Behind the scenes at the museum
British galleries have thrown off their fusty image and ought to be entering a golden age. But resou
For the very best part of his life, my father was a press photographer - a good and very committed photojournalist. I mention this because it possibly helps to explain my obsessive delight in chairing the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. Two years ago, the museum benefited from a £16m Lottery-supported facelift, and reopened to astounding visitor numbers, topping a million in our first year. But our enhanced profile in the centre of Bradford began to look like a mixed blessing when, in the spring of 2001, a worrying development began to take hold.
Small groups of young teens began, rather menacingly, to hang around the entrance. It wasn't long before the more adventurous started to make an appearance inside the museum - quickly followed by growing levels of vandalism. The staff decided to tackle the problem head-on. Through helpful local intermediaries, a meeting was arranged at which it became apparent that despite their fascination with the subject area - photography, film and TV - the kids felt no sense of identity with the museum itself. They were more interested in how a familiarity with the medium could help them to give meaning and expression to their own lives. It was agreed that a series of workshops would be organised for about 20 of the young people. They must have been successful because a year later two of the youngsters work at the museum. Another four are helping to arrange the next series of workshops for a new cohort and a further three are honing their production skills with work for the museum. Unsurprisingly, the vandalism issue is history.
Many museums up and down the country have their own, not dissimilar, stories to tell. Was this an example of dumbing down, or what Charles Saumarez Smith more thoughtfully describes as braining up? Either way, it certainly involved wising up!
In just about every respect, our museums, national and regional, ought to be entering a golden age. They have successfully thrown off the fusty image of those first 40 postwar years, when it seemed necessary to be either an aristocrat or an anorak to survive and prosper in the museum world, more like a priesthood in which the educational department was where you began or abruptly ended an otherwise promising curatorial career. What's certain is that my hero Henry Cole would have had something of a problem identifying the role and purpose of that "conservation"-dominated era, one in which the public were tolerated rather than actively encouraged to participate.
Cole, the very first director of the V&A, recognised that museums had a vital role to play in adult education, and set about putting his ideas into practice, to the extent that in 1857 he could concede disappointingly that only 40 per cent of the working men of London had visited a public museum in the past year. But for me, Cole's real masterstroke was to integrate the museum with the country's emerging education system, in the form of the schools of art and sciences, creating the so-called "South Kensington system", which quickly became a widely emulated "model" for public education and training.
There can be very few areas of state support that offer a multiplicity of benefits. The defence industry is probably one, and museums are unquestionably another. Here, you find tourism and scholarship existing in tandem with protecting and preserving the nation's heritage; but, as if these contributions were not sufficient, museums will increasingly find themselves being called upon to play a central role in delivering ever more compelling forms of learning to generations not yet born.
Britain is geographically, academically and technologically perfectly positioned to be a world leader in making these connections, and extracting real value from decades and decades of (mostly under-) investment. Blessed with a quite remarkable generation of museum and gallery directors, most of whom are anything but technophobic, the government has an extraordinary opportunity to invest in a sector that wants to, and, more importantly, knows how to, deliver.
With its free admission policy triumphantly vindicated (admissions for the first six months of the year are up 62 per cent), now surely is the time to chase that success all the way out to the classroom and the workplace. A number of years ago, in 1931 to be exact, the Science Museum became interactive. Customers could come and for the very first time push buttons to make objects come alive - that's how I and millions like me gained our first insight into the inventiveness of the human mind.
Today, the principle remains the same, but the opportunities offered by technology are now only limited by our collective imagination. As the Science Museum itself put it in a recent publication: "Ours is a constant exploration of the way we continually try to understand and change the world . . . To make sense of the planet, to gain understanding, to create new possibilities for our species."
That may sound a large ambition, but to my way of thinking it is entirely appropriate. The world is not simple, the future reaches us quicker than ever before. Many questions once confined to academia now take prominence on the front pages and dominate our news programmes. These questions may be complex, but the issues are personal. Issues such as the environment, transport and media ownership are ever more legitimate concerns, and they are far too big for politicians or the media to provide packaged answers. In today's complex world, we will increasingly have to seek out the arguments for ourselves. That means knowing what questions to ask; and in turn requires an understanding of where we have come from, what lessons to take with us when informing our view of the future. This is an exciting and highly creative process and our museums and galleries are uniquely well placed to stimulate it.
Those anoraks I referred to earlier are no longer passive. Today's archivist has tuned activist, eager to do great things, eager at last to make a real and valued difference. Maybe Marcel Proust had them in mind when he wrote that "we do not need new landscapes, we only need new eyes to see those which already exist". Our museums and galleries are chock-full of the most wonderful "landscapes"; what today's generation of directors and curators need is the resources to finance those "new eyes"with which technology and innovation have provided us.
Surely this must be the moment for the government to commission an ambitious review of the role and future of British national museums and their collections. Not an academic review, but one designed to release the potential locked up in the sector. Not to invest in the successes of the past few years would be tragic; not to take advantage of the opportunity would be even worse.
David Puttnam is a trustee of the Science Museum, a past trustee of the Tate Gallery, and chair of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television