Why local museums and galleries are so important

Updated 29 April 2022

Mark Hudson talks to the directors and managers of museums and galleries across the UK embracing audiences closer to home.

The upper level of the Main Hall at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth © Philip Sayer

Newlyn Art Gallery could hardly have a more spectacular setting, on the shore of Mount’s Bay, bathed in the Cornish light that has inspired so many artists, within sight of Saint Michael’s Mount, the craggy outcrop painted by JMW Turner, and just yards from the beaches where the fishermen immortalised by the artists of the late-19th-century Newlyn School drew up their boats. While the gallery, a Victorian jewel of a building, embodies many aspects of the story of art in Cornwall, its autumn/winter exhibition ‘Seen’, at its second venue, The Exchange, in neighbouring Penzance (to 8 January), focuses not on local icons such as Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon or Patrick Heron, but on the notion of seeing and being seen, explored through a selection of works drawn from the Arts Council Collection – including works by Francis Bacon, Wolfgang Tillmans and Maggi Hambling – co-curated by a group of LGBTQIA+ young people, aged 11 to 19, from across Cornwall. Welcome to the world of the regional British art gallery in the post-pandemic era.

Newlyn’s story sums up the wider development of Britain’s provincial galleries and museums: opened in 1895 during a countrywide wave of museum- and library-building aimed at collective ‘improvement’ and often – as is true in Newlyn’s case – funded by wealthy philanthropists, the gallery saw relative neglect in the mid-to-late-20th century, before being handsomely refurbished and extended, as part of a subsequent renaissance in regional gallery creation in the 2000s. Now Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange, like cultural institutions elsewhere across the country, is facing the most challenging, but potentially also the most empowering, juncture in its existence: on the one hand, crippling budget restrictions, following huge revenue losses suffered under lockdown and stringent local authority cuts; on the other, the expanded possibilities that come along with a future that gives greater value to the benefits of enjoying culture that is ‘more local’.

“If you want exhibitions that speak to people who don’t normally go into galleries, you’ve got to involve them in the programming and curating process” James Green

The demise of the traditional city centre, evident in the so-called ‘death of the high street’, a lack of enthusiasm for a return to the traditional commute, and the rise of concepts such as the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’, in which work, social, educational and cultural amenities lie within walking distance of home, all point to a future in which more remote cultural institutions can set the terms of their own relevance, without feeling they have to adhere to the standards of a supposedly all-powerful metropolitan centre.

Even in the heart of that centre – London itself – there are signs that artists and galleries are also looking at what’s on their own doorstep, rather than to the norms of the pre-pandemic jet-setting globalised art world. One of the most exciting exhibitions that I’ve seen this year was an installation of hypnotic films of locked-down London by Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger, all shot on his iPhone just yards from his home, and exhibited in his studio to all-comers.

James Green, director of Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange, Penzance © Philip Sayer

Newlyn, meanwhile, is on the frontline of the flight from the city, as property prices in this until recently very workaday fishing port have gone through the roof. ‘People are realising that if they’re working from home, they don’t need to be stuck in the commuter belt, when they could be somewhere like this,’ says the gallery’s director James Green. While this sudden demographic adjustment has created a more diverse audience for the gallery, one that may have helped drive footfall to beyond pre-Covid levels, it has also exacerbated a housing crisis in which local people often can’t afford to live, let alone buy, in their home area. It is, however, these disenfranchised locals that Green most wants to attract into the gallery. ‘If you want to make exhibitions that speak to people who don’t normally go into galleries, you’ve got to involve them in the programming and curating process.’ The gallery’s membership of the Arts Council Collection’s National Partners Programme will further open up this vast repository of British art to local community groups, from school pupils to patients at a Newlyn GP practice.

With the creation of exciting new venues such as CAST, a groundbreaking arts centre and studio complex in the nearby town of Helston, the expansion of the University of Falmouth and the second-largest population of artists per head in the country, West Cornwall is becoming an example of an expanding phenomenon, the ‘cultural conurbation’, in which a concentration of cultural institutions lends an area a sense of cohesion and identity that goes beyond conventional social and economic factors. One of the best known of these, the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle – comprising Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery and the neighbouring Henry Moore Institute – which has made West Yorkshire synonymous with modern and contemporary art, has shown that, far from creating competition for limited audiences, the proximity of related cultural institutions tends to drive up attendances across the board.

“The opportunity to immerse themselves in the collection and the atmosphere has been a source of comfort to people in the surrounding area” Sarah Newman

The string of new public galleries that sprang up or underwent significant redevelopment in the coastal towns of south-east England during the 2000s – Margate’s Turner Contemporary, Hastings Contemporary, Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion and Towner Eastbourne (an Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 winner) – together with an influx of artists priced out of London, has lent these once faded resorts a shared bohemian cachet – an effect that appears to be spreading westward with the creation of a new artist-run gallery space, Giant – Britain’s largest outside London – in a former Debenhams in once-fusty Bournemouth.

Sarah Newman, gallery manager of Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth, on the upper level of the Main Hall © Philip Sayer

It is a development that will inevitably shine light on one of the lesser-sung treasures of the south coast, the sublime Russell-Cotes gallery. Housed in an opulent villa amid tropical gardens on the town’s East Cliff, Russell-Cotes is a spectacular temple to eclectic high-Victorian taste with its ornate balconied galleries, stained-glass skylights and world-class collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. With Britain’s museums responding everywhere to changing circumstances, here surely is a moment frozen in time that it would be a crime to disturb.

‘It is a glimpse of another world, but one we have to continually make relevant to the present time,’ says gallery manager Sarah Newman. ‘The opportunity to immerse themselves in the collection and the atmosphere has been a source of strength and comfort to people in the surrounding area over the past two years. Among our many projects, we’ve invited them to relate the exhibits to current events, and their ideas – from home schooling to trips to Barnard Castle – were inevitably a lot more imaginative than anything we came up with ourselves.’

Macclesfield is something of a cultural conurbation in its own right, with four museums that together serve a population of only 50,000: the Silk Museum, Paradise Mill, West Park Museum and the Old Sunday School. All of them reflect in various ways the importance of the silk industry in this former mill town in Cheshire, with the best known, Paradise Mill, containing Europe’s largest-known collection of Jacquard looms, the early-19th-century innovation that revolutionised textile manufacturing using punched-card technology, paving the way for the digital age. The huge looms – all 26 of them – are exhibited beneath the wooden vaulting of the original ceiling, in what Macclesfield Museums director Emma Anderson describes as a ‘large immersive experience – you smell and touch the wood, hear the sound of the looms in operation.’ While the museum provides guided tours with technical demonstrations, Anderson believes that museums, in the post-Covid world, are first and foremost about people being together.

Emma Anderson, director of Macclesfield Museums, in the exhibition 'Macc Stripe' at Paradise Mill © Philip Sayer

A Jacquard loom at Paradise Mill © Philip Sayer

‘We have visitors with many needs and challenges, who each bring their own expectations. A group of vulnerable young people have used the mill as an inspiration for a ghost story on a creative-writing project. We also had a group of friends who hadn’t seen each other since May 2020, and it was very moving that they had chosen to meet in our museum.’

Anderson believes that industrial museums are becoming more dynamic in making their stories feel real to their visitors, with an emphasis on the people who once worked in them and their relationship to the goods that they produced there. Paradise Mill’s current exhibition ‘Macc Stripe’ (to 31 March) looks at the brilliantly coloured ‘Macclesfield Stripes’ that were hugely popular in the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 1930s. ‘It’s about fashion as much as the history of an industry – not in the Christian Dior sense of changing high style, more “slow fashion” in the way we esteem today, garments that were kept, treasured and worn for decades. Macclesfield between the wars had the best-dressed workforce in the country, kitted out in samples from the mill, glorious dresses, silk ties and handkerchiefs that we’re showing in the exhibition.’

Manchester’s Pankhurst Centre, which is located in the small terraced house lived in by the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, is another good example of a museum where the response of the viewer is as important as the objects on show. ‘People talk about the “Pankhurst Tingle”, a kind of goosebumps, when they enter the room where the first suffragette meetings were held,’ says Rachel Sills, the centre’s events and engagement coordinator. ‘You can almost feel them sitting round the table in front of you, sense the power of these women’ – Pankhurst, and her equally dynamic daughters Sylvia, Christabel and Adela. ‘We’ve had people crying in here.’ The museum highlights a lesser-known aspect of the suffragette story: of how the Manchester-born and recently widowed Pankhurst took a job as a registrar of births and deaths, coming into contact with working-class women and the terrible conditions that they suffered, which reinforced her belief that the position of women would only improve when they got the vote.

“At the end of the first lockdown we provided art-therapy classes for NHS workers, who were saying to us, ‘Please, give us some joy!’” Alistair Hudson

At nearby Manchester Art Gallery, director Alistair Hudson notes that, despite the decline in retail and office use, the population of the city centre is expanding ‘exponentially’. Our city centres aren’t dying, it seems, but in fact becoming more residential, more ‘local’, with the result that, while visitor numbers at the gallery are still limited during the week, Saturday attendances exceed their pre-Covid levels. ‘After a week spent in Zoom meetings, staring at a flat screen, people are desperate for real, three-dimensional experiences. At the end of the first lockdown we provided art-therapy classes for NHS workers, who were saying to us, “Please, give us some joy!”’

Verity Elson, director of the Gordon Russell Design Museum, Broadway, at a 1930 ‘Shipton’ dressing table © Philip Sayer

Despite the prevailing enthusiasm and the evident need for expanded engagement, Britain’s museums still provide ample opportunities for just looking at beautiful and fascinating objects in your own time and at your own pace. The Gordon Russell Design Museum in Broadway, on the edge of the Cotswolds, showcases the work of the great furniture designer (1892-1980) with a magnificent array of work reflecting the changing styles of his long career, from exquisitely crafted Arts & Crafts-era chests and cabinets to Art Deco radios and Swinging Sixties high-functionalism. And there’s also a strong emphasis on the involvement of the visitor. Russell, like other great British design figures from William Morris to Terence Conran, was as much an educator and entrepreneur as a creator of objects, having an implicit belief in the relationship between good design and social progress.

‘Our mission is to show how Gordon Russell’s vision and his belief in the value of good design are relevant to today,’ says the museum’s director, Verity Elson. ‘Visitors can look inside the furniture to see how it’s made. When they look at the 1950s and 1960s “utility” furniture they often see things they’ve owned and lived with themselves. It’s quite surprising to a lot of people to see their own lives reflected in a museum. And at the same time we’re developing the next generation of designers and craftsmen through our education programme. Lockdown gave us the opportunity to engage with people much further afield through our online lecture programme but, at the same time, we’ve had people coming in over this period who live very locally but have never visited before and are very glad they did.’

Located in a fine Georgian mansion on the outskirts of Gloucester, Nature in Art, which describes itself as the ‘world’s first museum and art gallery dedicated to fine, decorative and applied art inspired by nature’, is a treasure trove of the mind-boggling diversity of ways that humans have portrayed animals. Including objects such as Japanese incense burners, Art Nouveau glassware, Byzantine mosaics and David Shepherd’s popular elephant paintings, this is a museum that tells us quite as much about the human imagination as it does about the many splendours of the plant and animal kingdoms.

A surprising number of Britain’s most interesting small museums are actually libraries, such as Innerpeffray in Perthshire, Scotland’s first lending library, dating from 1680, or the Armagh Robinson Library in Northern Ireland, founded by an 18th-century clergyman, which has a priceless collection of medieval manuscripts. Nantgarw China Works, located outside Cardiff, is a fully functioning pottery housed in the UK’s only surviving early-19th-century porcelain works. All these institutions are evolving different ways of engaging with local as well as visiting audiences.

This strange and difficult time has given us opportunities to approach our local museums in ways that might never otherwise have occurred to us. I must have passed the London Canal Museum in King’s Cross, about two miles from where I live, hundreds of times without once even thinking of going in. Now, however, having seen the Victorian streets in my part of north London eerily deserted under lockdown, but with the buildings themselves feeling strangely alive, I feel more engaged in London’s history than ever before. A foray into lock gates, barge horses and navvies? Set in a Victorian ice warehouse, right on the Regent’s Canal, one of the great man-made waterways that enabled the Industrial Revolution – and with a history of the London ice-cream trade thrown in? What’s taken me so long?

A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

To find museums and galleries with tickets available in your local area, or wherever you’re heading, visit Art Pass Unbooked.

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