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"We decide for ourselves who we think we are – and museums are central to that": Neil MacGregor on the changing role of Britain's museums

In his new BBC Radio 4 series, curator and broadcaster Neil MacGregor explores the changing role of Britain’s museums. He explains to Matt Elton why these venues are more vital now than ever

Neil MacGregor is a broadcaster, author and former director of the British Museum
Published: March 4, 2022 at 10:05 am
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What ideas about museums did you aim to probe with this new series?

We wanted to explore the civic role of Britain’s museums by looking at 20 institutions across the whole of the UK outside London. How are they rethinking their purpose in the community? How are they using their objects to engage with visitors in new ways? It seems to me that museums everywhere are looking again at their history, their collections and their visitors, and thinking about them afresh.

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We asked the staff of each museum to pick a single object – but, rather than choosing their greatest treasure, we wanted them to discuss an object that sums up the way in which the museum addresses a particular question or community.

We also talked to members of the public about what each object means to them, and the ways in which the museum is helping the community to reshape its future.
What emerges is a fascinating overview of the kinds of questions that different regions and cities want to address, and the objects museums are using to offer answers.

The Museums That Make Us

This piece accompanies The Museums That Make Us, which is currently airing on weekdays on BBC Radio 4. Catch up on previous episodes at BBC Sounds.

At the time that we’re speaking, you’re about halfway through making the series. Which places or objects you’ve encountered so far best illustrate these themes?

Yes, we have been working our way slowly north. In Northern Ireland, we covered a particularly telling example: the Ulster Museum [part of National Museums NI] in Belfast. That’s obviously a museum for which the question of national identity is extremely important. What does it mean to be Northern Irish, to be a citizen of Northern Ireland?

The history of the Troubles means that Northern Ireland has a shared past, but it doesn’t have a shared memory: different communities remember and understand its history differently. So the museum’s staff wanted to choose an artefact that would indicate – or even create – a shared memory. Very brilliantly, they chose an object from the Channel 4 series Derry Girls – a hilarious comedy about a group of four young girls from a Catholic school in Northern Ireland.

They chose a moment [in an episode from the second season] in which the characters go on a community-building weekend with boys from a Protestant school. They’re tasked with writing down on one blackboard the differences between the two communities and, on another, the things that they share. The great joke at the end, of course, is that the blackboard of similarities is completely empty, while the blackboard of differences is absolutely covered with points – many of them absolutely ridiculous things about the ways in which Protestants and Catholics think about each other.

It was one of the standout moments of the series, and a re-creation of the blackboard is now in the permanent collection in the Ulster Museum, where it’s much visited by school groups. It’s an object that reflects the shared memory of the central question of Northern Irish identity, as well as the role of dialogue and conversation. In parallel with the museum’s exhibition on the Troubles, it’s also a remarkable statement: that not only can we actually start talking about the causes of the Troubles, but also that we’re now perhaps almost in a position to share a joke about them.

That object is exactly the kind of thing we wanted to explore. It’s an example of a museum using an object to address a particular issue, and to engage powerfully with civic debate. Everyone we spoke to in the local community pointed out that the museum has always been a neutral space that belonged equally to all communities.

Why do you think museums around the UK are having to rethink their role?

I think it’s an awareness that, in many parts of the UK, museums now represent the only part of the public realm in which people can have difficult, serious conversations. They allow citizens to discuss big questions on equal terms, and to put those questions into the longer sweep of history.

But museums have also been under increasing pressure recently to prove why they should continue to exist. There’s been – very proper – public debate over the past
few years about which public services we actually need, and museums have stepped up and demonstrated why they are vital for a healthy society to grow and flourish.

Do you think these factors have changed the relationship between museums and the local community?

For a long time, museums were thought of as places in which we explored and understood the past. That’s still true, of course. But what’s been added to that is an increasing understanding that how we view the past is also a mirror of our current concerns, and an indication of what we could be in the future. That expansion – to include a consideration of the ways in which the past helps us to rethink our future – has, I think, been a big change for museums.

Does this mean that museums must now say something about our identity in the present moment?

Museums have always done that – and, indeed, so has history more generally. But part of the thinking behind this new series was the wider conversation that’s taking place at the moment about history. Why is it important that each generation re-examines history, and that our understanding of history continually changes? Recent debates about what statues [of controversial historical figures] say about our history are a key example of this.

We wanted to explore how a range of museums are revisiting history, and the historical episodes they think need to be re-examined and re-evaluated as a result
of who we are as a society in this moment. One of the questions we tackle is about national identity, for instance, and – returning to that object in Belfast – the ways in which national museums in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland reflect those identities.

Do you think that the role of national museums has changed in recent years?

One of the biggest questions in the UK across the past 30 years has been how the idea of the four nations should be articulated, re-articulated, and redefined. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the issue of their relationship to England and to each other has been right at the top of the political agenda.

And where is that question of what it means to be Scottish today, or Welsh today, better explored – and more neutrally explored – than in a national museum? I think they have a huge role at the moment – perhaps, in many ways, a more vital role than they have had at any point in the past 50 or 60 years.

Have museums also had to adapt as the people they serve change?

As populations change, so the stories from the past on which a museum focuses also have to change. A good example of this kind of shift is in Bristol, where the population has changed markedly across the past 60 years as a result of immigration. Its museums now need to include the stories of people who have arrived since WW2.

I expected the curators of Bristol’s M Shed museum to choose the statue of Edward Colston [toppled by demonstrators in 2020] because that’s what we immediately think about at the moment when we hear about Bristol – particularly given that the statue is now in that museum. In fact, they did something very different: they decided to place the story of racial tension and the legacy of empire into a broader, longer narrative. So they selected a bus hat illustrates the story of a boycott in the city in the early 1960s.

A 1960s bus on display at M Shed museum in Bristol
A 1960s bus on display at M Shed museum in Bristol. Neil MacGregor praises the exhibit for reflecting a period of protest and reform in the city (Photo by Samantha Nott)

At that time, local trade unions refused to let Caribbean and Asian immigrants work on the buses. In protest, some of those people – particularly those from the Caribbean community – launched a boycott of the city’s buses, which eventually led to a complete change of the regulations. Unions and employers changed their position, and immigrants were able to join the workforce on the buses.

It’s a very powerful moment in the history of modern Bristol. But it’s also a moment in the history of modern Britain: it happened just before the 1965 Race Relations Act,
and reminds us of the problems that people from immigrant communities faced.

Another of the themes of the series is loss and longing. What does that tell us about the role of museums, and how we view the past?

The whole series is about the ways in which museums respond to changes both in populations and the concerns of those populations. And one of the most profound changes that a community can experience is when an entire industry dies out. A museum is often a place in which you can look back at that history and, out of that sense of loss and longing, build something positive for the local community.

A good example is Penrhyn, a mock-Norman castle in north Wales. It was built in the 1820s and 1830s for the Dawkins-Pennants, a family who had made a fortune from exporting slate from the local quarry all around the world. The money allowed the family not just to build the castle but also to assemble a collection of art including works by Gainsborough, Constable and Rembrandt. That collection, and the castle itself, are now held by the National Trust – but the slate quarry, of course, is now much reduced, and the life of the community has also been much diminished as a result. There’s a long history of hostility between the family that owned the castle and the workers in the quarry, whose ancestors were exploited terribly in the 19th and early 20th century.

So the National Trust decided to put the quarry workers right at the heart of their telling of the castle’s history and remind visitors that it was those workers’ labour that made it all possible. The result has been an extraordinary reconciliation between the local population, the families that used to work in the quarry, and the castle – and the fostering of a real sense of shared pride in what was made. For the first time in generations, members of the quarry choir now sing in the central hall of the castle. There’s no longer a sense of loss for what’s gone, but an awareness that something was built that’s now central to the region’s economy and tourism. It’s a great example of the way in which museums can, perhaps uniquely, turn a difficult past into an asset that can be built on for the future.

Are there any other particularly revealing stories or surprises you’ve encountered during the making of the series?

The biggest surprise for me was the Tower Museum in Derry/Londonderry. I was convinced that it would have to choose an object relating to the Troubles and those unhappy episodes from the city’s history. In fact, the curators wanted to go back to an earlier period, choosing something completely different: a shirt – because the city was the great centre of shirt manufacture in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in the 1920s it made 40 per cent of the UK’s shirts, and exported them right around the world.

A shirt on display at the Tower Museum in Derry/Londonderry
A shirt on display at the Tower Museum in Derry/Londonderry, part of its exhibition telling the story of the city’s textiles heritage. Such artefacts reveal much about community memory, MacGregor argues (Photo by Photo courtesy of Derry City and Strabane District Council)

Until its decline in the 1970s, the shirt factories were by far the city’s largest employers, and took on people from across the religious divide. They united people in work but also, in general, created friendly memories of a period in which the city functioned as one. I’d never heard of the shirts of Londonderry, but the curators chose just such an artefact as something that brings all kinds of people into the museum – and which could also form the basis of thinking about how to develop a new textile industry in Northern Ireland. It’s a great example of how the past can be transformed into a shared memory and a shared enthusiasm that can be built on for the future.

It’s interesting that we’ve been talking so much about the need for museums to change, because there’s been discomfort expressed in some political quarters recently about the idea that history is malleable and changeable rather than fixed and concrete. Do you think this says something about the political relationship with history in the present moment?

I hope one of the things that comes out of this series is to make it clear that every generation has to rethink and rewrite the past. Every generation has different questions about the present, so that necessarily also means that they have to look differently at the past. In other words, we have always had to keep rethinking who we were and
how we got to where we are now.

What’s very special about the British tradition of engaging with our history is that it has never been controlled by the centre. In France, to take the opposite example, the government has always decided what French history is and what is taught in every school. There is a French “official view” of history. We have never had that in our country: we have always felt that everybody has to explore history for themselves.

What’s very powerful, looking at the museums we’re exploring in this series, is that every local museum and every local community is deciding for itself which bits of its history need to be revisited, commented on or brought out of relative neglect and into the spotlight. That’s one of the great strengths of our country, I think: that we don’t have central control of who we think we are. We decide ourselves who we think we are – and museums are absolutely central to that.

That’s why we chose to make this series about museums outside London. There’s been great debate about the extent to which central government should be making these decisions, and we wanted to demonstrate that the tradition in Britain has never been decided at the centre of government but by the people for themselves.

Neil MacGregor is a broadcaster, author and former director of the British Museum. His series on the changing role of Britain’s museums, The Museums That Make Us, is currently airing on weekdays on BBC Radio 4. Catch up on previous episodes at BBC Sounds

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This content first appeared in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Matt EltonDeputy Editor, BBC History Magazine

Matt Elton is BBC History Magazine’s Deputy Editor. He has worked at the magazine since 2012 and has more than a decade’s experience working across a range of history brands.

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