Culture: Man Who Made History; Graham Allen Is Leaving the Helm of Birmingham's Museums at a Time When New Government Funding Promises to Shift Them into a Higher Gear, Writes Terry Grimley
Byline: Terry Grimley
On the face of it, this seems a surprising time for the head of Birmingham's museums to be anouncing his departure.
A new era of direct Government support under the Renaissance in the Regions initiative is just under way, there is a pounds 10 million capital development of Aston Hall coming up and, in the longer term, the prospect of a major expansion of the central Museum & Art Gallery.
But as Graham Allen explains, his contract was up for renewal and the question was whether to stay or do something different.
'I don't know yet what I'm going to be doing,' he says. 'I'm looking at a number of things but consulting is very much one. I'm very excited about it but I have mixed feelings as well. It feels a very different place from when I came, I'm glad to say.'
Allen's association with the museums goes back 23 years but eight years ago he was a controversial choice to succeed Michael Diamond as director because, in a departure from tradition, he was an administrator rather than a curator.
However, if he is to be judged on his achievements, he can point to some significant steps forward for the city's museums.
The conversion of the Water Hall into a gallery of modern art provided the first new space for the permanent art collection since 1911, and complemented a welcome rediscovery of modern art after years of depressing curatorial apathy.
Since the mid-90s around 40 items have been added to the collection which have transformed the representation of post-1945 British art (though from such a low base, it has to be said, that much more remains to be done).
Collections relating to Matthew Boulton and James Watt have also been significantly enlarged (particularly among the displays at Soho House) and Blakesley Hall has been restored and improved, with the addition of a fine new visitor centre.
There have been some less visible or glamorous, but strategically vital, developments. A comprehensive renewal of the Museum & Art Gallery's roof is still under way at the cost of several million pounds, and a new centralised store has been acquired which will allow reserve collections currently scattered around the city to be brought together under much improved conditions over the coming year. On the debit side has been the saga of Millenium Point and the closure of the former Museum of Science and Industry, the upshot of which is that a large part of the city's important scientific and industrial collections is in store or out on long-term loan.
Museums are not the only responsibility for Graham Allen as Senior Deputy Director (Museums and Heritage). He has also been project director of the pounds 32 million Town Hall restoration project -'it's a wonderful scheme,' he says proudly -on which major work is due to start in the next two months.
However, he says of his successor: 'I think it's very important that it's someone who primarily manages the museums.
'The big issue is carrying on and making sure Renaissance in the Regions continues. Will there be any more money beyond 2006? It will be a very tough budget round. It's a major investment, it's real money going into regional museums, and it must be seen to make a difference as the rationale for any future investment.'
Renaissance in the Regions is the strategy launched by Resource (the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries) in 2001 to address the historic underfunding of museums in the regions. Instead of the pounds 267 million over five years it estimated would be needed, the Government found just pounds 70 million over four years.
The West Midlands, where museums have been discriminated against by successive Governments (to the extent of having never received a penny of direct funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and its predecessors), was selected as one of the priority 'hubs' to prove that this would be a wise investment. …