Museums need to be worth loving, says Arts Council Director of Museums John Orna-Ornstein

John Orna-Ornstein interviewed by Jane Finnis | 03 April 2014

As Arts Council England launches its new Museum Development Grants Programme, Culture24 speaks to its Director of Museums, John Orna-Ornstein, about change, excellence and Harry Potter

a photo of John Orna Ornstein
John Orna Ornstein is the Arts Council's Director of Museums
“Museums are changing for the better,” says John Orna-Ornstein, the Art Council’s Director of Museums and the man responsible for leading the sector through the current climate of change and reduced funding.

“The changing environment means that whatever museums are doing has to be excellent."

Change and excellence are words the museum world has become accustomed to in recent years. Having seen the demise of the Museums Libraries and Archives Council and the developing role of Arts Council England as the new guiding and funding body, there have been many challenges. Step forward Mr Orna-Ornstein.

Previously manager of national programmes at the British Museum, his new role, in September 2013, came amid many changes – not least at Arts Council England, who have been grappling with cuts and restructuring to satisfy government spending restrictions.

But after six months in the post, and as the Council’s new round of museum funding applications, the Museum Development Grants Programme, opens, Orna-Ornstein believes there are many positives as well as challenges coming from the new landscape of adjustment – not least the way museums have become “more publicly focused”.

“I think independent museums are very strong in leading this move to a greater focus on visitors,” he says, highlighting fee-charging institutions such as London Transport Museum, SS Great Britain, Historic Royal Palaces and Beamish Open Air Museum, who he says offer a “brilliant day out that people are willing to pay for”.

“I think this independent mind-set could be one model for others museums. People love these museums because they are excellent at what they do.”

There’s that word again; excellence, it is something the Arts Council, under the leadership of their Chief Executive Alan Davey, have been keen to develop.

It was the first of five goals at the heart of their 10-year strategy, laid out in the paper, Great art and culture for Everyone, in October 2013. Orna-Ornstein says the notion of excellence, though, is “not for the Arts Council alone to define”.

He points to Hackney Museum, whose programme of community engagement has resulted in “a keen sense of local ownership and engagement” which has “in effect become a model of excellence for them”.

Similarly, he cites the “progressive approach” of The Silk Mill in Derby, which has a big community of makers at the heart of everything it does, and has plans to "create a museum around an existing community”.

Funding provocative work

“Individual museums are best placed to make a decision about what excellence is for them on the ground,” he adds. “And there will continue to be a place for museums that are supported by Arts Council or other funders to do interesting, provocative and socially engaged work that is otherwise hard to fund.

“But people have got to love museums, and either pay for them through taxes or pay on the door or through using their services. And it has to be high quality, it has to be a good day out and it needs to be fun and creative to make them want to come back.

“It’s problematic if we [funders, policy makers] are too prescriptive about this. Yes, we can focus on nurturing particular opportunities, but we need to be supportive of a more demand-driven agenda. The average and the bland will have to go as there is not space in the market for that.”  

It's evident that museums need to be clearer about their purpose and respond to market and demand if they are going to thrive and survive in the current climate. But what about the specialist museum, whether military, medical, agricultural or science based? Surely these already have clarity and purpose?

“Specialisms are good in museums” he says directly. “We have to be careful not to demand everything of all museums – that might even stop them taking risks.

"But sometimes you can look at something differently in a way that is very simple, like taking a tour of a gallery at night with only a torch to guide you. A simple torch in the dark is a wonderfully evocative and engaging way to experience a collection.

“But you need to define your audience and focus on what you are there for and put your passion, excitement and energy into it. If social justice is your focus, you need to take that agenda out into the community and make that the heart of what you do.

"If you’re about conversations and connections, then a museum needs to be full of questions, opportunities to handle and discuss and a chance to see your views reflected back in changing displays.”

There is a real sense that Orna-Ornstein, who at the age of 41 has been thrust into a position where the eyes of the museum sector are fixed firmly on him and his views, is really excited by the wonder and creativity to be found in museums. And he’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Drama in museums

“The Harry Potter Studio is not just a theme park,” he says, “basically it's a kind of museum that uses a lot of theatre.

“I’m not saying everything has to be big and immersive; I’m not talking about wanting to reinvent everything.

"But we need to think more about theatre, animation, drama in museums because we’ve got the real thing – not a fiction like Harry Potter. We have astonishing assets to work with.”

Museums may have a natural instinct to hold, collect, preserve and conserve these assets. As well as repositories of collections, they are the custodians of their own histories and traditions, which can sometimes breed a spirit of conservatism.

The challenge, says Orna-Ornstein, is to look at new ways of enticing visitors to experience these collections, to use them as points of engagement and debate.

“We need to be thinking about audiences and their specific needs. If you want to engage a family audience, then be relevant and engaging. If you want to engage young people, programme with them, not for them, and make your museum the place that people want to be.

"The goal for museums is to not just be holding a collection but really focusing on the audiences and communities they want to engage.”

But as a significant funder and the new strategic leader for museums, what is the Arts Council’s role in this process? And ahead of the new round of funding applications, what does he see as being the guiding principle behind the funding and support framework that will nurture this change?

“The Arts Council must fund positive change," he says. "We can’t fund the status quo. But all funding agencies and membership organisations – whether it be the Arts Council, The National Museums Director’s Conference, The Museums Association, the Heritage Lottery Fund – we all need to adapt and we must get better at working together.”

Since its foundation in the 1940s, the Arts Council itself has been through many changes. Now, as it grapples with the challenges of government funding cuts and leading the museum sector, it seems that more change is coming for everyone involved in the future of museums.

  • The Museum development grants programme 2015-18 is now open for applications. Find out more on the Arts Council website.

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Orna_ornstein seems to see both the bigger and the detailed picture....something of a rare approach and one which is to be applauded. His incisive comments should be a template on which government and national bodies ought to build policies.
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