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Dorset lives – Making the collections work harder

Jon Murden has now been in post as Director of the Dorset County Museum for eighteen months. John Newth has been to talk to him

They say that a sign of getting old is that policemen start looking younger. Perhaps the same applies to museum curators, with Jon Murden having taken on the important and responsible post of heading up the Dorset County Museum while still only in his mid-thirties. Already it looks like a good appointment, with his youthful vigour and innovation tempered by a clear respect for the collections and for the legacy left by his predecessors.

Jon Murden in the gallery of the Dorset County Museum’s Victorian Hall

Jon Murden in the gallery of the Dorset County Museum’s Victorian Hall

After school in his home town of Nottingham, where he showed an early flair for history and was fortunate enough to have an inspiring teacher in the subject, Jon studied for his degree at Birmingham University. His dissertation was on industrial relations in the British motor industry from 1920 to 1970 and he was invited to do an MPhil and then a PhD to extend his research in the subject, funded by the British Academy.

Meanwhile, Liverpool was approaching its 800th anniversary and the City Council decided that it was time for a new official history of the city. Jon found himself at Liverpool University, one of a team of eight academics working on the new book, for which he wrote the chapter on the 20th century as well as acting as joint editor and co-ordinator. His chapter covered the period when, for example, containerisation reduced the number of Liverpool dockers from tens of thousands to a few hundred, with all the social and economic consequences that followed.

Jon and his wife, Liz, enjoyed living in Liverpool, so his next move was to National Museums Liverpool. This is one organisation with eight separate venues and with collections of such importance that they are owned and funded directly by central government. Jon’s roles were to curate an exhibition to celebrate the 800th anniversary, to be involved in Liverpool’s role as European Capital of Culture in 2008, to co-ordinate the organisation’s academic research programme, and to be one of the team of planners for the completely new Museum of Liverpool.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown  is shown progress on the building of the new Museum of Liverpool by Jon Murden (in the blue helmet)

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is shown progress on the building of the new Museum of Liverpool by Jon Murden (in the blue helmet)

Jon took to museum work straightaway. ‘I was enthused by the power of museums to capture the imagination and to make learning accessible,’ he recalls. ‘It seemed to me important and worthwhile to take the latest academic thinking about the city and to present it in a way that could be understood and enjoyed by people who might not otherwise appreciate it.’

Having successfully delivered his part of the European Capital of Culture programme and with the new museum nearing completion, Jon spotted the vacancy at the Dorset County Museum. ‘Liz grew up in East Devon and we had looked at other openings in the South-West, but the job had to be just right.’ With its setting and its collections, the museum in Dorchester was indeed just right.

It was also a challenge, with visitor numbers falling and the accounts for 2008 showing a frightening deficit.  The trend is at least showing signs of being reversed, with an increase in numbers and a reduced financial deficit in 2009, and a further increase in visitors and a small financial surplus in the first half of 2010. Perhaps because of his background in teaching business history, Jon Murden is unlikely ever to forget that he is running a business – ‘among other things,’ he adds.

The public face of the museum tends to be what most people judge it by, and Jon sees plenty of work to be done in this area, with the natural history and rural life galleries needing facelifts. He is also aware of the importance of the ‘visitor experience’ these days, which means attention to things like the shop, catering, lavatories, signage and labelling. His initial aim is to get the annual numbers of visitors up from the present 35,000 or so to the 60,000 that the museum was attracting some twenty years ago; he thinks that even 100,000 could be a reasonable long-term target. ‘At the same time, we won’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater,’ he says. ‘I know that a lot of people like a lot of the things about the museum as it is. But I want to make the collections work harder – only a small proportion of what we have is on display – and in particular to attract people who at the moment don’t think museums are for them.’

It is important to realise, though, that the museum’s stated purpose is to preserve and conserve Dorset’s heritage not only for display but also for research, and one senses that it is in this area that Jon feels the most work is to be done. ‘If you build a new gallery, everyone goes, “Isn’t that wonderful”, but if you build a new and better store behind the scenes, hardly anyone sees it. Yet in terms of preservation and conservation it is just as important, and we must offer the more professional standard of facilities that modern researchers expect. Also, becoming more accessible to researchers is another way of unlocking the power of the collections.’

Classic cars are Jon’s hobby; he is only the third owner of this 1978 Austin Allegro

Classic cars are Jon’s hobby; he is only the third owner of this 1978 Austin Allegro

Storage will be taxing Jon’s ingenuity, a lack of space having been a perennial problem for successive curators of the Dorset County Museum.  The discovery of 53 Viking skeletons on the Ridgeway, or of a plesiosaur jaw in Weymouth Bay, or the offer of the original New Hardy Players scripts – all of these are exciting, and the museum is keen to collect, preserve and display them. And, of course, all storage space must meet the highest standards of security and environmental control.

One of the statistics which, one suspects, pleases Jon Murden the most is that school visits to the museum are up by twenty per cent over the last year. He is also proud of the work being done with adults with learning disabilities from Douglas Jackman House, and of the museum’s active outreach programme. ‘I firmly believe,’ he says, ‘that everything to do with museums is about making learning accessible to everyone.’

Captions

1            Jon Murden in the gallery of the Dorset County Museum’s Victorian Hall

2            Prime Minister Gordon Brown  is shown progress on the building of the new Museum of Liverpool by Jon Murden (in the blue helmet)

3            Classic cars are Jon’s hobby; he is only the third owner of this 1978 Austin Allegro

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