Lab News Publications

The Mapping Museums Website and Database is Now Live

Well it’s not the launch we’d hoped for. We were supposed to mark the event with a panel discussion and wine reception at London Transport Museum, and for weeks I’ve been looking forwards to hearing what the speakers had to say about our report. I’ve been borderline worried about the possibility that we might have overlooked something important or that there would be an error in the database that had hitherto gone unnoticed, and I’ve imagined us all afterwards, happily drinking wine at the reception, toasting each other for our success. We had 120 delegates booked in, coming from all kinds of interesting places, and a long waiting list. I’d even bought a new outfit. Sigh. It is disappointing but given the current spread of Covid-19, it was better to err on the side of caution and to postpone the event.

On the up side, we have decided to go ahead and publish. So, if you have had to self-isolate and need some alternatives to Netflix, then there is a cornucopia of museum information just waiting for you.

The website has links to podcasts and lectures, to a series of academic articles, and to transcripts of dozens of interviews with the founders of museums. It’s got sections on how we collected the data and built the database, on our definitions of museums and our new subject classification system. Above all, there is the database: information on 4,200 museums that have been open at some point between 1960 and 2020. If you’ve always wanted to know where to find museums of food and drink, or how many railway museums there are in the UK, then the answer is now at your fingertips.

We have also published ‘Mapping Museums 1960-2020: a report on the data’, which provides a summary of the research and of our methods, and a guide to the findings from the data. This is where you’ll find information on the numbers of museums that have opened in the UK over the last six decades, when they opened, the subjects they covered, their governance, where they were, and if they closed. The report can be accessed through the Publications page.

I do hope that you will enjoy the website, and find the report and database useful. If you have any feedback on the project, and especially on how you’re using the information, then do please let us know.

Fiona Candlin

Image: First Flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour Launches — May 7, 1992, by NASA under Creative Commons licence

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

Research Process

Mapping Museums: Why bother?

Readers who have followed our blogs to date may have realised how much work, time, and money is involved in mapping museums across the UK. The team currently comprises of two professors, and two full time researchers, one in computer science and one collecting and analysing data. By the end of its four-year life span, the project will have cost over a million pounds. On a more personal note, I spent well over a year planning the project and writing a proposal and it now dominates a good part of my waking life, all of which begs the question: why bother? Why does this subject merit such personal, economic, and intellectual investment?

There are pragmatic reasons for the research. The lack of data and of historical research means that museum professionals and policy makers do not have a clear idea of when or where the independent museum sector emerged in the UK, or how it has changed. There is no long-term information on patterns of museums opening and closing, or of their subject matter. Museum professionals who have spent their working lives in a particular region, have been involved with the Area Museums Councils, or with a special interest group, may have a good grasp of the museums in their locale or remit, but their knowledge is not always documented or relayed. In consequence, younger staff charged with supporting museums or staff who are responsible for making decisions about funding may not always have a clear overview of the sector. By compiling a dataset of museums, and modelling trends, this project has the potential to inform museum policy and funding at a national level.

There are also historical reasons for mapping museums in the UK. The museums boom of the 1970s and 1980s (or possibly 1990s) is generally considered to be one of the most significant cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century and yet we know very little about it. Commentators of the time generally linked the rising number of museums to the conservative administration led by Margaret Thatcher, to the economic policy of the time, and to consequent de-industrialisation. This led to the wave of new museums being characterised as entrepreneurial, nostalgic, and often as politically reactionary, but there is very little evidence to substantiate those claims. It might be that many of the new museums were dedicated to rural life and were coterminous with the industrialisation of farming, or they may have focused on religion, or writers, or teddy bears. The Mapping Museums research will enable researchers to revisit the museums boom, and potentially to recast the museums of that period.

For me, though, the main point of the project is linked to who established independent museums and to the people still running them. Museums are generally discussed in relation to the national or public sector, while curation and other forms of museum work are understood to be specialised professional roles. And yet, in 1983 the Museums and Libraries Council commented that most of these new, small enterprises had ‘been set up in an initial wave of enthusiasm and volunteer effort’, and my initial research suggested that the vast majority were founded by private individuals, families, businesses, special interest and community groups. It is likely that amateurs drove the expansion of the museum sector. In identifying these venues and in documenting the work of the founders and volunteers, the Mapping Museums project will show how the recent history of museums was a grass-roots endeavour, or as Raphael Samuels put it, ‘the work of a thousand hands’.

©Fiona Candlin September 2017



Research Process

The Smallest Museum in the UK?

In 1983 the Museums and Galleries Commissions noted ‘many’ of new museums being established across the UK were ‘very small’ enterprises that had ‘been set up in an initial wave of enthusiasm and volunteer effort’. Surveying the sector in 1990, Victor Middleton thought that by far the majority were ‘very small’ and the historian Raphael Samuel, who wrote that ‘one of the most remarkable additions to the ranks of Britain’s memory-keepers was the multiplication of do-it-yourself curators and mini-museums’, corroborated his observations. Likewise, our research has identified hundreds of tiny museums, which has prompted us to ask: how small can a museum be?


In the museum profession, size has been and is measured in various ways. A common way of doing so is to consider visitor numbers. The problem here is that micromuseums do not necessarily keep a record of visitor numbers or publish that information. We do know, however, that the William Lamb Sculpture Gallery only received 350 visitors at their last count and that the Wessex Water Museum totalled a mere 252 visitors (Figures from Museum Association 2017)


Alternatively, size is judged according to income. The Arts Council, Museums Galleries Scotland, and MALD in Wales all stipulate that museums must be accredited in order to receive funding, and it is rare for micromuseums to have to capacity or the resources to reach the required standards and put in the applications. This means that they are reliant on ticket sales or donations. In a few cases the museum may be profitable, but for others the revenue is low or may even run at a loss. The 700 or 800 visitors who pay £2 apiece to visit Barometer World in Devon, generate some £1400 to £1600 a year, but the cost of printing and delivering the museum’s publicity material runs to some £7,500 per annum.


Staff numbers provide another measure of size. We know that there are numerous museums that have no paid staff. One such venue is the Ipswich Transport Museum, although they have numerous volunteers who collectively manage a relatively large-scale enterprise. In order to qualify as really tiny, a museum would have only a few volunteers.

Ipswich Transport Museum


A less common approach is to consider the floor space of a given venue. The Woolpit Village Museum in Suffolk is the smallest museum in the county but at 33m2, it is whopping in in comparison to the Mundesley Maritime Museum in Norfolk, which occupies the ground floor of a tiny building, the upstairs being taken by the local coast guard. It is a petite 15m.

Alternatively, size is assessed in relation to the extent of the collections. ICOM considers any museum that has a collection of less than 5,000 objects to be small, but making such estimations is problematic in the contexts of micromuseums who do not generally have a catalogue of their holdings or formally accession objects. This makes it difficult to decide what is part of the collection, and what is there to provide context or for decoration. Even so, the Alfred Corry Museum in Southwold must have a fighting chance for the title of smallest museum because arguably it has only one object in its collection – the lifeboat after which it is named – the other exhibits consisting of reproduced photographs. The lifeboat is, however, a very big object, and it is quite possible that there are museums with a single, rather small exhibit.

Alfred Corry Museum


Perhaps the smallest museum would be the one that scores minimally in all categories of visitor numbers, staffing, income, floor space, and collections size, in which case I would like to make a nomination for the smallest museum in the UK – the very splendid Raisbeck Dame School House in the village of that name, in Cumbria.

Raisbeck Dame School House


This redoubtable venue is a tiny stone building on two floors, each being some 9m2. Downstairs there are some five panels explaining that it was once a schoolhouse and was preserved as a museum in the 1982. The panels also record that local residents campaigned to save it and raised money to produce the information panels. Since then it has received no funding, and there is no admission charge. There are no objects on display beyond the building itself, it has no staff and no volunteers, although a nearby resident does act as an occasional caretaker, and the visitors’ book records the presence of around 300 people in three years. There may have been others who did not sign their names but given its rather remote location it is unlikely that it would have played host to crowds. By any measure, Raisbeck School is an exceedingly small museum.


Do you have any other suggestions for smallest museum in the UK? If so let us know what they are and why you think they qualify.


©Fiona Candlin July 2017