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1683 — the year the Ashmolean Museum was founded. making it the first museum in Britain. In the 1750s the British Museum became the first national museum. With a history of only three hundred years behind them and most of that squeezed into the past hundred years. it is perhaps an irony that museums have been labelled with a dry. dusty image.
No more. says Simon Tait . Arts Correspondent on the Times and Graeme Farnell. director ofthe Museums Association. With one voice. they blow away the dust and throw down lashings ofexcitement in its place. Even the Duchess of York is pleased to join this cry and put her face to the frontispiece ofthe Museums Year Guide Book.
Museums Year is a marketing strategy cooked up by the London-based Museums Association which has rather uniquely grabbed the tail ofa media giant for sponsorship in kind. In marketing terms it is a wheeze. As well as publishing a museum article by Simon Tait every Saturday. the Times newspaper is behind the publication of the Museums Year Guide and a major advertising campaign (carried in the current issue ofThe List) with the catch line See All Our Yesterdays ’I‘omorrow. It is surely the dream ofany grant-aided organisation like the Museums Association. in these grant-lean times to find such co-operative and helpful sponsors. It is good for the corporate identity of museums and also lifts the profile of the Association itself.
But what does Museums Year mean. behind the advertising? First. it tags. not the anniversary ofa major museum. but the centenary of the Museums Association. an organisation geared towards keeping the fraternity together. according to the Museums Year Guide Book a ‘professional organisation‘.
Secondly. the year focuses on museums and their events. Opening at the rate of 1 every 18days (again quoting the guide) there seem to be occasions in plenty which can carry the logo of Museums Year ‘89. not to mention the exhibitions organised and events planned. For those in need of an extra boost. the Duchess of York is a willing promoter who will be seen around the country throughout the year. Her first Scottish engagement ever will take her to Lauriston Castle on the 16th June.
In marketing terms Museums Year cannot fail. Museums were booming anyway. Simon Tait describes it as the second boom coming about a century after the Victorian expansion. In the past five years their number has doubled (there are
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Mal Ha Jyal Museum of Scotland. Edinburgh.
To celebrate Museum Year. The List presents a five-page special. with complete listings, in which Alice Bain looks at the strategy behind Museum Year itself and goes behind the scenes to discover how restoration has become conservation in the Eighties. We also speak to the people who work in museums. and ask some of Scotland’s best known museum-goers to tell us what they think.
about 2.500 today — in 1963 there were 876) and attendance figures were already estimated at a very healthy 80 million.
With this upward trend already set in motion. what then are the more down-to-earth. non-promotional benefits of Museums Year? The answer is predictable — money. With financial demands in museums being
increasingly torn between display and research. conservation and public facility. exhibition and education. museums simply need more cash to avoid being an endangered species. Talk to any curator and you are sure to uncover financial worries swimming around in the enthusiasm for his job.
Kolvlngrovo Museum: one of Scotland's most Important tourist attractions.
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Binding the nations’ museums under one strategy. and gently directing the museum world towards a more commercial approach to the exploitation ofits success. therefore makes powerful sense in terms of attracting business sponsorship. Indeed. in the press release for Museums Year. there is a sentence makingthe intention quite clear. ‘More than bringing our heritage to life for millions of visitors per year. the industry itself is a serious and successful business.‘
This is a concept which has crept up on us gradually but is here as a reality. The Museums Association is more than willing to accept it. Their ‘massive campaign‘ is ‘not just a one year opportunity“ according to Farnell but is ‘bound to have an impact‘ in years to come. The public have already staked their interest in museums by their attendance but the private sector must be wooed publicly and expansively in this decade of privatisation.
‘Excitement‘. now almost cliched in describing the alternative to the dusty museum. is currently up for sale. Simon Tait cites the Museum of Moving Image in London as an example of the new ‘excitement'. People are demanding interpretation. tableaux. life-like models. buttons to press and perhaps even the occasional flashing light.
There is every reason for the public to be entertained. But while industry and museums are both bastions of conservatism. their principles are not necessarily at one. In the current climate. the way museums' success is measured may change. The control oftheir priorities. and that means scholarship as well as entertainment. may be taken out of the hands of the curators and into the pockets of sponsors.
Museums can indeed be fabulous places. Simon 'I‘ait. whose book on the history of museums comes out later this year. sees them as an ‘important force they haven‘t been for 100 years.’ A century ago. the Victorians regarded them as ‘potent factors in education and scientific culture. . . and the day when such institutions were looked upon as mere receptacles for anything curious or abnormal has gone for ever.‘ That they have generated that power for the second time in their history is something which has not escaped News International and is now beingenthusiastically CXploited by them.
Perhaps that kind of mutual exploitation will have no ill effect and museums will indeed ﬂourish with their new funding. There is no doubt that Museums Year is good for business. but is business good for museums?
.- __.__l The List 24 March—6 April 1080 61