Museum reformer 'forced out' by leading directors
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Sunday 31 January 1993
Simon Roodhouse, founder director of the Museum Training Institute, wanted to make museums more user-friendly and see more black and female curators appointed. According to a statement by John Last, chairman of the institute, Mr Roodhouse had decided to 'move on'.
Professor Last, head of corporate affairs with Littlewoods and Visiting Professor of Museum Studies at City University, said: 'It would be easy to underestimate the work that he has done in often very difficult circumstances. He has made a significant contribution to modern training in the UK.'
But this statement belies the view that Mr Roodhouse was effectively made to leave by pressure from big London museums unwilling to learn new management and training techniques.
This view was expressed last week by the decision of Michael Diamond, head of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, to resign from the institute's board. The chairman's statement did not 'bring out the real issues.
'Simon Roodhouse's resignation has been forced on him through a long campaign of unsubstantiated assertions by a small group of mainly national museum directors,' he said. 'MTI's thoroughness has been widely acknowledged by all professional trainers with whom I do business.'
When Mr Roodhouse started the institute three years ago, he said that he wanted to give the institutions a new dynamism. He developed national vocational qualifications for all levels of staff from warder to senior curators, loosening the hold of the most qualified on top jobs at the expense of those who may not have masters' degrees but do have management skills.
Mr Roodhouse was keen to establish a modern training and qualification framework. Only six out of Britain's 2,500 curators are black, and there are few women at senior levels. 'My ambition was that a 16-year-old girl who starts as an attendant could make a career out of museum work.'
One aspect of the new system involves learning how to help the public and make displays more exciting. The new qualifications range from a warder having to prove he can use a fire extinguisher to a senior curator or administrator showing he can draw up a strategic plan.
The agreement for Mr Roodhouse's departure, stipulated by Professor Last, precludes him from discussing publicly the reason for his resignation. But he was able to comment on his three years at the institute and the difficulties he has encountered from some of the museum world's most senior figures.
'I am told there has been a whispering campaign,' he said. 'It has emerged through Michael Diamond, not totally unexpectedly, that there has not been the level of support on the board for such progressive work. Many senior people were unwilling even to read the material sent to them.'
The board included two of the most important figures in museums, Robert Anderson, director of the British Museum, and John Hayes, director of the National Portrait Gallery. Dr Hayes said: 'It is imperative that the new director should have the full confidence of the whole profession, and try to limit the bureaucracy so that there is a better response.'
Peter Longman, director of the Museums and Galleries Commission, which represents the national museums, said: 'The MTI overstated the importance of the vocational training system and probably did not give enough attention to academic training.
'We are in favour of the MTI but there were . . . some personality clashes and a lot of museums found it difficult to understand the message Simon was preaching.'
Professor Last said: yesterday: 'I totally reject the charge that a clique of museum directors has forced Simon out. I regret his going but I understand it. Our relationship was always good, I believe. There is no question of dismantling the MTI.'
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