Mapping Museums: The history and geography of the UK independent sector 1960-2020

Lead Research Organisation: Birkbeck College
Department Name: History of Art



This inter-disciplinary project aims at mapping and analysing the emergence, character, and development of the UK independent museums sector from 1960-2020.

Between 1970 and 1989, approximately 1300 new museums opened in the UK. The vast majority of these new venues were independent, were founded by community and special interest groups, and individual collectors, and they differed from public-sector museums to such an extent that that they were judged to have 'revolutionized' the sector. There are now some 1600 independent museums in the UK, but despite the extraordinary boom in their numbers we know very little about them. Regional and national funding bodies and museums associations collect data on independent museums, but it is not cross referenced and is limited to their specific remits and areas of interest. They do not keep records on when museums opened and if they close, small museums often fall from view entirely, and the information that is available cannot be mapped or easily searched.

In the first phase of the research we will collate and supplement existing information to establish a dataset of all UK museums from 1960-2020 and, in turn, build a database that is searchable according to factors including location, date of foundation, subject matter, size, type of museums, and combinations of these attributes. This information will be mapped visually and will be freely available in open source format on a project website to be hosted by the Bishopsgate Institute. In the second phase of the research we will use the database to identify patterns in the emergence, development and closure of independent museums and then seek to account for those trends (or anomalies) through the use of further visualisations, a focus group with Arts Council England staff, historical research, and an extensive series of interviews with staff in museums.

This research will provide the first authoritative database of independent museums in the UK, and the first history of their recent development. It is important for academics in museum studies, arts management, cultural studies, and cultural and social history in that it will:
1. Provide a nuanced historical overview of the independent museum sector.
2. Provide a detailed analysis of a period of massive expansion and change within the museum sector.
3. Identify subjects that were or are of local or national concern.
4. Bring orthodox histories of the UK museum boom into question.
5. Demonstrate the scale and variety of the small independent museum sector, and hence of non-professional cultural production.
6. Generate resources for future researchers.

The research will also have benefits for arts funders and policy-makers, and for staff in independent and public-sector museums in that it will:
1. Inform our understanding of the factors that underpin the emergence and closure of independent museums.
2.Track correlations between independent museums' emergence and specific funding streams.
3. Reveal regional differences across the museum sector.
4. Provide a solid knowledge base about their sector and thereby improve capacity for evidence-based advocacy and decision-making.

We also anticipate the research being of interest to a general public in that it will:
1. Produce an oral history archive that can be used by amateur historians.
2. Raise awareness of volunteer-run organisations.
3. Offer volunteer-run museums an overview of their sector.

Planned Impact

Economic recession and recent cuts to funding have presented serious challenges to museums and galleries in the UK. In 2014 more than half the museums surveyed by the Museums Association reported that their income had fallen and that they had cut staff. In this context, it is vital to have a long view of the history and sustainability of museums. The overview provided by this research would inform museum professionals and funders about changes over a sixty year period in the independent museum sector and their historical correlation to location, employment, transport networks, land-prices, tourism, different types of funding, and the presence of public-sector museums.

The project has already garnered commitments and strong interest from arts policy-makers, funders, professional associations, and archives. Arts Council England (ACE) and the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) have and will contribute data to the project. ACE have invited the project team to attend meetings of the Museum Development Network which involves museums development managers from England and Wales. They will both input into the research process and be a conduit for disseminating research findings. AIM is actively assisting in the dissemination of research findings via its magazine, conference, and online publications. Both AIM and ACE will assist in recruiting participants for the project's evaluation event. The Bishopsgate Institute will be archiving our interview-based material, hosting an archive launch event as part of their annual programme, and hosting the website.

More specifically, the beneficiaries will be:
1. Policy makers and funders. Some, but by no means all, independent museums are eligible for arts funding. Historically, they have also received funding from other sources e.g. EU Objective One. In providing an evidence-based analysis of patterns of opening and closure of museums and of links to arts and other funding streams, this research would enhance the effectiveness of policy makers and funders including ACE, CyMAL: Museums Libraries Archives Wales, Northern Ireland Museums Council, and Museums Galleries Scotland.

2. The Association of Independent Museums. AIM is a national charitable organisation that supports and advocates on behalf of independent museums and galleries. This research would provide a detailed evidence-based historical overview of their sector, and improve their ability to advocate on behalf of independent museums, thereby improving the health of that sector.

3. Independent museums would benefit from the research on several counts. Developing the knowledge base of AIM would help the independent museums that the organisation represents. The project website and publication will directly provide staff at independent venues with a solid knowledge base about their sector, which has the potential to improve their decision making capacities. In addition, the research will enhance public awareness of independent museums across the UK. This will potentially impact upon visitor numbers, particularly of the smaller venues that do not feature on websites such as Culture 24, thereby improving their sustainability.

4. Bishopsgate Institute. The project will add to their holdings by greatly developing the Micromuseums Archive, and it will contribute to their annual events programme.

5. General public. By drastically improving the knowledge base of arts funders, policy-makers, and local authorities, this research has the potential to improve the services that they offer, and therefore the quality of visitors' experience. More specifically, independent museums rely heavily on volunteer labour; some are run entirely by volunteers. This project will raise awareness of volunteer run museums and offer volunteers an overview of that sector. The project will also make research materials available to amateur historians, thereby increasing their opportunities for cultural engagement.


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Description School of Arts small research grants
Amount £750 (GBP)
Organisation Birkbeck, University of London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2017 
End 12/2017
Description Museums Showoff 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Museums Showoff is 'an open mic night featuring curators, conservators, librarians, collectors, trustees, security people, retail folk, educators, funders, explainers, visitors, academics, archivists and everyone else associated with museums, libraries, archives and collections'. It takes place on a bi-monthly basis. Speakers are allowed to speak for 9 minutes apiece on their project, idea, exhibition or similar. Fiona Candlin was invited to speak on the Mapping Museums project and did so, thereby raising awareness of the project within the professional sector.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Presentation to the Association of Independent Museums annual conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Mapping Museums project is collecting data on all museums in the UK between 1960 and 2020 but is specifically concerned with the emergence and development of independent museums. The then director of the Association for Independent Museums (AIM) invited us to present at the 2017 conference, which is attended by curators and other museum professionals.
Presenting on the project had two significant outcomes. It led to an invitation to meet with the Accreditation team at Arts Council England (see the separate entry), and on seeing the data we had collected several delegates recommended that we work with the Museums Development Network to fine-tune our data. We did so, and that work is detailed in a separate entry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Refining and developing data with the UK Museums Development Network 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact It is widely acknowledged that the UK museums sector does not excel at generating or archiving data. All the national bodies for museums - Arts Council England, Museums Archives Libraries Division in Wales, Museums Galleries Scotland, and Northern Ireland Museums Council - keep lists of the museums in their countries, but their concern is with current practice and with those museums that can be funded. That means they concentrate on accredited museums, so there is no or little record of small or grass roots museums, and that once a museum closes, it drops out the data. In consequence, the data is selective and it does not record change. To make matters more difficult, the national bodies all collect slightly different information in different formats, so it cannot easily be shared or compared, and much of the material collected in the 1970s and 1980s has been lost.
In order to construct a dataset of all the museums that have been open in the UK between 1960 and 2020 the Mapping Museums team have had to compile numerous sources, and undertake considerable research to track down information that was lost or was never recorded in official surveys. Even so, there is a limit to how much information can be unearthed online or from an archive, and some particulars are especially hard to find or verify. Thus, we asked the Museum Development Network for their assistance.
The Museum Development Network consists of twelve groups, one apiece in Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and one in each of the nine regions of England. Although the groups function slightly differently, they all support museums in their areas, advise on the accreditation process, and provide relevant information to Arts Council England and other national organisations. They also allocate their own grants, run projects, and help improve services and their members' skills. In doing so, the museum development officers quickly acquire a fine-grained knowledge of their local museums.
With the support of Claire Browne, the network chair, we arranged to visit staff in each of the twelve regions. On each occasion, the Museum Development Network staff scrutinised the data we had collected on their area, and made appropriate corrections and additions. They also helped us test run the new model of classification that we have devised for the project.
Holding the meetings served to further refine our data, and it also had benefits for the museum development network. Many of the officers said that they rarely got an opportunity to discuss the museums in their region, and that it was useful to do so. Almost everyone commented that the Mapping Museums team had identified numerous museums that they had never encountered, and that our data would inform their work, particularly with respect to unaccredited museums.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Round table discussions with staff responsible for museum accreditation at Arts Council England and Museums Galleries Scotland 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In compiling a dataset of all museums that have been open in the UK between 1960 and 2020, the Mapping Museums team have had to consider multiple questions of definition. These include: how have museums been officially defined within the chosen time period, what is included and excluded by those definitions, what are the ethics of those inclusions and exclusions, and how could museums be defined in a way that acknowledges diversity of practice.
In July 2017, Annette French, Museums Accreditation Manager at Arts Council England (ACE) invited the team to meet with the Accreditation Review Team and other colleagues at ACE to discuss our research on museum definitions and the processes we use in defining museums. (Accreditation is the process whereby museums are judged to have reached professional standards. It requires museums to have met the criteria set by the Museums Association definition of 1998. Only accredited museums are eligible for ACE funding so the definition has implications for which venues can be funded). I was asked to send the Accreditation team my writing on the topic, and have done so.
After our initial conversation, Annette and I decided to make our discussion of museums more public and staged a formal round-table discussion at the conference 'Defining a Museum', which was jointly organised by the International Council for Museums and St Andrews University in December 2017. At this event, we were joined by Jennifer Youngson, Quality Assurance Manager for Museums Galleries Scotland to consider the difficulties we all encountered in defining a museum and the consequences of particular definitions for smaller museums. The audience consisted of a mix of museum professionals and academics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017