I attended the Canal & River Trust AGM on Friday in Birmingham’s beautiful new library. The Trust is only two years old, so very early days for them. Whilst their key business is about public engagement they have had a huge number of maintenance works to do as well. It is remarkable what they have achieved in this short time and there was a very positive feeling in the room. I’m very pleased I went because being surrounded by people with a passion for something makes life worthwhile.
Laurence Newman, Chair of the Museums & Attractions Partnership said: “Think about the outside of the museums, not just the inside”.
This was the first sentence that really took my attention – probably because whilst I work with Museums, I am very drawn by working beyond them too. That social history and landscape use is not only archive material but continues to be out there, in the streets, the architecture, in the fields and waterways.
Museums are not only about conservation, preservation and collection, but also about the future. Professor John Hume, giving his retiring address, commented that “we need to find a better term than heritage, it’s awful”. He also voiced disdain for the term ‘attractions’, declaring them to be rubbish. I couldn’t agree more, I thought John Hume was an inspiration. He was vociferous about the need to generate history, not just look back at the heritage. “We’ve been living in the past…too romantic”. Everyone spoke passionately about his or her roles within in the Trust. John more than anyone was keen to keep the focus on the social history. The image below is of one of John’s slides, showing the protests about the possible closure of sections of the Grand Union Canal in 1960’s. I think this image is very reflective of the tensions in the room about how to move forward:
The image of the 1960’s protesters floats above the orderly speakers table. Earlier this year there was another protest about the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes – which just shows how much people care about access these waterways. The view out to the city of Birmingham beyond is framed by the distinctive circular motifs of the New Library.
In the room we discussed the function of the canal and waterway network – past, present and future. Indeed Birmingham is built around the canal system – yet there is no Waterway Museum there. The Gloucester Waterways Museum is much loved, but is being crowded out by the Peel Development at Gloucester Quays. Someone mentioned it should relocate – but without the canal network it would be dislocated and stripped of meaning.
Time does not – cannot – stand still. The whole canal system is a museum – but it must also record and document current things, or it will have a huge legacy gap and be frozen in time. I love the way that the waterways are like arteries in the landscape – they carry things and people, connecting places together across time. Art projects could be used to join places up, by commissioning artists to explore each place and share their findings in other places.
Occasionally there were terms used that I questioned. There was talk about the Trust being ‘the experts’ and that visitors and the public are ‘customers’. So archiving knowledge is about sharing ‘their’ knowledge. But surely we should be thinking about collaborating with our membership, learning from them just as much as they learn from us? Living the Wikipedia principle both online and off. We are all the public. Defining people as experts and membership as ‘the public’ or ‘customers’ it sets up a mindset of there being a trading transaction, rather than sharing a genuine passion for the rivers and waterways.
Whilst the concept of the expert is, of course important, I’m not sure whether it is a useful way to bring people on board to support the Trust. Knowledge exchange, sharing learning and engendering generosity will help to feed the economic machine. I suspect that we are becoming immune to the hard-sell approach. Better to engage with enthusiasts and feed their passion as collaborators, rather than take a service provider role.
And that applies to the digitisation of the archives. The archives conserve everyday things that were made by, and belonged to, ordinary people. And living ordinary people can add to the knowledge about those things through storytelling. There was talk about educating and informing people – knowledge belongs to everyone, because everyone has a story to tell.
Artists can help in that process. And I hope that I can too. I thrive on these discussions and spend hours of my life considering new ways of thinking about them.