Research Process

Historic Buildings: In or Out of the Surveys?

In the process of compiling a list of all museums in the UK from 1960 until 2020, the Mapping Museums team have collected data from previous surveys and sources. As I discussed in previous blog posts, we found that surveys had excluded art galleries without collections, and to a large extent, unaccredited museums. Historic buildings are different in that their inclusion is uneven. They are listed in some circumstances, and not in others.

When the Standing Commission for Museum reviewed the sector in 1963 they included historic buildings that were managed by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works (later English Heritage), but they only listed National Trust buildings if they contained a stand-alone museum. By contrast, when the Museums Association launched the massive Museums.UK Database in 1987, they included historic buildings and stated that the content of the building, and arguably the building itself, could be considered a collection: a venue did not need to have a stand-alone exhibition in order to qualify as a museum. The Museums Libraries Archives Council later reinforced this position when they clarified the 1998 definition of a museum by noting that ‘a collection is an organised assemblage of selected material evidence of human activity or the natural environment, accompanied by associated information. As well as objects … held within a museum building, a collection may include buildings or sites’.

From the early 1980s onwards there has been a broad consensus that historic buildings can be counted as museums. The difficulties or the unevenness around their inclusion in museum surveys and lists has two sources. The first is that historic buildings drop out of the data for the same reasons as small independent museums, which is that they do not always comply with the standards outlined by the accreditation scheme (I discussed this point in my previous post). Some of these venues might be owned or managed by major organisations including the National Trust, others and particularly stately homes, might be owned by individuals or families and thus do not meet the requirement that museums must be held in trust.

The second and more complex reason for the uneven data on historic buildings concerns the different organisations involved in their preservation, and the variety of process. Each of the four countries has a national development agency for museums, or in England, for the arts, this also having responsibility for museums. In addition, each nation has organisations that oversee the preservation of national heritage or environment or buildings: English Heritage Trust, Historic Environment Scotland, Cadw in Wales, and Historic Environment Division in Wales.

The four sister organisations have relatively similar holdings in that they look after a mixture of stately and historic homes and buildings, monuments, and sites. Crucially, however, each of these organisations takes a different approach to accreditation, which has an impact on which venues appear on lists of museums and thus on which sites are recognised as museums. In consequence, English Heritage runs thirty ‘museums’, Historic Environment Scotland seemingly operates three, while Cadw and the Historic Environment Division in Northern Ireland have only one museum apiece and in both cases that remains unofficial in that it does not appear in the records kept by that nation’s museums council. In each case, the organisational structures and histories of the departments responsible for historic buildings and environment result in different outcomes as to whether a historic building constitutes a museum.

There is no particular merit in a building being considered a museum or a heritage site. The issue is not whether something ought to be counted as a museum or a historic building. Rather it is the effect of that designation on how the museum sector is depicted. The different attribution potentially produces a skewed picture of which nations have more or less museums of a particular kind, and it potentially underplays the number of historic buildings that function as museums.

Again, this situation leaves the Mapping Museums research team with questions. Do we include those historic houses and buildings that are owned by the national bodies, although officially they are not designated as museums? Do we include those historic houses that remain in private hands? What do you think?

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