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Cultural Cities - the recovery?

Museum of the Home new access and entrance from Hoxton Overground station, London (designed by Wright and Wright Architects - image by Hufton + Crow)

As complete lockdown is planned to ease this summer, how have museums, arts venues and their host cultural districts, fared through the pandemic? How has Covid-19 changed their visions for cultural dialogue, community outreach and international partnerships?

As part of its 'Cultural Cities' series, Future Cities Forum discussed these issues with the V&A's Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Tim Reeve, Blackpool Council's Leader, Cllr Lynn Williams, the Director of the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) on Lisbon's waterfront, Beatrice Leanza, Arnolfini Bristol's Director, Gary Topp and architects Wright & Wright's Assistant Director, Ronan Morris.

Tim Reeve talked about how he had seen an 'acceleration of things that were (already) starting to percolate' such as the museum's digital engagement:

'It has been a creatively quite fertile time with a silver lining. We have been able to ask what a digital museum should really mean, meet new conditions and accelerate our digital engagement and broaden our audience. On diversity we are reaching new audiences with our plans for V&A East in east London and also Bethnal Green. East London has been woefully underserved. It has a rich creative heritage and talent pool. With the openings and then closures during the pandemic we have been able to re-write the operating manual, learn new tricks and we are in many ways a better organisation for the future.

'With regard to Black Lives Matter, this is an opportunity to address inequalities in society and to measure impact through the collections. We want to make it available to the most diverse parts of our communities and the work we do has to last more than a year or two.

'On provenance, our work on the Maqdala treasures (from Ethiopia) - and let's make it clear, these are looted objects - opened up the debate around how national museums are limited by statute but we are open to the discussion rather than being defensive and these questions are not going to go away or should go away, but we see it as an opportunity.

'Let me say that Blackpool is an amazing place and the V&A has been involved with the town for many years, we will be offering some objects to the new museum project, some knowhow, some research expertise, but it is first and foremost a partnership.'

Leader of Blackpool Council, Cllr Lynn Williams echoed the sense of partnership with the V&A, saying that the academic working that had already taken place with the project's curator had been well received, but admitted that it was 'real kudos' to be working with the V&A:

'We are most excited about the offer of the Morecambe and Wise suits and George Formby's 'banjo ukulele', but our programme is about more than this as we have a design lab project working with young people, objects going on show in Blackpool that relate to our illuminations and 'Light up North' work which we have invested a lot in. The Tracey Emin funding has been very helpful for NEON (fair access to higher education) in Blackpool.

'But there have been people who have never visited Blackpool and we also need to work with our residents raising their pride around Show Time. We want to be known for more than being top of the list for things like deprivation. We have the Winter Gardens and beautiful ballrooms too. Have we lost our international audience due to Covid? Perhaps we never quite had it, but we do want to present our cultural-led tourism and expand our residents and visitors ideas on what Blackpool has to offer, particularly among those who have never been to the Winter Gardens, for example.'

Arnolfini Bristol's Director Gary Topp agreed with Lynn and stated that we should never downgrade what is part of each town or city's history and identity:

'Lynn, that story you tell of what a wonderful community you have in Blackpool, (means) don't get rid of the kiss me quick hats or the colour of the place, as we need a nuanced dialogue around culture.'

'The Arnolfini is 60 years old this year and we have three drivers: we need to be 'hyper' local and international in the same breath, every day creativity has to be celebrated along side the big shows but importantly we always send out the message to 'enjoy yourself'. I ask the question - can we start to relax a bit about culture, earnest seriousness takes something away, we need to be serious but let go of the curatorial niceties. The simple fact is that we were open all of last year through the pandemic and people thank us for it.'

'Bristol as a city is under transformation. We are in a gentrified and assembled entertainment venue, on a harbourside. The city is going through challenges and definitely is a work in progress. We need good way-finding. At the Arnolfini, it is simply our responsibility to make way-finding through the gallery straightforward and easy.'

Architects Wright & Wright stated that some museums are changing in their remit to engage more effectively with local communities and this has meant changing the museum spaces so that visitors can interact in a more inclusive way. Assistant Director Ronan Morris spoke about the practice's re-modelling of the Museum of the Home in Hackney, London:

'The stories that the museum is trying to tell have changed, and it has broadened the approach. It dealt originally with the middle class home but now is much broader. The Covid impact has shown the need for an increased gallery space and better way-finding for distancing. Some of the building had fallen into disrepair and so there was the opportunity to re-build educational and commercial space in two new pavilions. The journey we have taken with the museum has changed as we have progressed and more of the budget has been put into digital with a series of audio exhibitions and video enabling the stories of Hackney residents to be told.'

In Lisbon, Director of MAAT, Beatrice Leanza, although only taking up her appointment three months before the pandemic struck, has been quick to challenge the traditional role of museums:

'I have been keen to build new channels of outreach and diversity across our audiences, both public and professional. I made a statement about what it means to be a museum of art, architecture and technology in contemporary times. So I have been launching a public programme involving local and international organisations, to bring Lisbon communities closer to the museum and create a civic arena where we can debate urban and social topics.

'With our international partnerships, we should not forget that we are museums of culture not collections, otherwise we struggle to realise how we engage with local communities. When we have one model - the winning model of big institutions but the business model is not working, this is where co-operation comes into the picture. You have to look at how collaborating is tuned into how you are serving your local context, rather than simply circulating blockbusters. You must really know your local context and create benefit long term. We don't survive if we cater for just the 'metro international' remit.

'We are enlarging the scope of stakeholders we work with, schools for instance and universities for long lasting alliances.' - schools, universities - long lasting alliances. We are activating our two sites, one which is the one hundred year old power plant and our modern museum which make up MAAT as we want to create a relationship with within the entire campus. What we needed last year in terms of digitalisation - will it stay? There is no one formula. But we want programming that really engages with current topics and with institutions that are at the forefront of what they are doing.'

Tim Reeve commented on the V&A engagement with China:

'I think it is important to say that what we are doing with our partnership with China goes back to our founding moments and is not an export. It reflects one of our great collections of Chinese art and design and also current design practice in China. It is also not about circulating blockbusters but over a two to three year period, creating a dialogue on art and design. Our international work is important to us, but the silver lining of the pandemic year is that we also now take a re-look at what is local, what is in front of us in our own homes, local areas and that is all to the good.'

Gary Topp of Arnolfini Bristol concluded the debate by saying that on the topic of internationalism, the current state of world economics means that this is 'on our doorstep through recent migration' into our cities. When we talk about diversity, we really need to welcome other cultures and let them in.'


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