Research Process

Mapping Museums: Preliminary results on UK museum closure, 1960-2017

Jamie Larkin

The museums sector generally concentrates on current practice and developments; it does not keep longitudinal data that would enable academics and museum professionals to trace patterns over time.

The result is that commentary on closure is focussed on the very recent past and lacks a broader perspective that could add insight to contemporary analyses of this phenomenon. As part of the Mapping Museums project we have built a dataset charting the development of UK museums since 1960, and we have used this to draw the first substantive picture of museum closures over time.

At the outset there are two important points to address relating to museum closure that we’ve encountered while building the dataset.

The first concerns data collection. Given the historical focus of the project, a great difficulty has been finding information regarding precise years of closure. Recent closures and closure of well-established museums are fairly well documented. The real difficulty has been tracking down information for smaller, grassroots, regional museums – particularly those that closed 15, 20, or 25 years ago.

We have conducted extensive searches via websites, historical guidebooks, and museum directories. When these were exhausted we sent emails or made telephone calls to individuals or groups, including regional museums services, local history societies or town clerks. We sent hundreds of communications in this way. Sometimes our contacts provided definitive information on when a museum closed; sometimes they could not.

For opening and closure years we have been able to generate accurate information for about 90% of museums. This has been an unprecedented undertaking and has drawn together information from a disparate range of sources. For the remaining 10% we’ve employed year ranges or made informed estimates, which we have mitigated with appropriate statistical methods in our analysis¹.

The second point is that, almost counter-intuitively, closure is difficult to define.

For example, if a museum ceases regular public opening hours but remains accessible in some form, should we continue to consider it open? This happened at Leith Hall House in 2009, which is now open for guided tours only. As the property is still accessible and continues to be advertised by its owner, the National Trust for Scotland, we consider it open, but this is, of course, debatable.

Furthermore, is closure is connected to premises? When a museum merges into another site, should we consider it closed or just having changed location? For example, in 2015 the Clockmakers Museum moved from its own premises into the Science Museum. Should we mark the museum closed and the collection a constituent part of the Science Museum? Its website indicates that the Clockmakers Museum retains a distinct identity. As such, we have kept it open.

The most difficult conceptual aspect to closure is that some museums don’t close per se, they gradually cease to exist. This is often the case with farm museums, where exhibitions of rural bygones are supplanted by other visitor offers (e.g. farm shop, petting zoo) so that the museum display doesn’t close with a thud at a specific moment, but gradually slips away without a whimper. In such instances we have contacted owners and discussed how best to record such forms of closure.

Generally, we have looked at closure on a case by case basis and tried to balance continuity versus change. If an effort has been made to keep a museum alive in some form we have tended to respect that, although we would log instances of material change, such as if a local authority museum was taken over by a volunteer group, etc.


Turning to the analysis, it should be noted that these are preliminary results that will be refined prior to more formal publication, so some of the numbers presented here may be subject to slight change.

In total, we have recorded nearly 4,000 museums as being open to the public in the UK between 1960 and 2017, of which around 3,250 are currently open. This is a significant increase on the Museum Association’s estimate of 2500. Our larger number is partly due to the fact that we have a more encompassing definition of what a museum is and count unaccredited museums that may not be included in other surveys.

The figure of 3,250 open museums means that since 1960 there have been about 750 closures. This is around 20% of the total.

First let’s begin by considering the rate of closure over time.


Figure 1: Plot showing rate of museum closure in the UK by year, 1960-2017

This is a simple smoothed line plot showing the number of UK museum closures per year since 1960. There are two types of plot used in this analysis: smoothed line plot (which shows average figures and is best for perceiving general trends) and spiky line plot (which shows precise figures for specific years).

As you can see in Figure 1, peaks in closure begin around the mid 1980s (with an average 13 closures per year) with another in the late 1990s (with an average 20 closures). Following the economic crisis in 2008, the closure rate accelerates, peaking in the last few years with closures averaging 30 per year.


Figure 2: Plot showing rate of museum closure in the UK per year, 1960-2017

Figure 2 shows closure information for specific years; the highest annual number of closures we recorded was 39 museums in 2015.

A particularly significant finding from this data is that it demonstrates that around 200 museums have closed since 2010. This provided an interesting contrast to the Museum Association’s figure of ‘at least 64′ closures over the same period, cited in their Museums in the UK 2017 report.

It is clear from these graphs that closures are rising more steeply in the current period than at any point since 1960.

However, if we look at these figures in the wider context of museum opening we get a different perspective.


Figure 3: Plot showing museum openings and closings in the UK, 1960-2017

This smoothed line plot shows the annual number of UK museum openings (in green) and closures (in red) since 1960. It demonstrates that while closure rates are increasing, they are doing so in the context of a sector that until very recently has been consistently expanding.

This data substantiates the rapid expansion of museums during the 1970s and 1980s, which is often termed the ‘heritage boom’. Since the early 1990s the rate of openings has declined but they have still outpaced closures in every year except four.


Figure 4: Plot showing museum openings and closings in the UK, 1960-2017

This spiky line plot shows more clearly that for every year between 1960 and 2014 (with an exception in 2010), more museums opened than closed, meaning the sector expanded. The result is that the sector peaked in terms of total number of museums in 2014.

However, in 2015, 2016, and 2017 this trend was reversed by marginal net losses. What is particularly striking is that 2017 saw the lowest number of museum openings in the UK since 1960. This figure is 16 museums per year.

Generally speaking, this would appear to indicate a picture of robust growth over the longer term. From approximately 900 museums in 1960, the sector has seen a 260% net gain to the current situation in which numbers have begun to plateau.

However, drilling down into the data reveals some divergent trends.

For example, while the sector has grown substantially in this period, its composition has markedly changed.

Figure 5 shows number of closures by decade based on museum governance. (Note: Here we are using a simplified governance measure: ‘independent’ includes private museums or those run by trusts or foundations, while ‘state’ comprises national and local authority museums).

If we consider closure by governance, we can see that greater numbers of independent museums are closing than state run museums.


Figure 5: Museum closure by governance per decade in the UK, 1960s-2010s.

This may be expected, particularly given that smaller, private museums are often financially shaky ventures. For example, between 2010 and 2017, our data shows that over 150 independent museums closed compared to roughly 60 state run museums.

However, a more significant observation is that in proportionate terms, the closure of state run museums is higher than that of independents.


Figure 6: Plot showing percentage proportion of museum closure by governance in the UK, 1960-2017

This plot shows museum closure as a proportion of governance type.

As we can see, proportionate closure of state run museums begins to outpace closure of independents around 1995. Since 2000, the average proportionate rate of closure of state run museums has been 1.1% per year compared to around 0.7% for independents.

If we examine the data further we can see significant spikes in 2011 (when 1.8% of state run museums closed), 2015 (with 1.5%) and 2016 (with 2.4%).

When we factor in openings over this period, we also see that fewer state run museums have opened than closed since 2000. The result of this is that the state run museums sector has seen a net decline of around 14% in this period

Around 5% of this decline is accounted for by museums lost to closure while 9% is museums transferred by local authorities into trust status (which we have termed ‘hybrid’ status). We are still calibrating this aspect of our data and this figure could be higher.

In contrast, since 2000, the independent museums sector has seen a net growth of 9%.

We can see how these trends have changed the composition of the sector over the longer term.


Figure 7: Cumulative open museum by governance in the UK, 1960-2017

According to our data, in 1960 there were around 900 museums, of which 40% were state run and 50% were independent. In 2017, of the 3,250 museums we recorded, roughly 22% are state run whereas 70% are independent. As a result, we can see that the State’s direct contribution regarding the provision or management of museums is shrinking while the sector is becoming dominated numerically by independents.


These are some of the preliminary findings from our research.

They indicate that from 1960 onwards the museum sector expanded continually until 2010, with a slight decline in that year, but then saw further growth until it peaked in 2014. This represents 54 years of museum growth.

However, around 200 museums have closed since 2010 and for the last 3 years closures have outpaced openings. Significantly, 2017 saw the lowest rate of museum opening since 1960.

It is important, however, not to conflate the overall growth of the sector with what is happening within it. It is clear that museum growth has been principally driven by the independents and that they now ensure that the overall number of museums in the sector remains relatively static.

It is also clear that the decline in the number of state run museums – through closure or change in status – has been considerable.

This raises significant questions about the type of skills, facilities, and experiences, that are being lost with the contraction of State run museums. This issue is not just one of closure but the loss of public sector institutions.

Hopefully these initial findings provide insight into the development of the sector over the longer term and help inform the conversation about the impact of the current age of austerity on the museums sector writ large.

We will be releasing further results as we continue our analysis, so please subscribe for updates or follow us on twitter: @museumsmapping


© Copyright: Jamie Larkin, Fiona Candlin, Andrea Ballatore, Alex Poulovassilis

¹ The results on which this analysis is based have been weighted to account for the uncertainty in the data. When more accurate data is not available, we use a date range for the opening and closing years of museums. For example, if we know a museum was opened between 1965 and 1975 but are unable to specify a particular year, the range of possible years (in this case 10) will be divided equally and the probability (0.1 in this case) will be added to the results for the years in the date range. This avoids over-representing individual museums, and provides a more realistic quantification than a simple count.

Research Process

The Bakelite Museum on film

Patrick Cook, the founder and owner of the Bakelite Museum, started collecting plastic when he was an art student in London. Among other things, he used his collection to hold a series of Bakelite picnics, where the crowd ate food off Bakelite plates, drank tea from Bakelite cups, and listened to music played on Bakelite instruments. In 1983, Cook opened a Bakelite Museum, and in 1994 he moved the collection to its current location in the village of Williton in Somerset, opening to the public the following year. The museum is about to move again, and before it does so, we wanted to film the museum in its current incarnation.

The Mapping Museums project was motivated, in part, by the lack of documentation of small independent museums. Our research indicates that just over 2,500 independent museums have been open in the UK at some point since 1960 (This figure is higher if we include museums managed by the National Trust and other national organisations). These new independent museums focus on diverse subjects – lead mining, Methodism, local history, and Bakelite, and in doing so they make an important contribution to the cultural life of their local areas, and collectively, that of the nation. However, these small independent museums often run on a limited income, which means that they do not have the resources to document their holdings, publish catalogues of their exhibitions, or to keep an archive. Thus, if a museum moves premises, or closes, they may leave little trace behind.

The Mapping Museums project aims at documenting all the museums that have been open in the UK between 1960 and 2020. So far, the research has focused on identifying museums and on providing an overview of how the independent museum sector has emerged and developed. As our work continues, however, we will be looking at individual museums in more detail. This short film, which was made in collaboration with the Derek Jarman Lab, forms part of that enquiry.

Copyright: Fiona Candlin 2018

Research Process

Football Museums

Jamie Larkin

An area that initially passed us by on the Mapping Museums project was the prevalence of sports museums. While we recorded the more obvious, high-profile venues such as the MCC Museum and National Football Museum, we were unaware of the increasing numbers of club museums. This growth has occurred across team sports, such as rugby and cricket, but is particularly evident at football clubs. The development has not been prompted by clubs’ newfound interest in preserving their heritage – after all, there have always been trophy rooms to display cups and medals – but in opening up those collections to their supporters and the wider public. This seems to have begun with the introduction of stadium tours in the late 1990s/early 2000s, as part of an effort by clubs to market themselves as venues for more than a couple of 90 minutes matches each week. As such initiatives have taken off, club museums have increasingly become attractions in their own right. Indeed, interest in club history can be gauged in part by the success of exhibitions hosted in local museums, of which there have been innumerable in recent years. Exhibitions like that at the Dorman Museum in 2012, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the ‘rebirth’ of Middlesbrough Football Club, are testament to the depth of local attachment to their teams; a feeling that clubs may well seek to tap into to develop a more expansive museum offer moving forwards.

Further, there is now greater awareness of the importance of this history across the museums sector, with the recent launch of Sporting Heritage, a project in some ways similar to our work, which maps various sporting collections held in museums throughout the UK. Hopefully, their work will act as a focal point to help support the growth and development of these emerging sporting attractions.

Below we have compiled our own list of (mainly Premier League) football clubs that have museums – either their own or supporter run – and those with plans to develop them. If we have missed any club museums, however small, please do let us know via twitter @museumsmapping or in the comments below!

Arsenal FC
Arsenal Museum

Brighton and Hove Albion FC
Club museum opened in 2014

Burnley FC
Supporter run online museum

Celtic FC
Museum as part of stadium tour

Charlton Athletic FC
Museum established in 2014

Chelsea FC
Stadium Tour and Museum

Crystal Palace FC
Plans for a museum in forthcoming stadium redevelopment. Some club artefacts on display in the Crystal Palace Museum.

Hull City AFC
Online museum run by supporters

Leeds United FC
Museum is planned

Manchester City FC
Small museum exhibition included in Stadium Tour

Manchester United FC
Stadium Tour and Museum

Liverpool FC
The Liverpool FC Story – interactive museum

Newcastle United FC
Small museum exhibition included in Stadium Tour. Recent record-breaking exhibition of club history at the City’s Discovery Museum.

Sheffield United FC
Memorabilia of world’s oldest football club on display in ‘Legends of the Lane’ Museum

Tottenham Hotspur FC
Club stadium currently under redevelopment and upon re-opening will include a museum space

Watford FC
No known museum but memorabilia on display in Watford Museum

West Ham United FC
Club did have a museum that was opened in 2002, but current status unknown following recent stadium move

Wolverhampton Wanderers FC
Museum established in 2014

Copyright Jamie Larkin, January 2018

Research Process


Fiona Candlin

On Friday 26th January, the Mapping Museums project reached the end of its first phase, and for us, it felt like a momentous date. For the last fifteen months Dr Jamie Larkin and I have been compiling a huge dataset of all the museums that have been or were open at any point between 1960 and now. That information has now been finalised and handed over to the computer science researcher to be uploaded. In the coming weeks, we will be able to start analysing our material and generating findings about the past sixty years of museum practice in the UK.

The dataset of museums synthesises information from a wide variety of different sources. We started with DOMUS (The Digest of Museum Statistics), which was a huge survey of museums conducted in the mid 1990s and with the 1963 Standing Committee Review of Provincial Museums. These captured a large number of museums that were open in the mid to late twentieth century, but have since closed. We then added current records and information from the Arts Council England (ACE) accreditation scheme, and from the national records gathered by from both Museum Galleries Scotland (MGS), and the Welsh Museums Libraries Archives Division (MALD) and the Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC), since these lists both include non-accredited venues museums. The Association of Independent Museums (AIM) gave us a list of the museums that have been members their membership records and we also managed to find the results of a very old survey that they had conducted in the 1980s in the University of Leicester Special Collections library. This was research gold for it identified very small museums that are extremely difficult to trace once they have closed.

We included around half of the historic houses that are listed in the Historic Houses Association guidebook, and a number of properties that are managed by English Heritage, Historic Environment Scotland, or CADW. Deciding which venues reasonably constituted museums was a difficult process and one that we did in consultation with senior managers and curators of those associations, colleagues from the Museums Development Network and with the ACE accreditation team, although the final decisions were our own.

In the course of researching my last book Micromuseology: an analysis of independent museums, I had compiled a list of very small idiosyncratic museums, and these were added into our rapidly growing list, as were a surprisingly long list of museums that were listed online but not in any of our other sources. We then checked our dataset against the Museums Association ‘Find A Museum Service’ and against two huge gazetteers The Directory of Museums and Living Displays and The Cambridge Guide to the Museums of Britain and Ireland edited by Kenneth Hudson and Ann Nicholls in 1985 and 1987 respectively. Finally, we also consulted the Museums Association Yearbook at five yearly intervals from 1960 until 1980 and also a variety of publications that listed historic houses that were open to the public. In all cases, any venues that we had previously missed were added.

Having established a long list of museums we needed to ensure that we had a correct address, and the opening and closing dates for each venue. We also wanted to establish its governance, whether it was national, local authority, university, or independent, and if the later, if it was managed by a charitable trust or by a private group. Finding this information necessitated months of emailing and telephone calls, and we often ended up speaking to the children of people who had founded museums, or to members of local history associations in the relevant area. Even so, the process of compiling our dataset was not yet finished for we also needed to classify each museum by subject matter. In order to do this we devised our own classification system and considered each venue on an individual basis. It is little wonder that major museum surveys are infrequently undertaken.

The next phase of the research is analysing the data, so watch this space for updates. The first findings on museum opening and closure will be presented at ‘The Future of Museums in a Time of Austerity’ symposia at Birkbeck on February 24th 2018. We will also be tweeting about interesting aspects of our analysis, so don’t forget to follow us @museumsmapping on twitter.

Copyright Fiona Candlin January 2018.


Workshop: Museums Futures in a Time of Austerity

Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury
2-4.30pm, 24th February 2018

Museum closures are a matter for concern. The austerity measures introduced under the current government have resulted in local authorities reducing funding for museums and some have been forced to close. In this workshop we examine the landscape of closure within the UK. How do rates of closure compare with previous decades and also with rates of new museums opening? What’s lost when a museum closes? And is closure always a problem? Is it really necessary to have so many museums keeping their collections for posterity?

Chair: Professor Fiona Candlin, Director Mapping Museums research team, Birkbeck


Dr Jamie Larkin, Mapping Museums research team, Birkbeck
Alistair Brown, Policy officer, Museums Association
Emma Chaplin, Museums consultant
Jon Finch, Re-Imagining The Harris – Project Leader

Please register in advance


Museum closure is often an emotive subject. While the sector can point to recent closures and their causes, there is little understanding of how such trends play out over the longer term. This talk will present preliminary findings of the Mapping Museums project concerning museum closure between 1960-2018. It reflects on the methods used to trace information on closed museums and the conceptual problems encountered during the data collection. The talk then examines long-term closure trends through a number of key characteristics (e.g. location; subject matter; governance) and considers the implications that these findings may have for the sector at large.
Dr Jamie Larkin

The Museums Association has been monitoring museum closures over the last decade. How do we define closure? How have trends around closure changed? What has the impact of austerity been? And does the issue of closure obscure other major trends in the sector at present? Alistair will examine how closure figures have been gathered, interpreted and used as an advocacy tool on behalf of the museums sector.
Alistair Brown

During 2016 Emma and her colleague, Heather Lomas, carried out research for Arts Council England and the Museums Association about how museums deal with the reality of closing a museum. She will explore what happens when closure decisions are made, the challenges that are presented and the implications this has for governing bodies, staff, volunteers, the sector and the communities that museums have served.
Emma Chaplin

Local government has been and remains the largest investor in local government across the UK. However the ongoing fall out from the financial crash of 2008, and the austerity measure put in place by national government, has led to a massive decline in the funds available to Councils.  This has led to authorities to reviewing and drastically reducing their investment in a range of services, including museums.  Therefore there has been a significant reduction of museum services in many places, and in some instances closure.  However in certain localities local authority supported museums are thriving, sometimes with increased investment.  Why do some Councils value their museums so highly, when others seem so ready to do without theirs?  Jon will use his extensive experience of working with museums across the country to explore the reasons behind Councils’ decisions to close museums.  He will use the recent closure of five museums by Lancashire County Council as a case study to consider the impact of such decisions and how local authorities might be helped to make informed decisions in the future.
Jon Finch

Research Process

Galleries without collection: in or out of the surveys?

Surveys of museums and galleries have always excluded galleries that do not have permanent collections. In 1963 the Standing Commission for Museums and Galleries conducted a review of the UK museums sector. Its authors stated that they would exclude national institutions, but otherwise they would try ‘to cover all museums and galleries with a permanent collection which are open to the public, regardless of their importance’. As they went on to observe, their definition excluded ‘exhibition galleries which have no permanent collection, like the Whitechapel Art Gallery or the Arts Council Gallery at Cambridge’. This particular boundary line has remained more or less consistent throughout the last sixty years of data collection. The Whitechapel Gallery did not feature in the major DOMUS survey of the 1990s and does not appear on the Arts Council list. Likewise, the Baltic gallery in Newcastle which has no permanent collection is similarly absent, as are numerous small organisations that hold changing exhibitions.

At stake here is the importance of collections in the characterisation of museums within the UK. Their centrality is most evident in definitions of museums. When the Museums Association first formulated a definition in 1971, they stated that they were institutions ‘where objects relating to the arts, sciences or human history are collected, adequately recorded, displayed, stored and conserved’, and they kept the emphasis on collections in the 1984 definition, which read that ‘a museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit’. This was superseded in 1998 by the current dictum, which states that ‘a museum collects, safeguards, researches, develops, makes accessible and interprets collections and associated information’. Yet despite the changes in terms, all three definitions maintain that a museum had to actively collect and to care for objects, and thereby establish the centrality of collections to the constitution and identity of a museum. Most surveys conducted in the UK from the 1970s onwards have observed the relevant definition, and so galleries without collections have been routinely omitted from data collection.

This exclusion raises a question for our research, which is: should we include or exclude galleries without collections from our research? In the 1960s and 70s collections were the defining feature of a museum, and so the exclusion of galleries without permanent collections did make sense. Since then, that orientation has come into question. In his notable article ‘From Being about Something to be Being for Somebody’, the American curator and commentator Stephen Weil observed that a combination of economic imperatives and a growing sense of professionalism has prompted museums to become outward facing and to actively foster their audiences. This changed orientation has led to more exhibitions that are organised around a topic or theme, rather than around the institutions’ holdings, and to the greater use of explanatory texts, photography, audio-visual material, and interactive opportunities. Noting these curatorial trends, Stephen Conn asked ‘do museums need objects?’ and it has become increasingly clear that some venues did not, or else they only needed a few. Many museums present immersive and theatrical experiences, or use architecture to create an emotional response in the viewer, and while they may also exhibit artefacts, they are not necessarily centre-stage.

The primacy of collections has also been questioned in relation to intangible heritage. In the 1970s and 80s heritage practitioners became increasingly aware that song, dance, food, theatre, and ritual practices were important cultural manifestations that may also require a degree of protection. In Japan people with a high degree of expertise in specific crafts and practices had been designated Living National Treasures and provided with degree of financial and practical support. Western commentators began to recommend a similar approach was taken to other cultures and the issues were extensively debated at a series of UNESCO general conferences. In 2003 the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was published, which emphasised that cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. Rather includes ‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts’. It is within this context that heritage and to some degree museums became much less object-focused.

In many respects, venues such as the Whitechapel Gallery and the Baltic more closely resemble traditional museums than the newer venues that prioritise experience or those that focus on cultural practices more generally. Even if galleries do not own a collection, or hold it in public trust, they do focus upon, show and interpret objects. Given these shifts in museum practice, excluding galleries without holdings may be anomalous.

On the other hand, galleries without collections do function differently in that they do not care for objects in the long-term. The staff do not focus on keeping things for posterity but on short-term exhibitions, and this gives those venues a very different orientation. The institutions are different in kind. Moreover, including galleries without collections has the practical implication of massively increasing the number of venues that need to be listed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of art centres and exhibition spaces that would qualify for inclusion and the scope of the project would massively increase.

What do you think? Should art galleries without collection be in or out of the Mapping Museums dataset?


Copyright of Fiona Candlin January 2018

Research Process

Surveying museums: What’s in and what’s out?

We began the Mapping Museum research by investigating the numerous surveys and reviews of UK museums that have been compiled since the 1960s. Our intention was to use that material as the basis for our own dataset, but it gradually became clear that the various government and charitable bodies who had conducted the surveys or collated the lists did not always include or exclude the same venues. They all had subtly different ideas of what a museum was.

Clearly, the motivations for surveying museums vary depending upon the remit of the association or body that is conducting the survey. If a review is focused on state support then there is little reason in spending time and money investigating independent museums, art galleries without collections, and examining regimental collections would be pointless if the survey is meant to look at the role of university museums. It is not that the surveys have been inaccurate, or that we should advocate for a more perfect overview, rather that they are designed for particular purposes within specific contexts. Even so, the selectivity of a survey does matter, especially when they concern museums in general. In adopting one set of terms over another, or in deciding that a particular category of venues do or do not fall within their purview, surveys diverge in how they constitute museums. They have each understood museums to be slightly different entities, and this has an impact on how they portray the sector as a whole.

In this and the next two posts I will consider some of the types of venues that have been included or excluded from surveys, and as they are the main focus of our study, I will begin with independent museums.


Independent museums: In or Out?

In 1963, the Standing Commission stressed that they had considered ‘museums run by every sort of authority’. They listed local authority museums, those run by the Ministry of Public Buildings and works (which later became Historic Buildings Commission, then English Heritage), military, school and university museums and finally ‘privately-run museums’ of which a few belong to commercial firms, some to local learned societies, and almost all the rest …. are administered by trusts’. At this stage, who ran the museums, under what governance, and with what degree of professionalism, was less important than the fact they were a museum, and what constituted a museum was not raised as a question. Surveys conducted in the 1970s and 1980s were similarly inclusive but that situation had changed by the 1990s.

The shift in approach was motivated by an increasing emphasis on professionalization and specifically accreditation. In 1971 the Museums Association proposed a voluntary accreditation scheme, which would set basic standards in the sector. In order to be accredited, museums had to comply with the association’s benchmarks and with their definition of a museum. Responding to the plan, which was presented at the Museums Association Annual General Meeting, one speaker observed that many small independent museums would find it difficult to meet the first essential minimum requirement, namely, that they had sufficient income to ‘carry out and develop the work of the museum to satisfactory professional standards’. More than that, the accreditation process introduced a definition of a museum for the first time, and as the speaker also commented, it referred to museums as institutions, which the small independent venues were not.

Initially accreditation was voluntary and was run in a relatively ad-hoc way, but in 1984 it was taken over by the Museums Libraries Archives Council and became more closely connected to funding. Museums had to be accredited in order to qualify for public support and so membership of the scheme became increasingly ubiquitous. It also began to be used as the basis for surveys and lists. DOMUS, which was the most comprehensive survey of museums in the UK, only included accredited institutions and omitted an estimated 700 non-accredited museums. At one point the DOMUS team did consider the possibility of including non-accredited museums and of generating a more comprehensive view of the sector but it came to nothing, not least because the survey data was gathered in tandem with the annual accreditation returns, and so there was no process for collecting information on these additional museums.

The situation, wherein small independent museums did not meet the requisite standards and therefore were largely absent from official data, was exacerbated when the definition of museums changed in 1998. The new definition added a legal stipulation, which was that museums had to keep their collections ‘in trust for society’. Again, this concerned the contract between museums and the public because establishing museums as trusts helps ensure that collections are not sold or used for private gain, which is especially important when funding is involved. The result was that from this point onwards any museums that were run on an ad-hoc basis with little official governance, were constituted as commercial enterprises, or were owned by families, individuals, or businesses, ceased to appear in official data. Likewise, museums that did meet the terms set by the Museums Association definition, but had decided not to seek accreditation fell off the official lists.

The Museums Association definition works well as an aspirational target or a guide for professional practice, but it does not describe museums in the world at large. Similarly, accreditation is a useful means of ensuring some accountability with respect to public funding, as is the stipulation that museums should have particular modes of governance. National funding bodies do need to keep track of the museums that have been accredited and are eligible for state support. Nonetheless, using accreditation as a mechanism for collecting information about museums has resulted in a skewed view of the sector. Surveys are structured in such a way that they can only encompass museums that have achieved a particular level of professionalization.

To draw an analogy, imagine that a professional association of musicians declared that music needed to be made within a certain legal context and to be of a certain standard in order for it to count as such. The outputs of community choirs, folk musicians, pub bands, would no longer qualify as music unless they had established themselves as trusts. Yet, in the case of museums, such a definition has been widely adopted and implemented. The museum equivalents of pub bands do not appear in official surveys. In consequence, they do not figure in accounts of the sector or to a large extent in academic histories of museums. It is, as if museums only operate within the sphere of official culture.

Interestingly, some unaccredited museums appear in the Museum Association Yearbooks and more recently on their online Find-a-Museum Service. Although the Museums Association has been one of the main drivers in setting standards and establishing definitions of museums, they are also reliant on membership fees for income. Anyone who pays to join can submit their details, and the Association do not police entries according to their own criteria, since that would result in a drop in revenue. There is some irony in this situation. The Museums Association’s work on establishing definitions has resulted in smaller museums being excluded from official consideration but nonetheless its publications and website are among the few places where non-accredited museums are listed. The Mapping Museums team has used and is greatly extending that data on unaccredited museums, and will be publishing lists of museums in general, not just those that meet professional criteria.


© Fiona Candlin November 2017

Research Process

Defining Museums

Since 1960, which is the starting point for the Mapping Museums research, UK museum professionals have used five different definitions of museums. It was surprisingly difficult to track down this information so in this post I provide a list of past museum definitions and a brief commentary about their relevance to the Mapping Museums research.

The definitions developed or adopted by the UK Museums Association and agreed at the Annual General Meeting of that date are as follows:

We define a museum as an institution where objects relating to the arts, sciences or human history are collected, adequately recorded, displayed, stored and conserved, and are made available for the research and for the instruction and interest of the public or, in the case of some specialised museums, of a restricted public. (1971)

A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of the society and its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment. (1977, ICOM definition)

A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit. (1984)

Museums are for people to explore and learn from collections for understanding and inspiration. To do this, a museum collects, safeguards, researches, develops, makes accessible and interprets collections and associated information, which it holds in trust for society. (1998)

At present, two definitions are in common use. The 1998 definition is used in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and in the accreditation scheme, whereas Scotland generally adheres to the current ICOM definition, which is:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment (2007).

The introduction of definitions helped shaped the remit of museum surveys, and hence past and current conceptions of the museum sector. In the next few posts I’ll be discussing what kinds of venues were routinely included and excluded from official reviews and surveys. Here, however, I want to make a few brief observations about the definitions noted above and how they relate to the Mapping Museums project.

All the definitions state that museums are ‘institutions’, which suggests that the organisation has established procedures and practices, and that it is or will be of long-standing. It can also imply that the museum is contained in a building. The ICOM definition refers to a ‘permanent institution’, which further underlines notions of longevity. However, equating museums with permanent institutions is problematic for organisations that do not have a long term lease on their property, that are housed in fragile premises, or are run as pop-ups. Hence the definitions tend to exclude venues that are new, are not financially secure, or have a more experimental form.

With the exception of the most recent ICOM formulation, the definitions also place a high degree of emphasis on objects. The 1971 rubric specifies that museums keep objects relating to the arts, sciences, or human history, terms that are replaced by ‘material evidence of man and his environment’. This patriarchal formulation reduces humans to ‘man’ (in the singular) and claims a possessive relation to the natural world (‘his environment), as if the world was primarily a context for man’s existence. This definition, in turn, was superseded by the phrase ‘material evidence and associated information’, which recognises that museums may also collect various kinds of archival and documentary material, not just the objects that go on exhibition. In its most recent iteration, the UK Museums Association refers to ‘collections’, a more general and hence inclusive designation, but one that has prompted us to ask: what constitutes a collection? How many objects are required for a collection? Can a building or an archaeological site comprise a collection?

Other points are worth making. The 1971 definition does not require museums to be accessible to everyone, whereas later definitions put a high emphasis on public access and benefit. In 1977 ICOM requires museums to communicate and in 1984 the Museums Association has decided they must also interpret, terms that simultaneously reflect and promote the move from museums being relatively inward facing and functioning as storehouses and centres of research to museums being outward facing and actively engaging audiences. It is also notable that until 1998, the Museums Association definitions make no reference to governance. The issue of whether a museum is run as a business, has no formal structure, is in private hands, is a not-for-profit, or established as a trust, is irrelevant to whether it is considered to be a museum. This particular aspect of the newer definition has real consequences for small independent museums that have been set up on an ad hoc basis, or provide employment for its founders or owners as it means that they officially cease to qualify as museums.

Above all, it is important to note that definitions change. I stress this point because, in the course of collecting data for the Mapping Museums research, various professionals have queried and, on occasion strongly objected to us collecting information on museums that fall outside of the current definition. Yet no definition is set in stone. They do not encompass some universal truth or essential quality. Rather, each definition have been introduced and written in particular historical, cultural, political, and economic circumstances. For example, the Museums Association definition of 1998 was devised in response to the policy directives of the New Labour government and to demonstrate that museums could have a role in the wider public sphere. No doubt the definition will change again, and indeed representatives of ICOM will discuss that possibility at the Defining Museums conference in St Andrews in November this year.

A related point is that multiple conceptions of museums are in circulation at any one time. For this reason I applaud the 1971 rubric because it begins with the phrase ‘We define…’, the implication being that this is our definition but there are others. That open-handedness is lost in subsequent definitions, which present the characteristics of museums as being matters of fact rather than as one possible conception among many. It is time to revise that position.

© Fiona Candlin October 2017.

Research Process

Picking the Brains of the Museum Development Network

There is a limit to how much information can be unearthed online or from an archive. Over the last year, the Mapping Museums research team has compiled a mammoth list of museums that were open in the UK between 1960 and 2020. We have used various sources to cross check their details, but there are some particulars that can be hard to find or verify. And so, we asked the Museum Development Network for their assistance.

The Museum Development Network consists of twelve groups, one apiece in Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, and one in each of the nine regions of England. Although the groups all function slightly differently, they all support accredited museums, advise on the accreditation process, and provide relevant information to Arts Council England and other national organisations. They also allocate their own grants, run projects, and help improve services and their members’ skills. In doing so, the museum development officers quickly acquire a fine-grained knowledge of their local museums. We wanted to refine our data by tapping their expertise.

With the support of Claire Browne, the network chair, we arranged to visit staff in each country or region. On each occasion, we arrived with a list of the museums of that area and slowly worked our way through the data, line by line. We had asked the museum development officers to look out for any information that we may have missed and they pointed to a number of instances where the local authority had transferred responsibility for a museum to an independent trust. They also noticed some duplicate entries that had resulted when a museum’s name had been changed, and spotted instances when museums had moved premises, amalgamated with neighbouring venues, or had recently closed. We deleted or edited the entries as appropriate.

The Museum Development Network helped us fine-tune our data and they also contributed to our research by helping us classify museums according to their subject. In most cases, the main topic of a museum is fairly obvious: as one might expect, the Lapworth Museum of Geology concentrates on rocks of varying types, while the Bakelite Museum has a collections of plastic, but the theme of a museum is not always so self-evident. For example, Carnforth Station provided the set for Brief Encounter, and its Heritage Centre focuses on the film, not on railways or trains, while the Deaf Museum and Archive in Warrington is more concerned with the community than with health or medicine. Being familiar with these venues, the museum development officers could make a nuanced judgement as to their overarching subject matter, whereas the research team would have to spend a considerable length of time checking webpages, catalogues, and other sources to make a judgement. Their input saved us weeks of work. It was also good to establish that our new classification system worked smoothly, although the absence of a ‘social history’ category did cause some consternation. For us, the problem with ‘social history’ is that it applies to such a large number of venues that it lacks nuance. In the DOMUS survey, conducted in the 1990s, almost a third of museums were listed under this category, which makes it almost unusable for research purposes.

Holding the meetings served to further refine our data, and it also had benefits for the museum development network. Many of the officers said that they rarely got an opportunity to discuss the museums in their region, and that it was useful to do so. Others thought that going through the list was akin to a quiz on their museums, and had been fun. Almost everyone commented that the Mapping Museums team had identified numerous museums that they had never encountered, and that our data would inform their work, particularly with respect to unaccredited museums.

Ultimately, the experience was incredibly productive. It was a pleasure to meet such a dedicated and knowledgeable group of people. We are very much looking forward to the point when we can provide them, and others, with the completed data.

© Fiona Candlin October 2017





Research Process

One Year On: The Principal Investigator’s View

The Mapping Museums project has just reached its first birthday. One year in, and Dr Jamie Larkin, the researcher, has almost completed the data collection. We now have an extremely long list of museums that are or were open in the UK at some point in the last sixty years. My co-investigator Professor Alex Poulovassilis and the Computer Science researcher Nick Larson have made good inroads on designing a database that will allow us search and visualise that information in complex ways. For me, it has been a pleasure to collaborate with other academics rather than to work as a solitary scholar as is usually the case for those working within the arts and humanities, and the process of conducting the research has been both fascinating and demanding. In this post I’m going to outline the three issues that have most preoccupied me over the last twelve months. They concern the definition of museums, their classification, and the structure of the database.

 Challenge No. 1: Defining a museum

One of the central aims of the Mapping Museums project is to analyse the emergence of independent museums in the UK from 1960 until 2020. In order to accomplish this task, we have had to compile the list mentioned above, and to do that we have had to decide what counts as a museum. This has not been straightforward. While the Museum Association and the International Council for Museums both publish definitions of museums, there have been seven different definitions in use during the time period covered by our study. If we were going to use a definition, we would have to decide which one.

More importantly, the use of definitions of museums only became common in the early 1990s and was closely connected to the accreditation process. In consequence, professional definitions of museums are usually aspirational and prescriptive, and they set standards that cannot be matched by many small amateur and community museums. The Mapping Museum project has a strong focus on such grass roots museums, and if we used established definitions, then we would exclude the less professionalised venues from the outset. We needed to find a different way of deciding which venues would be included in our dataset, and thus my first challenge was: how could we identify a museum as such?

Challenge No. 2 Classification

One of our research questions concerns the possible correlations between the date on which a museum opens, its location, and its subject matter. I want to know whether there are historical trends in subject matter: whether museums of rural life tended to open in the 1970s, military museums in the 1980s, and food museums in the twenty-first century. Similarly, I want to consider the relationship between subject matter and place: it’s likely that fishing museums will be located on the coast, but are there other, less obvious, regional differences? Do local history museums cluster in parts of the UK that have been subject to gentrification, or the opposite – are they predominately found in areas of low economic growth? Do transport museums prevail in the West Midlands and personality museums in the East of Scotland? Or are there no noticeable trends?

In order to answer these questions, we need to categorise each museum according to its subject matter. The last time this happened was in the DOMUS survey that ran between 1994 and 1998. They used a relatively traditional classification system that was suitable for documenting conventional public-sector museums, but was much less useful with respect to small independent venues. Many museums, such as those of Witchcraft, Bakelite, Fairground Organs or Romany life, take non-academic subjects as their focus and they do not neatly fit into academic categories. DOMUS did have the category of ‘social history’, but if we used that for all small non-academic museums, it would be so extensive as to be meaningless, and besides, social history is a methodology rather than subject matter. My second challenge, then, has been to write a classification system that could encompass the diverse subject matter of small independent museums alongside that of the more traditional institutions.

Challenge No. 3: Designing a database

While it was undoubtedly a challenge to find criteria for identifying museums and to devise a new system for classifying them, both these tasks related to my areas of expertise, namely museums. The third major challenge was a long way outside of my comfort zone and concerned the database design. This task was utterly anxiety inducing because it is something I’d never done before and, admittedly, never even thought about, and yet, despite my inexperience, I recognised that it is an extremely important part of the project. Although Dr Larkin has been collecting data on museums, and I have been working on definitions and classifications, that labour will be of little use unless we can search and model it in such a way that it produces information. The design of the database has a direct impact on the possibility of my answering the research questions and on the production of knowledge more generally. It has therefore been imperative that I learn to think about and help develop its structure.

How I responded to these three challenges, and worked with other members of the research team to resolve them will be an ongoing theme in this blog and the subject of scholarly publications. Do keep a look out for more posts.

©Fiona Candlin October 2017