Ever since I started working in museums, I’ve thought they should be for everyone: there shouldn’t be any physical or intellectual barriers to cultural heritage,” says Tony Butler, executive director at Derby Museums Trust, UK. “I’ve always been really interested in how you can get the broadest audience possible for history and art.”
Butler’s belief that everyone should have the right to both enjoy and participate in cultural heritage has been a thread running through his career, which took root in his childhood.
From an early age he had a voracious appetite for history, though his parents never took him to museums.
“I grew up in a working-class family and my mum and dad felt museums weren’t for them, that they were hoity-toity,” says Butler, who recently delivered a keynote at MuseumNext in New York.
As a result, Butler has consistently worked to disprove this notion. Believing everyone should have a right to participate in and enjoy cultural heritage, he has not only worked to make heritage sites feel welcoming, but extended this to running inclusive programmes for groups like the long-term unemployed.
“Museums should be welcoming places with a friendly face at the door and good seats,” he says. “It’s about getting the right programming and creating a sense of place, so people feel comfortable. Museums can add so much value to society beyond simple pleasure and entertainment.”
Having spent many childhood hours devouring social history books in the local library, Butler was determined to make a career in the museum service. After graduating from the University of Wales with a history degree, he spent a year volunteering at a museum in Aberystwyth, working evenings at Burger King to pay the rent. He did an MA in Museum Studies at the University of East Anglia before taking a post at Wakefield Museum in Yorkshire.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Straight away he went to work breaking down the barriers to entry, inviting the community to be part of the museum experience. His first project involved giving cameras to young Asian men so they could tell their stories about what it was like to grow up as an Asian in Wakefield.
This role was followed by three years on the Isle of Wight, running three small museums and a spell with the museums service in Ipswich. He became the director of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket in 2004, leading a social-enterprise approach to managing open-air museums with responsibility for over 20 historic buildings.
With many gardens, woodlands and historic buildings – which lent themselves to outdoor communal activities – under Butler’s stewardship, the museum service devised a range of 10-week training programmes, linked to literacy and numeracy, for people with mental health problems and the long-term unemployed. These included courses such as land management, construction, animal husbandry – including the rare breed animals – and horticulture, where students helped look after the formal gardens.
“These were entry-level programmes for long-term unemployed and those for whom mainstream education hadn’t worked,” he says. “There were some really good results as people learned to live independently and gained the confidence, skills and qualifications to go into the workplace. We helped over 40 people find jobs.”
Butler claims it’s possible to combine a visitor attraction with a social enterprise and says that more attractions should be thinking along these lines: “These programmes could be done anywhere, but what made them special was working with local cultural heritage to create a sense of place and sense of purpose.”
East Anglian Life also participated in Rekindling Memories, a countrywide programme developed with the Alzheimer’s Society, that used memory boxes based around themes like holidays and the war, which could be borrowed by care homes to run reminiscence sessions. Because of the rural area, the Rekindling Memories programme was also expanded so individual carers could borrow boxes to visit people in more isolated locations.
While at Stowmarket, Butler spearheaded a side project which epitomised his beliefs and conviction. The Happy Museums Project was launched in April 2011, funded by an award from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Breakthrough Fund, providing a leadership framework for museums to investigate a holistic approach to sustainability and wellbeing.
“This was influenced by research by the New Economics Foundation which found five key areas to be important to wellbeing: connect with others, keep learning, take notice of the world around you, be physically active and give back to the community” says Butler. “The project invites museums to develop programmes which will improve wellbeing and happiness in their communities.”
So far, projects have been funded at 22 museums in England and Wales. The London Transport Museum, for example, has worked with St Mungo’s homeless charity to create a Conversation Hub in the museum. Ceredigion Museum in West Wales joined forces with a social enterprise which worked with long-term unemployed people and encouraged them to make handcrafted tools, based on the historic collection, which could then be sold. And the Woodhorn colliery museum in Northumberland funded a comedian in residence to connect with visitors.
Butler also believes museums have a stewardship role for people, place and planet. A five-year research project is underway, which will follow five museums to see what level of social change can be brought about by them taking an environmentally responsible approach.
DERBY SILK MILL
One project appealed to Butler so strongly that he decided to join it 18 months ago when he took up his current role as executive director of Derby Museums Trust. The £17m lottery-funded Derby Silk Mill is expected to open in 2020 on the site of the world’s first factory. Branded a “museum of making”, it’s being created in collaboration with the local community, with members of the public working alongside the museum service to literally build the museum. The project aims to equip them with new skills and experiences, as will as inspire generations of innovators and makers.
“We’re co-producing the museum with the public,” says Butler. “Instead of investing in the building, we’ve invested in kit, buying tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers, so the public can come in and make things like the display cases at the workshops.”
“We’ve also had makers-in-residence who have developed learning programmes with local people and the team has been working with hackers, tinkerers, artists and makers to create a heritage site that will reflect the soul of the city.”
The Silk Mill inspired a new approach for the Derby Museums Trust to run its portfolio. For example, the cases in the new nature space at the Derby Art Gallery were designed and made at public workshops.
Butler wants people not just to learn, but be part of what’s happening: “The whole set of values around Derby Museums Trust is to involve the public and encourage them to participate as much as they can – not just to find out about heritage, but to actually do it.”