The useful museum

Decorators at the Linthorpe Art Pottery, Middlesbrough

From visits to Derby Museum’s Silk Mill to the Design Museum in Kensington and York Art Gallery’s centre for ceramic art, February was definitely a month of makers. But it was my first ever visit to Middlesbrough that really captured and  held my attention.

First stop, to get the lie of the land – a visit to RSPB Saltholme, “where nature and industry meet”. Couple of miles outside town. Cold, grey, windy day. Big skies.  Handful of people (young families and bird enthusiasts), mostly sheltering in hides and cafe.

Proud, knowledgeable volunteers, shared latest sightings and the project Birds of Durham (like Blue Plaques for Birds).  A landscape restored for wildlife (wetland habitats), surrounded by industry (power plants, refineries, overhead lines). On first sight bleak perhaps, but a stark beauty, sense of purpose and renewal prevails.

My main reason for visiting Middlesbrough though was MIMA Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.  I’d heard alot about MIMA and its ambition to be a Useful Museum, to be driven by the people and place, not collections, exhibitions or programmes. All this aligns strongly with my values and aspirations so I’m excited to be there, to see and experience it for myself.

First impressions.  I’ll be honest, I experienced slight threshold anxiety as I approached MIMA, all shiny straight lines and hard surfaces.  Inside too, it’s a huge,  intimidating space; concrete tiles, glass, pillars and hard surfaces abound with an enormous look-at-me staircase.  How can I have spent over 20 years working in museums and still feel like this?   Its people, as always, that put me at ease.  As I sit at one of the workbenches in the huge atrium, I start to settle. Next to me sits a woman knitting, watching the world go by and beside her, a group of young children and families munch their lunch, at home in this lofty space. For me, its not the architecture or spaces that really make MIMA stand out from the crowd.  Instead, its the ambition to be a useful museum.  As Alistair Hudson, its Director tells me, they want to take a leading role in addressing the things local people care about and creatively contribute to change. It wants its art to work hard for its living, as its Vision Statement makes crystal clear

“In Middlesbrough, an industrial region that is perhaps most removed from the capital that has supported the visual arts, there is the opportunity to evolve a new kind of institution that leads the field in testing new approaches to making art work in society”.

So as we wander round the galleries, I meet James Beighton who tells me about his and  Emily Hesse’s work re-visiting the idea and value of a social enterprise through the medium of local clay. In 1879 John Harrison and Christopher Dresser launched Linthorpe Art Pottery on the site occupied by the Sun Brick Works in Middlesbrough. This enterprise aimed to tackle the town’s unemployment, while Dresser’s intention was to produce innovative ceramics through the employment of local clay. Today, the New Linthorpe  project asks how clay, dug locally, can be used as a material for engendering social change.

New Linthorpe Project

Over lunch (in probably one of the finest museum caffs Ive visited in a long time – the Smeltery, itself a socially engaged art project),   I learn more about the breadth and depth of partnerships being forged at MIMA and how they shape what the museum does, what it is for.   It’s a hugely compelling vision.  Hudson would be amongst the first to tell you how 19th century progressive thinkers Ruskin and the Mechanics Institutes have shaped his thinking, inspired this approach and how MIMA is a proponent of Art Util (useful art).  Until recently, there was even a dedicated public space for this, an Office for Useful Art.

So, we chat about the role of museums post-Brexit in developing a sense of belonging, the impact of the closure of the steelworks and the future of heritage, how communities can lead change and the importance of “psychologically owned” public and civic spaces.  From free meals to chess clubs,  new arrivals programmes to social housing, MIMA as a Useful Museum  seeks to replace the ‘audience’ model with a constituency model, driven by the people for social purpose. Its heady stuff and this ambition feels exactly right, for here, for now.

I just wish this had all been more visible as I walked round the galleries on my own earlier in the day.  I wondered how many other visitors were aware of these aspirations, how many of them might have been intrigued, annoyed or just plain curious?

Admittedly it was a Tuesday in mid February, some of the spaces were in changeover and the show, the Middlesbrough Collection, did hold a few clues.   It was publicised as having been made in dialogue with ‘local users’, constituent groups, visitors and staff.  But it didn’t feel bold enough. Not enough conventions challenged for my liking.  I wanted to hear more of the dialogue. “Turn up the volume” I wrote in my fieldnotes.

It’s early days in the display of this collection and I’m impatient for MIMA to find more compelling creative ways to use this to share people’s stories and what they care about. I have no doubt they will soon enough.   I think I’m a little frustrated that I, as a visitor, wasn’t aware of or invited to join in or engage in the bigger ongoing civic conversation (as at lunchtime).   Plans are afoot for a new space that takes over from where the Office for Useful Art left off.  I realise this is what’s missing.  The vision of the Useful Museum shouldn’t have been hard to find that morning or for any visitor. It’s a fine aspiration, relevant to many. It deserves shouting about.


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