The vital role of museums in building a strong civic identity | Letters

Local museums could help regenerate our dying city centres, but they need investment, says Ellen McAdam. Plus Nick Stevenson on the lack of representation of the working classes

Charlotte Higgins is spot-on about Derby’s Museum of Making and the potential role of museums in civic life (Go to Derby: see how a museum can help shape a better future, 1 July). Derby Museums has three major advantages: a local authority that understands the value of culture and heritage; an excellent team led by Tony Butler, and an outstanding collection – part of which has been formally designated by Arts Council England as being of national importance.

There are 25 civic museum services in England with similarly designated collections, which I am surveying with an Art Fund grant. Together, they paint a picture of 19th-century municipal confidence and pride supported by industrial wealth and imperial power, resulting in collections of astonishing richness. Unfortunately, this was followed by postwar industrial collapse and the erosion of civic powers and funding by central government.

These museums and their collections could make a major contribution to local identity and the regeneration of our dying city centres, as Derby Museums has done, but they need investment that reflects their national importance.
Dr Ellen McAdam

• I have recently been involved in some research on the museum sector, which has an important role to play in helping build a civic culture in the UK. However, when it comes to the working class, Derby’s Museum of Making is missing a huge opportunity. It is not that the museum isn’t worth visiting, but like many others it tends to offer a progress narrative, where labour exploitation exists in the distant past, before moving on to celebrate the technological present. While the museum has many fascinating and evocative objects, it has little to say about the complexity of the life experiences of the working class and their struggles in the workplace.

The radical culture of the past continues to have something to tell us about a world where technology is more often used to exploit workers than offer them a dignified life. I can only hope that the museum sector will seek to work with trade unions in the future and offer new ways of connecting the past and the present.
Dr Nick Stevenson
Reader in cultural sociology, University of Nottingham

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