mon 01/06/2020

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, BBC Four

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, BBC Four

Your first chance to see David Cameron's Big Society in (in)action

Television schedules are set months in advance – susceptible only to royal fatalities or political earthquakes (as would-be viewers of EastEnders found out the other night) – but the timing of Behind the Scenes at the Museum could not be more perfect.

In our tight economic circumstances, departmental budgets are going to be cut sharply, and there will be no exception for culture and heritage projects, which is why a series about failing museums and attempts to rescue them is right for this moment.

The first programme, directed by Richard Macer, is set in the British Commercial Vehicle Museum in Lancashire, where former Leyland hands maintain steam engines, tractors, coaches and even the Pope Mobile from his visit to the UK in 1982. It is run by a group of retired men who offer love, time, care and knowledge, and expect nothing in return.

They are an invaluable repository of knowledge, the sort of source usually appreciated when veterans of long-ago wars die: in this programme, we quickly recognise that although their knowledge may be esoteric and hardly practical, losing it, by closing the museum or through the march of time, is irremediable.

At one point, someone comments on how most of the management committee are stuck in the Seventies, with a unionised tenacity which militates against 21st-century progress, and as true as this may be, it fails to recognise that what the museum offers is not progress but history.

Despite their best efforts, the volunteers have not been able to make the museum into the Tate Modern of the North and for it to remain open, exhibits are being sold off. As an attempted remedy, a businessman is brought in to talk of deficit and surplus. The volunteers are riven by power-plays and the introduction of business methods meets with accusation of control-freakery, but the professionals will have their way.

Here David Cameron’s Big Society seems to get an airing. If we are supposed to give to our communities, what better example than this sort of museum, a social hub with a unique collection and an important part of local lore? What becomes clear in this Big Society prototype is that the professionalisation of even the smallest and least-modern of museums must continue apace, trying to make the most of limited resources. Society meets Management, hearts meet balanced chequebooks.

The problem is that these men cannot spin gold out of straw, and a greater entrepreneurial spirit seems to come at the cost of the dogged amateurism the British specialise in. But that’s progress for you.

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A fascinating and rather moving programme. When is the next one in the series?

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