When Does the Opening End?
Taking the Long View of Opening a New National Museum.
Steph Mastoris, National Waterfront Museum, Swansea
Given the School of Museum Studies' recent move into a newly renovated building, the Brown Bag seminar which was held in the Collections Room today was particularly pertinent. The speaker was Steph Mastoris, director of the recently opened National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, a character well known to a number of people in the department. His easy persona, sense of humour and ability to be honest allowed a much deeper and richer access to the lessons that we could learn from his own experiences of working with a new building.
The content of the talk? Steph spoke of the trials, tribulations and joys of setting up a new museum. The title 'When Does the Opening End?' directly challenges the idea that once a museum has been opened, that's it, there's nothing more to do. While it's true that opening a museum certainly marks a huge turning point in that institution's life, it does not mean that the teething problems have all been sorted out, and this is what Steph came to show us.
The project began as a partnership between National Museums Wales and Swansea City Council funded by the HLF. It was based on the pre-existing collections of both of these organisations, that of the Welsh Industrial and Maritime Museum in Cardiff, and the Dockside Warehouse Museum respectively. Both of these institutions had problems, including gender imbalance in attendees, a lack of interest for non-specialists and tired displays. Cardiff's change in personality to a tourist destination, and the need to regenerate the Swansea Docks contributed to the decision to locate the new National Museum there.
After six years in planning and two in building, the museum opened in October 2005. The new displays were very different than those of the old Docklands Museum had been, which was not necessarily to the taste of all the visitors. Object light and interpretation heavy, the displays have caused some controversy, especially in their use of multimedia interactives which seem to have been used mainly by younger age groups. Those expecting an industrial museum were sometimes displeased with the result, but the intent had always been to move away from a more specialist audience. By focusing on the human side of the Welsh industrial history, using social history techniques such as spoken word testimonies, the museum hoped to reach more people across age, interest and gender. Indeed, the museum's attempts to reach out to the community with temporary and touring exhibitions, with events days which facilitate communication and engagement with each other as well as the institution and with successful partnerships such as that with the Welsh School of Architectural Glass have earned it recognition at the UK Regeneration Awards and from the Civic Trust. The Waterfront Museum is working hard to achieve its position as a National Museum. As a School which has an international reputation, we in Leicester should always bear in mind that reputation is earned, not given freely. Much like the National Waterfront Museum, part of our reputation is being built through regeneration, in terms both of architecture and function.
Not only are there parallels between the museum and the department in terms of reputation, there are also lessons to be learned from the first few years of the museum's life. The need to garner good publicity to appease investors certainly has an impact, but of course any institution should be working for this for reasons beyond that. That is not, however, to say that they should be brushing problems under the carpet. As longs as the problems are seen to be dealt with in an intelligent manner, they can provide valuable information to other people embarking upon similar projects. Part of Steph's purpose in presenting this paper to us was to disseminate information, which is, I think, something that people may 'forget' due to pride or embarrassment.
What, then, are the issues that a new museum might experience? At a very basic level you are likely to be getting used, as we are here, to a new building. You need to learn how it works, how the building functions as a space and how the infrastructure and management systems which are built into it work or don't. This takes time. You cannot know if a building which is perfectly suited to summer conditions will work as well in the winter. You cannot tell how changes in weather and light will affect it's operation and that of the people within it. You need to live with a building for a few years before you really know it properly – perhaps you never know it. Buildings change, as do people, and although we build museums expecting them to last fifty, a hundred, two hundred years, you never can tell what needs may need to be met in the future. Only by understanding what you have can you know how best to deal with potential change. Of course, this means that you need to spend time caring for all the parts of the building. It's all very well spending lots of time, money and publicity on a fancy new interactive, but if your toilets break and you have to close, it'll be sitting beeping to no-one but itself.
There are two other crucial structures within a museum. One is that of the IT system, which is becoming more and more integral to the workings of all institutions these days. In a museum which is in many ways innovative, this can prove to be a problem. One of the things which was pointed out is that it is all very easy to jump into a new technology eagerly without really thinking it through, and museums must be very careful to ensure that what they take on are projects and technologies which they can maintain. Thus, specialist staff and knowledge are often still needed and this leads me on to the second crucial structure – the staff. Developing a staff culture is crucial. People need to be suited to the job, to know what they need to know and have access to what they need to have access to. And they also need to be allowed to laugh, sometimes.
How is the success of these endeavours measured? Audience figures, for certain, but there are other, perhaps more difficult, but equally important surveys that can and should be done. It's impossible, really, to quantify data which is often very subjective, but it remains vital to ask audiences and stakeholders what they want from the museum and how well they feel it is going. Statistical as well as question and answer surveys all play a role in formulating an image of success. Clearly, though, 'success' is a rather subjective term. Some people find projects successful, others don't. Some elements of projects are successful, others aren't, and you need time to figure out what these are and how to change the things that aren't working. So Steph's question, 'When Does the Opening End?', is really answered with 'Not yet.' Changes never cease and projects always move forward. The object of a new enterprise cannot, and should not, be stasis. We take on these schemes because we want to improve, to make things better for ourselves and others and this is not something that stops with a new building. It goes on forever.
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.