View Single Post
Old 28th Jun 2012, 9:06 am   #9
trh01uk's Avatar
Join Date: Nov 2010
Location: Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, UK.
Posts: 1,264
Default Re: What happened to the National Wireless Museum?

Originally Posted by G8UWM-MildMartin View Post
As a general question about museums or charitable trusts in any field, if they solicit and receive donations on the basis of being perpetually kept in care and custody and forming part of a national collection and then become unable to maintain it, what is allowed to happen to an item?
e.g. Could it be offered to the care of any similar collection in this nation, or elsewhere, or to be returned, sold, dumped, abandoned, or something else?

the quick answer to your question is that it depends mostly on what the provisions of the body's constitution say. I am highly doubtful that a) constitutions have the correct provisions in them to ensure donated equipment/assets are handled appropriately, and b) that Trustees actually know what their constitution says, and obey it.

I have noted a singular lack of understanding in the UK of constitutions - probably because we don't have one in this country, and imagine that people can just do what they like when acting as Trustees. Rarely do such matters get to the courts where a constitution can be enforced.

Certainly museums have dumped a wide variety of equipment. I have story after story of just this happening. Sometimes "dumping" is the wrong word. Bits can be sold or given away to private collectors - and sometimes that is entirely appropriate, since its easy to acquire stuff that is not within the museums's scope.

Your question is very pertinent to what I am doing at the moment - which is to try and set up a trust that will properly look after a limited number of historic items that are now on the "endangered species" list (of electronics - not animals!). We have the Trust in place (the Electronics Restoration Trust), but I'm certainly not imagining that is "job done".

In the interests of not having the problems that the story of the NWM exhibits, I have been trying to understand what has gone wrong with similar efforts in the past. Those involved with failed projects of this type are usually either dead or very reluctant to explain what went wrong, I've found. That's a pity because this is not about finger pointing, but rather trying to do things better in the future, and learning from past mistakes.

I've identified a number of features of trust/museum failures:

1. There is an assumption that the resources available now (whether that be cash, building, staff, etc), will always be available. That's rarely true. So we have the Collingwood Naval Signals museum being turned out of their home, and thus closing down, because they were depending on the goodwill of the Navy to supply premises - and they have now been withdrawn.

Linked in with this is a failure to plan for sickness, death and loss of income. These are all very likely, but people imagine they will somehow be immune!

2. Museums rarely have the preservation of the items in the collection as a primary aim. You can look at the biggest museums, and you will see that they are actually about something else, and preservation of exhibits is not a priority. The IWM, for instance, is about the history of war. The Royal Signals Museum is about the history of the Royal Signals. Both museums have a lot of equipment, but no hard requirement that I can find to actually look after or preserve it.

3. A failure to understand that not all equipment is of equal value just because its old. Their collecting strategy lacks focus. Most museums (and collectors) just keep on piling the equipment up, apparently on the basis that "more is better". But more usually means what happens at the NWM - it is stored somewhere inadequate and just left to rot.

The ERT now has a system of evaluating equipment to see if its worth saving. Others may disagree with our criteria - but at least we have a basis for refusing to buy or accept acquisitions willy-nilly.

The other factor with vintage electronics is that it is just "not sexy" (like say vintage cars or steam engines) in the eyes of the general public. The museums reflect this lack of appreciation of a key technology that has changed the world. Someone may well have a "national collection" - but the truth is that the "nation" is just not interested!

Any venture trying to save vintage electronics has to take on board this reality, and I thus think that becoming dependent on separate buildings, paid staff, and a steady income is a recipe for certain failure. The approach I am taking with the ERT is to depend only on what ordinary inviduals can supply, such as a limited amount of cash, and a bit of space in their house, but backed up with enthusiasm and skills of course. A fully restored and rare item can be safely stored in someone's house, where they can exhibit it to someone interested enough to apply to see it. If they get too old to look after it, the item can be handed back to the Trust, and a new "carer" found for it.

trh01uk is offline