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Sharing the Love: Community Engagement in the 21st Century

World Gallery: Over 3000 objects from around the world explore the question of what it means to be human © Horniman Museum

Nick Merriman – Chief Executive and Director of the Horniman Museum and Garden in London – on why museums must look back to the best of the founding impulses of Victorian liberalism, acknowledge and be honest about their problematic colonial history, and re-avow the vital importance of appealing to all.

On the front of the Horniman building is a dedication plaque, recording that Frederick Horniman gave it as a gift ‘to the public forever as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment’ in 1901. Horniman came from a family of Quaker tea merchants, and he said that he ‘regarded money-making not as the be-all and end-all of human life, but as a means to an end, and money as a trust to be used to the advantage of his fellow men’.

For well over a century the Horniman has worked closely with its local community, and particularly with local schools, to become one of the most loved museums in the country. I can say this because since taking over as Chief Executive from Dame Janet Vitmayer in May the one phrase that I have heard most often is ‘Oh, I love the Horniman!’ Given that ‘philanthropy’ literally means ‘love of people’, I am sure Frederick Horniman would be pleased at the enduring impact of the institution that he founded.

How do museums engender such love and loyalty from their communities and what do they have to do to ensure that it continues? This is a question that has been uppermost in my mind recently as I’ve worked closely with staff and other stakeholders to review our mission for the times we now find ourselves in. These are characterised by austerity, greater social divisions, greater diversity and rising intolerance, and set against a background of climate change and concerns about digital technologies impacting on our lives.

For the Horniman this is a significant question because by most measures we are hugely successful. Under Janet’s leadership annual visits to the Museum and Gardens grew from less than 250,000 at the turn of the millennium to over 935,000 last year. A more commercial model, involving charges to new attractions – aquarium, butterfly house and family exhibitions – has helped bring financial sustainability, and driven memberships, which now stand at 7,800, encompassing some 30,000 individuals. The vast majority of visitors are from the local area, and most of them visit repeatedly over the course of the year.

“Museums provide rare spaces where people from all backgrounds can come together to share what it means to be human and to try to work out how to shape a better future for the planet we all share”

This love and loyalty has been built up through generations, through both the Horniman’s intensive work with local schools, and through providing events and activities for local families. Many of the people I have met reveal a pattern of visiting the Horniman that goes back over generations.

Such is the success of the Horniman that trustees were concerned that they might be becoming complacent, so asked the incoming Chief Executive to assess whether this was a danger. What I have found is that there can be a tension between rising visitor numbers and subsequent financial sustainability, and the achievement of a social mission which, in my view, is our justification for public funding.

I found that the Horniman’s huge success in visitor numbers masks the fact that its audience demographics are less diverse than they were 25 years ago, because the extra visitors have mostly come from the incoming middle class population that has gentrified Forest Hill and other localities. BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) audiences make up 18% of visitors compared with 40% in the London population; disabled 5% compared with 14% and NS-SEC groups 5-8 (less socio-economically advantaged groups) 16% compared to 35% in the London population.

So, we have a dilemma: continue as we are, with great visitor numbers and a thriving business model, but one which only attracts a certain section of the population, or should we try to widen our audiences, despite the difficulties in doing this? What would Frederick Horniman have wanted us to do?

Fortunately the answer was pretty obvious, and was already underway when I arrived. I was lucky to inherit a project close to fruition that exemplifies many of the qualities of a museum with a reinvigorated social purpose. The redisplay of the anthropology collections in a new World Gallery which opened in June 2018, is accompanied by an introductory text which includes the lines ‘We can discover the common human virtues of love and compassion, trust and friendship, dignity and courage’. The gallery was produced following consultation and input from over 200 different individuals and communities, locally and internationally. In addition, The Studio, which opened in October 2018, is a new space for displaying work created by artists and community members inspired by the Horniman’s collections, and where the process of collaboration is as significant as the final outcome.

The museum landscape we see today was essentially created in the Victorian period when a combination of taxation and philanthropy allowed them to spring up throughout the country. While many more were founded from the 1960s onwards, they were a post-war continuation of the idea that museums are contributions to the public good. They are one of the few remaining institutions trusted by the public, through their provision of disinterested information, their commitment to access for all, and their ability to change with the times and remain relevant.

21st century museums must look back to the best of the founding impulses of Victorian liberalism, acknowledge and be honest about their problematic colonial history, and re-avow the vital importance of appealing to all and engaging their communities. At a time of increasing intolerance, “fake news” and a coming generation which will be worse off than the current one in many ways, museums provide rare spaces where people from all backgrounds can come together to share what it means to be human and to try to work out how to shape a better future for the planet we all share.

Nick Merriman – Chief Executive and Director, Horniman Museum and Garden

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