So, the government has announced its £1.57 billion rescue package for heritage and the arts, but the Culture Minister, Caroline Dinenage, said yesterday that the grants will not be paid until later in the summer and that they would be used to protect “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors” in the regions. Why late summer and not now? That will come far too late for some. And what exactly are the “crown jewels” and “cultural anchors”? Doubtless the crown jewels will turn out to be the big attractions in London, such as the theatres and national museums, taking the lion’s share of the pot to the detriment of many small local museums and theatres.
Back in 2018 I wrote about the 12-week old Weimaraner puppy that had joined Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley’s job is to sniff out bugs that can damage textiles in museum collections and, thereby, prevent an infestation taking hold.
I’m delighted to announce that an extended version of my post about Riley has been published on the Sniffing the Past blog. This site, edited by one of my doctoral supervisors, Chris Pearson, presents reflections about dogs in history and is well worth a read. I also write about dogs being trained to sniff out stolen historic artefacts and trafficked antiquities. Hats off to our canine companions who are starting to play a key role in the preservation of our culture and heritage.
The impact of the Coronavirus on the heritage sector has hit close to home this week with the sad news that Fishbourne Palace may have to close. Fishbourne, situated just outside Chichester, is a Roman villa on a monumental scale that was comprised of four large residential wings around a courtyard garden. It is the largest residential building from the Roman period found in Britain. The outline of the walls, together with many stunning and elaborate mosaics, survives. It was built around 70AD by Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, king of the Regni, who was granted Roman citizenship and became fully assimilated into the Roman way of life. The site also houses the archaeological collections for Chichester District and serves as an important hub for academic research and both school-age and adult education, because it is a key site in explaining how the newly conquered province of Britain came to be absorbed culturally into the Roman empire.
Fishbourne is one of eight sites owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS), also known as Sussex Past, that have all been affected by the loss of visitors. SAS says that all its sites are threatened with closure due to a shortfall of £1 million in lost income. Next year marks the 175th anniversary of the founding of SAS and an appeal has been launched, supported by the historian, Tom Holland. Let’s hope it makes it to this momentous milestone.
Renewed calls to take down public monuments celebrating people and events now considered offensive have become a key part of anti-racism protests taking place around the world, but the removal of statues of slave traders is sparking concerns that important lessons from history might be swept under the carpet. Simplistic expressions of mob justice do no good and only serve to further polarise opinion, but we should avoid any knee-jerk reactions. Each statue will have to be reviewed independently because the backgrounds and contexts are not the same. Edward Colston, for example, whose statue was pulled down, was a Victorian re-invention. His statue was erected in Bristol 170 years after his death, representing the economic, social and political perspectives of the businessmen of the city at that time. There have been calls for the removal of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, because he was opposed to the abolition of slavery, yet this is one of the few monuments to portray black seamen, many of whom served in Nelson’s navy.
The measured response of Sir Geoff Palmer, an emeritus professor of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and Scotland's first black professor, is one that many could heed. He does not support removing statues relating to slavery, believing that they are part of black history and stresses the importance of facing up to the past and better educating the public about it. He has been a key participant in the proposal to amend a plaque on a controversial monument of Scottish politician Henry Dundas to explain that he was "instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade". Palmer told BBC Scotland that the new plaque would give the public the opportunity to see and "actually read the evil that this man has done. If we take the statue down, this will not be known". He said that adding clarifications to these monuments, rather than pulling them down altogether, would avoid erasing history: “My view is you remove the evidence, you remove the deed”.
How we view the past changes from generation to generation, with each viewing its past differently. History is a continuing conversation with and about the past. Looking again means re-evaluating, but re-evaluation is not just the process of knocking the great off their perches, but recognising the value of those who have been overlooked. As retired bishop, Richard Harries, put it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme’s “Thought for the day” slot (12 June): “If history is a continuing re-evaluation of the past, then perhaps the full story can only be told when mankind no longer exists”. That’s a very long way off...
Business secretary Alok Sharma has confirmed that shops, department stores and shopping centres – all indoor spaces with limited room for people to roam – can reopen from Monday 15 June, “provided they put in place the necessary steps to keep their workers and customers safe”. After much public pressure, zoos and safari parks have now been given the green light to welcome visitors. This is great news, as these sites have been living on their nerves while awaiting news about when they can bring essential funds back into their businesses, but the same devastating experience has affected many museums and heritage sites too. With open-air visitor attractions like zoos and indoor retail units deemed safe, why not museums? Just one example of the disconnect in the government’s stance is evident at Covent Garden, where a raft of shops will be reopening on Monday while their neighbour, London Transport Museum, will remain shut. A lack of joined-up thinking or a lack of care and understanding for our culture and heritage?
In the wake of this week’s announcements that the Globe Theatre and the Royal Albert Hall may have to close, Sir Nicholas Kenyon (Managing Director of the Barbican Centre and former director of the BBC Proms) stated on BBC Radio 4 this morning that the survival of the arts can no longer be a side issue. He believes - and rightly so - that different approaches to recovery will be needed for the different sectors of the arts. Social distancing is being relaxed to enable sport to resume, so why, when more people go to the theatre than attend a premier league football match, is there such disparity in funding and political support? If more government support is not forthcoming, so much of our culture and heritage will be lost.
A government taskforce is being set up to help reopen the cultural sector in England. Overseen by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and chaired by a DCMS minister, its responsibilities will include tourism, culture and heritage, libraries, entertainment and sport. The group will be one of five official taskforces helping develop new “Covid-19 secure” guidelines specific to different parts of the economy. The other taskforces will oversee pubs and restaurants, non-essential retail, places of worship and international aviation. Separate sectoral sub-groups will be set up under each taskforce to examine issues specific to that sector. A museums and galleries working group is being set up by the recreation and leisure taskforce. It will work with the museum sector on the possible reopening of institutions in England in stage three of the UK government’s plan for lifting lockdown restrictions. The earliest this could take place is 4 July.
The Cultural Renewal Taskforce panel will be led by Neil Mendoza, the architect of the 2017 Mendoza Review of Museums in England. The other members are:
Part of Mendoza’s brief will be to collaborate with Arts Council England, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic England and other sectoral bodies to develop and deliver a strategy fit to support organisations large and small. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden also announced £200 million in new funding which will be made available for small charities “that are at the heart of their communities”, but without any specific detail on how much of this – if any – would be available for cultural organisations.
The Welsh and Northern Irish governments have published recovery plans where open-air museums will open before other institutions. Museums Galleries Scotland is working with the Scottish government on plans to reopen the museum sector.
Whilst this all sounds very heartening, let’s hope that it’s not too little or too late to help British culture and heritage to rebound from the damaging impacts of the coronavirus lockdown.
This was the stark headline of an article in The Times yesterday (1 May) by its arts correspondent, Richard Morrison. Without the influx of foreign visitors the national museums will suffer. University museums will face funding losses as international students fail to enrol. Many museums and galleries are facing the possibility of permanent closure because of the Coronavirus pandemic and not just the smaller ones: the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth and the Postal Museum in London have already signalled their imminent insolvency. Moreover, the culture secretary seems to be more interested in getting top-level football played again rather than opening any aspect of the arts. As Morrison states, if it’s deemed acceptable for footballers to stand side-by-side in a defensive wall, why shouldn’t dancers be allowed to perform? If we’re allowed to visit supermarkets, why can’t social distancing be applied to our cultural assets? Museums and galleries will need to be creative in what they offer and how they make it available to us. So we must all do our bit to support our cultural heritage once re-opening starts. After all, with the drop in foreign visitors, social distancing will be easier to impose and we’ll be able to enjoy some of our best loved sites without huge crowds. But, above all, we need to lobby government to provide financial support for the hard-pressed smaller museums and galleries that simply may not survive this crisis otherwise.
Restaurant menus are “curated”, fashion shows are “curated”, playlists are “curated”. So, when everything is “curated,” what does the word even mean? The term has become a fashionable buzzword, but its ubiquity has left it almost devoid of meaning. It is used to suggest reassurance, implying that the thing curated is meaningful yet, mostly, its use in these contexts is meaningless. Even worse, is use of the phrase “carefully curated”, which is tautological.
The origins of “curate” lie in the Latin word “curare”, meaning “to take care of”, which is what traditional users of the term, in museums and galleries, have done for a very long time. But, the idea of curators as creative agents in their own right is new, signified by the move from vocational work to independent and critical engagement and reflected in the move in recent years by museums to credit the curators of their exhibitions. According to Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London “The current vogue for the idea of curating comes from the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, processed information and images in the digital age [and that] this contemporary resonance risks producing a kind of bubble where the word in itself loses meaning.”
For me this has parallels with the archive sector and the hijacking of the terms “archivist” and “archiving”, initially by IT, but now used in a wider context to simply mean collection or storage, and not just of documents, whereas the classic definition is of records selected for permanent preservation for their historical and informational value. With the dilution in meaning and value of this professional terminology, what then can those working in the arts and heritage sector use to reflect their skills and training?
Inspired by an article - “These days, everyone’s a curator” - in The New York Times, 3 March 2020.
Wentworth Woodhouse is an amazing Grade 1 listed country house in South Yorkshire. It has the longest frontage of any building in Britain and, reputedly, has 365 rooms. For years this incredible house was in danger of collapse due to coal mining that had weakened its foundations until, in 2016, the then Chancellor, Philip Hammond, made a grant of £7.6 million for restoration work. Although an estimated £42 million will be needed overall, Wentworth Woodhouse goes from strength to strength. The Preservation Trust has recently reported that phase one of the emergency works programme is almost at an end with like for like replacement of roof slates on the south-east wing, known as Bedlam, the Riding School and the Chapel. The chapel's ceiling has also been restored its the chandelier, that was discovered stored away in a dusty box, has lovingly restored. Work on phase two, to re-slate the east front State Rooms, is already running ahead of schedule.
The Camellia House, which is home to some of the oldest and rarest camellias in the Western world, is still roofless and in dire need of restoration, but has received a National Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £1.5 million to transform it into a daytime café and evening events venue. The grant will help to develop proposals for the 18th century menagerie, the Riding School and the southern range of the Stables. Meanwhile, the first donation to the newly-launched Wentworth Woodhouse Wishlist was by local company Spear and Jackson who donated their top-notch trowels, spades, forks and garden loppers to help the site’s volunteers.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture