museums, libraries, archives, collectionsOpinion

Museums, Libraries, Archives…and Companies?

Museums, archives, libraries – the traditional repositories and exhibitors of history. Now, though, are company archives beginning to fill in the gaps?

In previous years, a company might maintain an archive, strictly for its own use. It might or it might not have used the archive. Whichever way, if the company shut down, or if it wanted to share knowledge, the collection would be either binned or offered to the local museum. For instance, the Lynn Museum, King’s Lynn, has representative collections from Campbell’s soup, Taylor’s seeds, and the  local glassmaking, fishing and salt industries.

Lately though, there has been bad news for museums. Councils are cutting budgets to the bone for museums that are already struggling; Walsall’s New Art Gallery is under threat; The Museum of Lancashire and the Fleetwood Museum have closed while The Tolson Museum, Dewsbury Museum and the Red House Museum are all set to close after withdrawal of funding. Many museums can’t afford to maintain their buildings, conserve their items, change their displays or conduct academic research into the collections.

At the same time, companies are getting wise to the fact that in their collections lies a diverse range of material which offers opportunities to academic, genealogy and materials researchers, display, design, marketing and publicity teams and educators, which can be used to help with the company’s CSR policy. These companies are investing in their collections and often, crucially, opening them to the public both for research and as exhibitions. When a profit can be turned, they can afford to do the things that museums increasingly cannot.

Where, then is the difference? If a company has an archivist to curate the collections, hires a display team to put them on display, employs someone to lead and teach education groups and offers public ticketed access, where does that leave museums? Will companies be able to move forward in a way that museums will not? Will companies be the new museums? Is this a positive or negative thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.