The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Merging museum services

Just a quick, off-the-cuff, probably not very well thought through response to this bit of news.

My local museums service has merged, not just with that of another town, but a whole other county! Anyone heard of anything like this happening before? Before Ipswich Borough Council lost registration, the museums service was one of the best funded provincial services in the country, with its own marketing and conservation department. Just shows what a negative affect complacency at the top can have. Some are trying to put a positive spin on this move, but what will happen to 'our' local, distinct East Anglian 'voice'? Ipswich and Colchester are chalk and cheese, with entirely different histories (for a start, one's Anglo-Saxon, one's Roman) and an entirely different cultural identity.

These things really bother me!


Ceri said...

Colchester are a very good museum service so I am sure that they would help Ipswich maintain its local identity and focus, but I can see why it would be alarming. Even though statistics are trotted out saying that museums attract more people than football matches (which is like, of course they would! Tickets to football matches cost lots of money, you often have to have a season ticket and football matches are not open most days of the year) in purely economic terms museums are never going to be able to compete.

Maybe we need to have a National Visit a Local Museum Day or something like that? Raise awareness that they exist and people actually need to visit them to keep them 'valued' by those who hold the purse strings!

Amy (aka 'Attic') said...

Yeah, you're right. I'm not suggesting Colchester will actively side-line Ipswich, but I could imagine a situation where the 'best' stuff/staff ended up at Colchester because they've got the castle and the money to do stuff, and museum provision in Ipswich started to slip down the agenda and become the 'poor cousin'. It's a really odd decision in many ways - when other local authority museums in Suffolk are run by the County Council. If a merger was absolutely necessary it would have made more sense to merge with Norfolk/Norwich.

I've been very vocal about my criticisms of the museum service and particularly Ipswich Museum in the past (I even wrote a letter to the local paper!), and a lot of the problems I've observed have their roots in an overbiding disinterest in collections (or malaise might be a better word) at institutional and council level. I'm sure massive changes have occurred since I did my work experience there more than fifteen years ago, and since the Borough Council lost registration status, but this just seems like the final nail in the coffin. An easy, 'spinnable' way of reneging on cultural responsibilities.

Again, I probably haven't thought this through. What can I say? For my sins I'm a bit of an East Anglian 'nationalist' (if that's the right term), and I see these kinds of developments as further evidence of the erosion of local identity. And who wants to end up as part of some great face-less homogenous conglomeration. It's all about promoting diversity, reflecting distinctiveness and responding to local needs, as far as I'm concerned.

Ceri said...

You obviously know more about the politics than me but it was interesting to learn that you are an East Anglian 'nationalist'! Wasn't that one of the areas where Alfred the Great operated against the Vikings? It is said that such events in the past can perhaps help to shape such identities... is that the case? I know you mentioned the Anglo-Saxons versus the Romans in your original post.

Amy (aka 'Attic') said...

Hmmm - well...I'm ashamed to say I'm a bit hazy on... Hmmm - well...I'm ashamed to say I'm a bit hazy on that period of history! I don't think the Danes made it as far as my part of Suffolk ('we' weren't part of the Danelaw', though Viking influence can still be detected in some place names).

But what I do know is that East Anglia was a separate Anglo-Saxon kingdom (Redwald, Sutton Hoo, and all that)from Essex, and thus I feel quite strongly that yes, there is a quite different sense of identity between Suffolk/Norfolk (Cambridgeshire to an extent) and Essex (even though the media and organisations tend to lump us all together). Essentially Suffolk is still a rural, agricultural county (which large parts of Essex no longer are); families still tend to remain in one village, or at least within the same area; the Suffolk character is fairly gentle and reserved (sometimes mistaken for unfriendly or taciturn). I grew up in a village where there were still - when I was a little girl - people who spoke an utterly inpenetrable dialect and hadn't been to Ipswich for more than twenty years (seriously!).

I think there's very little national awareness of my part of the world, a fact highlighted by the recent events in Ipswich, with the town (very definitely and proud to be a TOWN!) being repeatedly referred to as a city, and it's location suddenly being moved to Essex or even Norfolk. (Though I guess inaccuracies like that get reported in the media all the time, it's just that when it's not your town or city you don't notice!) What was interesting was that a lot of the commentary that accompanied news reports focused on the effect on the community, and how local people reacted in a determinably unjudgemental way (with regards to the victims) to the terrible things that had happened. And being in the town immediately before Christmas there really was a tangible sense of shock, but also of togetherness and understanding (that sounds really sappy, but you know what I'm trying to say!). It was very moving. But there was also an overriding sense of positivity. Putting ourselves down is a kind of East Anglian sport - we grow up with the sense that nothing local can ever possibly be any good. But, for the first time I think, people in the town and surrounding area suddenly became conscious of what they have and how damn lucky they are, and they were going to protect it at all costs. I suppose what I'm trying to say in this really rambling way is that a sense of community, a sense of identity, a sense of belonging is vitally important and we should resist attempts (or at least be aware of situations that may ultimately) erode it. I just kind of get a sense (and it is only my perception of the situation) that culture and heritage are not valued as they might, or should be, in Ipswich, because of this self-deprecating idea that we haven't anything of worth (completely unujustifiably). It's almost like the council were winding down the museum service until it got to this point, where they could just hand it over to someone else to deal with. However, having said all that, I did read yesterday that the new merged museums service intends to advertise new positions for curators of Costume and Fine Art (in which the Ipswich collection is particularly strong), so that's very encouraging. Perhaps all my misgivings are criticisms are unfounded. ;)

N.B. I've resisted the temptation to get started on dodgy East Anglian accents on the TV and in films. I'd be here all night! :)
Publish Reject

Amy (aka 'Attic') said...

God, I've just read that through! I don't want anyone to think I'm really right-wing or anything unpleasant like that! Cos I'm really not. Oh cripes, what a hole I've just dug! :S

Ummmm - to go back to your original point Ceri, I think history does feed into contemporary ideas about identity (we're getting back to that heritage debate here!). It can be used in a negative, exclusive way (i.e. to exclude others) or as a positive means by which to include and foster a sense of belonging. The question of local identity is complicated, especially in contemporary society - it's rare for people to stay in one place anymore. We lose track of who we are and where we come from, and to an extent a wider shared sense of belonging to a national identity for example is, of course, vitally important and desirable. But, at the same time, it's still nice to feel that you belong somewhere, to a town or village. Not everyone feels that way, I know. But I do. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I am, in fact, not native Suffolk born and bred (eek - my secret's out) and that both my parents moved around a lot as children; they themselves do not have an active sense of belonging in any particular place. So I was encouraged to put down roots. And, at school, I was unusual, because I wasn't local, so it became important to me to 'belong', so I actively acquired an accent and tried to fit in. But, unlike some of my contemporaries, I had lived elsewhere, I perhaps had a broader understanding of what life was like in other places and knew that I was lucky to be growing up where I was.

Does any of that make sense? I'm not expressing myself very well today...

It's important to me that Ipswich has a museum, and it is important to me that it exists to record and reflect the unique histories and lives of all 'Ipswichians' (I've just made that word up!).