In this first of (what I hope will be) a series of blogs, guest writer Charlotte Pargeter profiles some of the people who really shape the heritage sector. Who are these leaders, and where did they come from? Today Charlotte meets Richard Applegate, Senior Curator at the Royal Eastbourne Museum.
I meet him at the reception desk. In chinos and a shirt (think M&S Blue Harbour), Richard exudes an air of comfort and easiness with a look that says contemporary cool. Yet tradition is present too, with a pencil moustache that says less hipster-chic and more 1930s establishment. Not quite an army officer, but a man of action nonetheless, as Richard spreads out, with one en-brogued foot casually resting on a paint-spattered step ladder, itself in turn leaning against a display case very much in the course of arrangement. Intelligence meets manful confidence.
“Charlotte? How lovely to meet you!” he exclaims as he proffers a hand to shake. He grips firmly, as he leans in for a hug, and speaks into my ear “why don’t you come into my office?”.
After a short walk through the galleries – here a penny farthing, there a rack of spears – he opens a door and ushers me into his office, guiding me with his hand on the small of my back. I look around in admiration at the rows of leather-bound books. A computer and a shelf of brightly-coloured ring-binders are a very few of the clues suggesting that we are in the 21st Century. Richard closes the door behind him with a click. “So,” he says (smiling), “where shall we start?”
Tell us about your route into museums, Richard?
“Well,” he responds with a casual, classless lilt “like a lot of people, I rather fell into the museums game by accident. Back in the 80s, I graduated with BA in Ancient History from Durham University. Soon afterwards, I applied for and got my first heritage job – a collections role at a museum in Bath. That museum then funded me to undertake the MA in Museum Studies at Leicester. I then became a Curator in London, before settling on my current role as Senior Curator here at Eastbourne. Everything really was rather easy.”
Eastbourne Museum won the Arts Council Britain’s prestigious Museum of the Year Award in 2017 – you must have been very proud?
“Tremendously proud, and it was a well-won accolade. The collection should take some credit of course. It’s extremely diverse – brought to Eastbourne from darkest Africa, the jungles of South America, or furthest Asia. Such a collection is naturally full of stories – but it really takes suitably gifted and qualified museum professionals to tease these out in a way that a normal person can understand. So ultimately, I’m indebted to my team of highly trained curators, and the academic excellence that they bring to the table.”
I’m interested that you mention diversity, Richard. Sector workforce diversity is being talked about more and more. How diverse do you feel Eastbourne Museum’s workforce is?
“I am fully aware that ‘diversity’ is now a fashionable buzzword. I am more interested in having a workforce that is effective than diverse. I can’t speak for the whole museum, but I recruit my team in a manner that is wholly meritocratic. I don’t see race. What I do see is qualifications from top universities, or hours sent selflessly volunteering at the nation’s most prestigious museums. I really value practical skills – so the combination of previous experience with academic excellence for my entry-level curatorial posts is of the upmost importance. Those are the criteria on which I recruit.
Richard, you’ve mentioned race in relation to my question about diversity, but what about the other aspects of the term?
“Look, black, brown, white – it’s all the same to me. Yes, all of my team are all white – but so what? White people are the only ones who applied. Nothing about my selection techniques has been discriminatory – far from it. I even interviewed a Pakistani last month…”
That’s a very encouraging sign that your Museum can attract such international candidates. Where in Pakistan were they from, Richard?
“Bradford. But before I digress onto the topic of Pakistanis with utterly undecipherable Yorkshire accents – could it just be that newcomers to this country just aren’t interested in museums, the arts or culture? There may be a reason that Renoir (and we have one of his *delightfully* plump nudes on the first floor) studied in Paris rather than Karachi.”
Richard, such a statement isn’t without an element of…look. There are other aspects of diversity. Let’s move on from race and ethnicity. For instance, the Royal Eastbourne Museum has yet to even once acknowledge LGBT History Month, even though it was established in 1994…
“May I remind you, young Lady, that I qualified as a Museum Curator well before 1994. We certainly didn’t need an ‘LGBT History Month’ back when I started out in the sector. Firstly for one thing, can say how jarring I find that rainbow flag. It certainly is unbecoming amongst Eastbourne’s grand Victorian architecture. It just jars”
“Also, at a time when I’m told that Museums should be reaching out to wider audiences, like families…is that a time we should be sexualising our interpretation? I certainly don’t think that’s appropriate – whether you’re talking about normal sex or gay sex. I just don’t feel it’s ever appropriate to discuss the sex lives or sexual orientation of people in the past. We have never done it before, why should we do it now for homosexual sex? I don’t see the need to pander to this ‘fashionable’ LGBTQNTQEHE?!”*>] (or whatever nonsense it is these days) gay agenda.”
So moving on to a different subject, how do you think the Museums profession has changed over the past 30 years?
“Well it certainly has professionalised. When I first started out, Curators were little more than hobbyists, often with no social skills. The stereotypes live on…too many cats, stained cardigans, medieval encaustic tiles in use as coasters. Some of the ones I met in the bad old days I even suspected to be autistic. Nowadays things are much better. Curators these days must have a Postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies, and that rather sorts the wheat from chaff.”
There has been a general discussion recently about credentialism in the sector. Is that a discussion you have been engaged with at all?
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this term ‘credentialism’. What does it mean? And no. I haven’t seen such discussions – where have they been taking place?”
Credentialism is defined as belief in or reliance on academic or other formal qualifications as the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job. These discussions have mostly been taking place on social media platforms…
“What a lot of nonsense. Firstly, I do not engage with ‘social’ media…I prefer to get my news from serious outlets such as academic journals, the BBC and The Times.”
“Secondly, I do happen to think that formal qualifications *are* the best way to get an instant measure of someone’s quality of character and values. Someone with a good degree from a Doxbridge university is going to be a better sort of chap than someone with a 2.2 from Leeds. I’m sorry but that’s just a fact…”
But what about the fact that degrees are so expensive to obtain these days, that they present opportunities only to those who are privileged enough to afford them?
“More people are going to university today than ever before. The costs of fees are clearly offset by the better availability of student loans. It is by no means obvious that university education is socially exclusive. Even if student debt causes all sorts of problems further down the line, it hardly is the function of museums to solve these issues. Museums are, and should be, neutral. We exist outside of the perceived wider societal problems. Otherwise where would it stop? Museums as houses for public toilets, warmth for the homeless, or safe spaces for prostitutes and drug addicts?”
Thank you for your robust opinions on this topic, Richard. Let me move on to the issue of non-disclosure of salaries, or salary cloaking. Your institution has come under fire recently for advertising jobs without publishing a salary range. What benefits does your organisation receive from this practice, and how do you feel about the negative implications for individual candidates?
“My job is to serve the best interests of my institution. I am certainly not in a position to act as some sort of ‘social justice warrior’. Given the sheer number of applicants we get for vacancies at the Royal Eastbourne Museum, I am hardly in a position to treat the people behind them as individuals. Museums are a tough industry to break into – and people just need to man-up deal with that reality.
“When I advertise a position as ‘competitive’ it means exactly that. My use of the term ‘competitive’ is not to restrict candidate applications, but to remove any potential constraint on salary being a factor in applying for the role. These are roles where we can be flexible on salary, subject to the candidate’s skills and experience. I feel that if we had advertised a range, with lower and upper limits, we may, unintentionally, exclude some applicants. So actually, before these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ have a go at me, they should acknowledge that maybe I too am doing my fair bit for museum sector ‘diversity’ by not scaring-off diverse candidates by dangling salaries in front of them which they couldn’t possible comprehend.
Eastbourne Museum has come under similar fire for hosting and advertising for unpaid internships. How do you feel about that backlash?
“It’ absolutely ridiculous. One of the great things that is essential to Britishness is a sense of public duty – that you do something for nothing for people or organisations that can’t pay. May I remind you that the Royal Eastbourne Museum is a charity. There is nothing wrong about volunteering and giving back to the community. If only *your* generation understood that, rather than being so orientated around money.”
Clearly none of us are motivated by money in this sector. What gets you out of bed in the morning, Richard?
“Public service will always be an important part of my job. But what really motivates me is my sense of passion – for my Museum, and its collection. It’s a passion that would mean I would still do this job, even for bread and water.”
Some might say that such a statement can only come from a position of privilege?
“There is nothing privileged about my background. I have had to work hard to get where I am today. I came from *the bottom* and worked my way up. State grammar school. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be at Durham and not from the likes of Eton or Harrow? And the poverty! In my first job in London I was having to live off £8000 a year – and yet people complain about far less these days. I only wish millennials could be as passionate about museums as they are about their own so-called ‘wellness’.
We’ve touched on privilege, and that leads me on to my next question about museums in the post-colonial context…
“Another ridiculous buzzword. For better or worse, the British Empire happened. And it stopped happening in 1945, nearly two decades before I was even born. And only in the last few years has it come under criticism…unfair criticism. What’s bad about Cricket and Railways? But if this discussion was in Belgium, mind you…”
Thank you, Richard. Finally – what changes do you think we need to make to ensure the long-term sustainability of the museum sector?
“I think it’s a little ironic that my answer to your question is that we need to see less change. Museums have been amazing audiences for well over a hundred years. Yes, there have been some improvements down the lines. Mannequins and the like, and audio guides. But have we now gone too far? Are museums becoming worse? Here’s a few things I’d certainly like to see less
- Dumbing down of exhibits. If you’re not intelligent and engaged with the arts, you’re hardly likely to engage with museums in any case?
- Pandering to ethnic minorities who never visit or want to work in museums in any case.
- Pandering to the gay agenda.
- De-skilling our workforce by making entry-level positions more accessible.
- Repatriating our collections to Third World countries who wouldn’t know how to adequately care for them.
- Encouraging children into museums.
- Allowing un-trained and un-qualified members of the community the opportunity to co-curate exhibitions (N.B. see ‘dumbing down’ above.)
Honestly, there’s so much I could say, but I think I’ll stop there. Do you have any other questions?”
Thank you so much for an…uncompromising…set of answers. Yes, that concludes our interview.
Richard stands up. He walks to his office door, and stands with his back to it, looking at me, and barring my exit.
“Charlotte,” he says, smiling, “You are a *good* girl, aren’t you?”
– Illustrations by Clara Mai –