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SHCG committee respond to Museums Journal article

The SHCG committee recently responded to the article 'A Sense of Place' by Scott Billings in February's edition of the Museums Journal. Their letter was published in the April edition of the Journal.

Museums Journal
24 Calvin Street
London E1 6NW

Dear Editor,

The Committee of the Social History Curators Group would like to express its deep disappointment at the cover story of February’s issue on the future of local and community history in museums (Scott Billings, A Sense of Place).

The role of local history curators is often overlooked by Museums Journal, so we were relishing this rare opportunity to showcase some of the exciting work that is going on across the country. But the article demonstrated a hackneyed idea of what a curator is. Billings’ argument that curators don’t involve communities – or if they do it is to be regarded as ground-breaking – is clearly inaccurate. Social history curators have been at the forefront of working with local communities since the 1980s, if not before. A cursory glance at the SHCG archive of News and Journals reveals that best practice in community work has been a recurring hot topic for more than two decades. In 1990, for example, the annual conference was entitled ‘People are the Driving Force’; hardly a new concept in 2008, then!

The article further emphasised the false dichotomy between the roles of education and curatorship, implying that curators merely wish to sit in their stores researching objects for their own benefit. This is not a stereotype that any of us recognise: exhibitions and displays are created in partnership between curators, learning staff and communities, not in competition. Collections remain the unique selling point of museums, and curators play a vital role in helping local audiences to find relevance in history to today’s society.

Lastly, Billings failed to address the central question of the article (why do local history museums “tell the same old stories”) – pinning the blame on designers, blinkered local authorities and, yes, unimaginative curators again. There are debates worth having here: the limiting demands of the National Curriculum; the challenges of addressing local concerns without parochially ignoring national or global contexts; the role of chronology for audiences who may have a very limited grasp of the sweep of history – but none of these were discussed with any sense. We therefore suggest that anyone who is interested in a more intelligent debate on the future of local and social history curatorship to come to SHCG’s next conference, 10-12 July 2008, where you will find a diverse range of curators eager to embrace new thinking.

Yours sincerely

Social History Curators Group Committee

Jill Holmen, Chair (Epping Forest District Council Museum)
Hannah Maddox, Secretary (Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service)
Zelda Baveystock, Treasurer (University of Newcastle)
Victoria Rogers, Web Editor (Cardiff Museum Project)
Kitty Ross, Membership Secretary (Abbey House Museum, Leeds)
Sarah Maultby, News Editor (York Castle Museum)
Georgina Young, Conference Organiser (Museum of Liverpool)
Kay Jones, Conference Organiser (Museum of Liverpool)
Hannah Crowdy, Seminar Co-ordinator (Grosvenor Museum, Chester)
Meg McHugh, Seminar Organiser (Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester)