1957 also suggests a widening educational remit embracing adults as well as children, including such organisations as Nottingham University, the Dervyshire Rural Community Council, the Arts Council, the Derbyshire Federations of Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds, as well as teachers’ and parents’ associations and the School Broadcasting Council.   

* Derbyshire County Council, Derbyshire Education Committee Museums Service 1936 – 1957 (1957)


Dullness, dustiness, and moribund banality…

‘Let it not be supposed that all children are angels in a museum; they are not. They play, they howl at the door, they are at times most troublesome, but that can be overcome with a little tact, and judicious treatment… Though full of spirits, they are at an impressionable age. To shut the door upon them would be to miss an opportunity’.

The above quotation is taken from a pamphlet written by Frank Stevens FSA and published in 1919 by Salisbury Museum. Some Account of the Educational Work Done at the Salisbury Museum 1916 – 19 was prompted by the belief that education would be ‘in the forefront of the activities which demand attention under “after the war reconstruction” Educational development is a burning question of the hour, and it is part of the policy of every museum to avail itself of the opportunities this development gives in the new era which must follow in the wake of the great war’.

In the Salisbury Museum itself, just before the war, the curator had organised educational activities for the children who visited the Museum in increasing numbers on Monday evenings (when it was open until 8 pm), at times ‘to the prejudice of good order’. While some appeared to be ‘merely curious, others steadily examined the cases one by one, with an evident desire to master their contents’. A course of lectures was thus organised to ‘thoroughly explain’ the objects on display ‘in such terms and in such a way as will bring their history most vividly to their imagination’. 

This was conducted on the lines of a school class – at which point the merely ‘casual or curious’ disappeared; but the experiment also prompted some interesting reflections on the nature of a museum as an ‘educational storehouse’. In Mr Stevens’ view, this had often been overlooked in the past, partly because of ‘a lack of public appreciation of the solid merits of a regularly organised collection’ – but also because of the existence of museums which:

‘have earned for the whole class a name for dullness, dustiness, and moribund banality. There are Museums and Museums. A good one, well arranged and well kept, clean, neat and attractive, may be the means of conveying instruction and giving interest and pleasure to the lives of thousands of our fellow creatures. Such museums do not grow by themselves. Money, time, knowledge, and loving sympathetic care must be expended upon them, both in their foundation and in their maintainance, and unless these can be provided for with tolerable certainty, it is useless to think of founding them… A church demands its minister, a school its teacher, a garden its gardener; so, too, the Museum requires its competent staff to take care of it…’.  

The employment of staff with specific educational roles seems to have been a longer-term development, however. In my next blog I’ll be looking at an example from Derbyshire…


Cultivating the taste of the masses…


Nottingham Castle Museum opening

Many provincial museums have their origins in the activities of learned societies, but were clearly intended for the benefit of ‘the masses’. This was explicit in the Act of Parliament of 1845 which allowed local councils to levy a halfpenny rate to provide museums for the ‘Instruction and Amusement of the Inhabitants’, and in the Corporation of Nottingham’s address to the Prince and Princess of Wales on the opening of the Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 1878, which identified ‘the cultivation of the taste of the masses of the population of this Borough and the surrounding towns and counties’ as its primary objective.

The Castle had remained a ruin since 1831, when it was looted and damaged by rioters protesting against the Duke of Newcastle’s opposition to parliamentart reform. According to one history of it:

‘visitors to the town wended their way to it with curious interest, and the terrace, always a source of attraction, was paced with pleasure by many during the calm summer evenings. Occasionally in recent years a gala has drawn a flock of visitors to the grounds…’*

Its transformation into a museum and art gallery owed much to the association between the Nottingham School of Art, founded in 1843, and the South Kensington Museum - later the Victoria and Albert Museum – whose director Sir Henry Cole urged the Corporation to extend ‘the influence and advantages of further art education by the establishment of a Museum of Science  and Art, especially illustrative of those industries which have given to Nottingham the eminent position it holds among the great manufacturing centres of the United Kingdom’.

The Long Gallery

On the day of the official opening, the Prince and Princess were welcomed ‘with all the enthusiasm and varied demonstrations which usually characterise an English crowd when receiving personages so popular as the Royal visitors’. ‘Artistic decorations’ had been ‘spontaneously provided… with ungrudging liberality’  by the townspeople , including floral displays and a triumphal arch. They were met at the entrance to the town, near St. Andrew’s church, by the Mayor and Corporation in their robes, accompanied by the local Guilds, the Borough MPs and other dignitaries, and from there ‘an imposing and magnificent procession was formed, extending quite half a mile in length, escorted by squadrons of Her Majesty’s Lancers and the Yeoman Cavalry of the County’.  

This passed through the Market Place, where houses were hung with crimson cloth with ‘the windows and parapets throughout being thronged with spectators’. The Town Hall was also ‘decked in showy draperies, her roof and time ball minaret bristling with coloured flags’. On reaching the Castle grounds, ‘crowded with a vast assembly’, the Mayor presented the Prince of Wales with a ceremonial key with which he unlocked the door. Following an escorted tour by the Curator, Mr G.H. Wallis, and Castle Architect Thomas Chambers Hine, and a luncheon in a pavilion on the Castle lawn, the Prince declared the museum officially open. As the Corporation address to the royal visitors noted, few of the inhabitants of Nottingham had had an opportunity ‘of visiting the metropolis, or spending there sufficient time to enable them thoroughly to master the art treasures amassed in that [Sotuh Kensington] museum. The Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery was thus  ’an experiment which we trust will be crowned with complete success… the means of affording them the culture which they could obtain in no other way’.

* Thomas Chambers Hine, Nottingham, its Castle and art gallery: a military fortress, a ducal mansion, a blackened ruin, a museum and gallery of art (Unknown publisher, 1876; supplement 1879)


The development of new technologies and the emergence of new museology professions – AVICOM annual conference

Friday 9 March is the last day for registration and submission of proposals for presentations for the AVICOM 2012 conference.

‘That new technologies have a place in museums, be it intra or extra muros, is an established fact that no one would think of challenging. The vitality of the AVICOM Committee is proof of this. A number of new tools—interactive terminals, smartphone applications, and exhibition designs featuring strong interactive components come to mind—have recently appeared and immediately captured the public’s interest. AVICOM’s FIAMP awards celebrate museums’ creativity in this area.

‘It is clear that the relationship between “new technologies” and museums is now well established. This relationship seems to be becoming more essential by the day, as was confirmed in July 2010 during a debate around the issue of the museum in the 21st century that took place between Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, and Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate in London. One of the conclusions resulting from that discussion was that the future of museums is ever more dependent on their ability to interact with their publics on-line. Indeed, a July 29, 2011 post on the Cultural Engineering Group Weblog purported that the future of the institution of the “Museum” increasingly hinges on the Web. In the face of such a “prophecy,” which is well on its way to becoming a reality, a number of issues arise, both on the ethical and practical levels.

  • Will this change result in the development of new museum professions?
  • Who are the people now creating these new programs? Specialists? Communications or creative professionals?

AVICOM Montreal 2012 will focus on the ‘very topical issue of the challenge now shared by museums, interpretation centres, the education community, art conservation centres and multimedia companies, as well as examine the question of what is the public’s part in this dizzying process. Further details at