Janita Bagshawe, Head of Royal Pavilion & Museums, and David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, have between them over 70 years’ experience working for the museum service in Brighton and Hove.
Sophie speaks to two members of the organisation’s old guard as they muse upon the waves of change to have occurred during their tenure, revealing how fluctuating budgets, changes to organisational structure and job titles as well as the fresh demands of audiences have affected the role and relevance of the museum service in the 21st century.
Read the text below or download the transcript.
Narrator: From Brighton on the English south coast, these are the voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums with Dr. Sophie Frost.
Sophie: Hello, I’m Sophie and I’ve spent the past nine months wandering the corridors of the Royal Pavilion & Museums in Brighton and Hove, otherwise known as RPM, uncovering the stories of the museum people who keep Brighton’s historic buildings and collections relevant, vibrant and accessible for the world we’re living in. In this week’s episode I speak with two individuals who you could describe as the forebears of Royal Pavilion & Museums in its current form. Between them Janita Bagshaw and David Beevers have over 70 years of experience working for the organization in a variety of roles. They offer a huge amount of insight into the waves of change to have taken place across the service, providing both a macro and a micro perspective of how museums in recent times have travelled through a seemingly never-ending cycle of cuts and restructures, as well as cultural and curatorial shifts. Thank you very much Janita and David for joining me. Would it be possible just to start out by introducing yourselves and talking through your role?
Janita: Yes, I’m Janita and my role currently is Head of Royal Pavilion & Museums, which basically covers the whole service for manager of it all, but I have been here a long time and worked in many different roles and I started as Education Officer. I’ve been very lucky in terms of the different roles that I’ve had and actually just a thought that crossed my mind was when I started it was called the Royal Pavilion Art Gallery & Museums. Hove [Museum] wasn’t part of it. People think that cuts of something that is really this last ten years but money has been an issue most of my working life and then we had unification of Brighton and Hove and that’s when Hove Museum became part of the portfolio.
David: Like Janita I’ve had several different roles in this institution. For many years I was Keeper of Preston Manor and then in the early 2000s I became Keeper of Fine Art and then from 2007 I’ve been Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, so I’ve had three different roles in this institution.
Sophie: Gosh, to go from Preston Manor to the Royal Pavilion, they’re two very different entities, I guess.
David: In a way but when I was Keeper of Preston Manor I’ve always been interested in furniture and silver and so I kind of was the furniture expert here so though I was based out at Preston Manor, I used to take special groups around the Royal Pavilion and be particularly interested in the contents of the building, so I’ve always been really just as interested in the Pavilion as I was in Preston Manor, so it was not too difficult a leap to go from Preston Manor to the Royal Pavilion via the Fine Art collection because much of the Fine Art collection in fact consists of pictures of the Royal Pavilion. It was all in some ways linked. It would have been a much more violent change say if I’d had to be say a natural scientist or geologist because I wouldn’t have any of those skills and wouldn’t have known what I was doing, but all three jobs I’ve had have been in some ways related to each other.
Sophie: Roughly how many decades are we talking about here – of your time here?
David: I’ve been here only 40 years.
Sophie: 40 years, so you’ve seen – I guess what I’m trying to get at is you must have seen an awful lot.
David: Well, I think one of the biggest changes is that when I started here, I was appointed by John Morley who was a Chief Officer. The Director was a Chief Officer and reported directly to the Chief Executive. Now the head of the service is not a Chief Officer, it’s a second tier –
David: Fourth tier.
Sophie: You might have to explain this Officers thing.
Janita: Well, the first tier is the Chief Executive.
Janita: Second tier are the Executive Directors and then in some cases they have Assistant Directors reporting to them and then it’s the next slot in terms of looking at who you report to so, you know, mine is considered a fourth tier because of that whereas it would have been, if you use the same approach, that would have been a second tier Officer, but it’s not unusual, it’s not just here, talk to colleagues everywhere where, you know – and given that we were a Borough Council when we both started, me a bit later than David, it wasn’t as big you know now with being a unitary of course it is and therefore the council needs to have people that are, you know, trying to get the whole range of services to work. The other thing that I remember about it is, you know, we had been as I said Royal Pavilion Art Gallery & Museums. We had seen various changes in, you know, where we sat within Brighton Corporation but when this became a unitary authority, the libraries which were run by East Sussex in effect came over to Brighton and Hove and that meant our colleague who was then Director, Head of Service, the role gets called different things, also managed libraries.
David: She became Head of Libraries, didn’t she.
Janita: Well, the library was where in effect the foyer area of the Dome is so that was that and there had been a thing on the cards for years, we need a new library. There was a car park where Jubilee Library is now and then eventually, because there was a lot of I think ideas coming up for it, that went that went ahead and that sort of coincided with us doing a major redevelopment of Brighton Museum, but also Brighton Dome, Brighton Festival as they became having changes, entrance hall moving for the museum and going back in history, along with the museum in effect starting in the Pavilion, the nearest thing to a library started in the Pavilion as well. They sort of had quite a nice interesting connection really.
Sophie: I didn’t know that that’s really interesting.
David: Brighton Museum was founded here in the Pavilion in 1861. It didn’t move over to the site it’s on now until 1873 when those buildings were purpose-built for the new museum.
Janita: But it is sometimes, you know, the pendulum swings back and forth but cuts and savings, David will remember as well, when our person that was here actually quite a long time as well think you’d started roughly at the same time as her?
David: I started in 1979.
Janita: When Jessica Rutherford –
David: She was Keeper of Decorative Art, then became Principal Keeper of the Royal Pavilion before becoming Head of Service.
Janita: Certainly I can remember because I was part of those with management responsibilities when she was here. You know, what are we going to come up with for cuts? There were staff who might either leave and jobs weren’t replaced but we even went through some fairly ghastly things about closing certain buildings, but that never happened. Although it actually having mentioned the Grange that that was in fact, gosh I can’t remember when it must have been but that was early 90s or late 80s.
Speaker 1: The Grange was a strange old building really. I used to be called keeper of Preston Manor and Keeper of Rottingdean Grange, and the people at Rottingdean Grange always hated that title, ‘it’s not Rottingdean Grange, it’s the Grange of Rottingdean’. This is slightly typically and the Grange of Rottingdean or Rottingdean Grange was consisted of a lending library on the ground floor and a set of rooms up above which were partly used the temporary exhibitions and partly had a display of toys in, some of the toys, we have big toy collection, were displayed there. There was also a Kipling Room dedicated to Rudyard Kipling, he used to live in Rottingdean and the Rottingdean Preservation Society used to run the Kipling Room. So there were lots of people involved with the Grange. What I most remember there is the extraordinary title that was given to, there was more women then, they used to invigilate in the exhibition galleries and they were called Exhibition Hostesses.
David: Isn’t that an extraordinary title.
Sophie: Yes, that is. And they were happy with that title?
David: No one ever protested, it was always though thought to be rather funny. Nobody took offense to it but now it seems a most extraordinary title.
Sophie: That’s really interesting.
Janita: That’s sort of just rung another bell with me when we talked about a bit of how titles have changed certainly, you know, I think they were stewards weren’t they? That is I can’t remember all the other names we now call them Visitor Services Officers.
Janita: Warders, yes.
David: Yes, as if they were in a prison. Museums and prisons are often seen as slightly similar institutions. I mean your title when you started as Exhibition Services Officer.
Janita: Education Service Officer.
David: Education, you’re quite right, Education Service Officer. Then you became, were you not Principal Keeper of Antiquities and Interpretation?
Janita: Something like that, yes.
David: Really strange titles don’t really exist anymore.
Janita: Yeah, but then then you’ve got more with ‘head of’ or ‘manager’ put in it. But yes, yes, they were.
David: Strange titles.
Sophie: And do you think that the titles that exist now are the best they’ve been so far?
David: They confuse people. The first thing that a very new member of staff who has just arrived asked me is what is the difference between a curator and a keeper? It is, it is confusing. Outside the rather rarefied world of museums if you say you’re a keeper people have no idea really what that means. They think of zookeepers. But being a keeper, it’s a rather old fashioned title and it’s becoming quite rare actually, the usual title now is a curator and keeper, I mean when I started here there are lots and lots of keepers, now there are there’s a Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, there’s a Keeper of World Art, there is a post for Keeper of Decorative Art but that post has been frozen for a while, there is no longer a Keeper of Preston Manor, there’s no longer a Keeper at the Booth Museum, there used to be three Keepers of the Booth Museum when I started so it’s sort of diminishing.
Janita: When David became Keeper of Fine Art as I think it was, and that actually goes back to protecting certain jobs because Preston Manor was one of those things that was on the cards for closing and I was reflecting on it actually with David this week remembering because one of the things I’d done as Education Services Officer because David had done all this fantastic work in terms of opening up servants quarters and at that point very few historic houses did that so we were, you know, sort of know up at the top of the league so to speak in terms of doing that and for me, it was here’s a massive opportunity to do a role play and it did go down very well and we did have somebody come to see us saying there’s no way you’re going to close Preston Manor not that it was us that had put that forward because, you know, the schools would be very upset and we were very lucky it wasn’t just our local schools, schools from across Sussex were coming forward, but that just goes and then it was at one point ‘okay, what are we going to do?’. Some decision was made right? Well, somebody had left the Keeper of Fine Art post, you know, we need to make savings, we have to cut back and that goes into that bit of pendulum swinging because certainly one of the things, given we are multi-sited, there is something, certainly for me and they had been when we went into unitary, traveling around and also the spaces at the site in effect we got, well similarly with the Booth that you know, they’re very much about the collections, but also have some responsibilities for the buildings and so on, similarly at Hove and all of that sort of went out but one of the things we put back in is, and it’s added responsibilities, that you need somebody who will coordinate activities on the sites because as museums are doing more and more community work and also, take the Pavilion, well we’ve got the little exhibition area now, but you wouldn’t want to be putting that in when you’ve got other things going on somebody might decide we need to do some maintenance work there, you can’t be doing that at the same time. Some people having to have an overview of it so there’s a bit of a pendulum swinging but without the money and certainly when we started there was a lot more stability.
Sophie: I was thinking even actually about the Indian soldiers, the hospital as becoming a really prolific story in the last few years because of because of a change in public taste and wants of a museum, but what do you feel the role is of the service now for the community?
David: I’ve always believed, and to use a favourite quote of Cardinal Newman who has just been made a saint,
David: St John Newman, he used to say “our mission is to make old things new again” and I think that’s what museums have to do. They have to reinvent themselves for every generation when I started at Preston Manor the place needed reinventing and I was very fortunate I was able to do that and look at the servants. It now needs to reinvent itself again, and I can’t begin to see quite how it’s going to do that but I’m sure someone will come up with something interesting.
Janita: I suppose because I came from an education background it’s always been what can you learn and use our items to develop people skills and that kind of thing. That was you know, what was my driver when I left university, what was I going to do with the degree? And I found out about museum education and it was a great thing, also from a very personal point of view of learning more about, you know, our objects’ history in general type of thing, but I think there is very much it is, you know, things have to reinvent themselves, I think there’s a very big thing about what can we learn from the past to understand where we are now and actually, you know, what can we learn from the past to make a better future which is sort of very tied up with stuff and I think it’s HLF, well as it was because that’s changed to the National Heritage Lottery Fund, I think in one of their strategies there was something about a similar thing learning from the past to do that and that’s what fits with the education stuff and it’s certainly working with communities, although we would do outreach work or education work, but now getting community input which certainly you know, the India hospital there was somebody who done quite a lot of work not to do with us, but we have a good relationship with that person who actually was encouraging it and doing you know, quite a lot of interest in promoting the whole thing about this town as it was being involved in that and you know, I think it is, you know, certainly with the India Hospital there was some of that collaborative work and that is something that we are doing increasingly and it does mean that actually those communities that may have thought ‘well, what’s any of that got to do with me?’, you know, that they get, they get more engaged and you get a different perspective because we can all come up with our scholarly perspectives on things but you get you get other stories and it’s almost going back to the telling of stories about the servants who’d have worked and things and that was incredibly, you know, the work that David had done and other bits that there was something going on. I think when I first started here, they’ve been scheme there was something called Manpower Services Commission.
David: Yes, MSC, I remember it.
Janita: I know about that because I did an MSC, not here but elsewhere for museum work, but they were doing collecting oral history’s things like that and how really that has, certainly for what we did with Preston Manor, was very useful to have that information and it also sort of, you know, we’re able to give lectures and that sort of thing because it did interest people because we can all go back in history and think actually what did my ancestors do quite a lot may well have been doing that kind of work.
Sophie: This is a big repository role, these buildings. Maybe a more frivolous question about your favourite object or story, both of you. You’ve got one Janita, you nodded your head then.
Janita: I did. Just something it’s a bit of a historic story when I first, I don’t know whether it was absolutely my favourite but when I first came to Brighton not necessarily working here but I came into the museum there were the lift panels from Selfridges. They’re still in the main gallery but they were up where at the time the café was so you’ve got the exhibition galleries. Well as a child, I remember going into the lifts at Selfridges and this was the surroundings of it so I actually see, it’s that connection with one’s past and so on, so there was that. It’s quite a difficult one. There’s so many beautiful things and different stories attached to them. In fact, the first thing that went through my mind was the lips sofa because I began to see replicas of that being made when I was house hunting once or finding out ‘oh gosh, they’ve got a replica of that’ and I had a bee in my Bonnet at one point when I was doing a bit of marketing ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to use that as ‘I love Brighton Museum’’, but it’s tied in with what you can and you can’t do with it because of the whole thing. You can’t reproduce without paying and that sort of thing, but there are also lots of paintings as well.
David: Very difficult as Janita says because sometimes one’s favourite thing changes year by year. Sometimes you think this, the other but what has been really pleasing for me is towards, right towards the end of my career one of the best things ever has happened and that’s been return of the royal loans and to see the music room now with its full set of porcelain pagodas is a truly magical experience. I go down there nearly every day and have a look and kind of think I’m hallucinating because it’s been a dream of all past curators of this building to have these wonderful objects back and now we have and to have that and to have had the Saloon restored and to have won, not me personally, but for the institution of the conservators that worked on it, we’ve won a prize of the best restoration of a Georgian interior so that happening with the return of the royal loans has made it really very splendid indeed and delighted that this has happened right towards the end and I feel very lucky and very privileged that this has happened while I’ve been Keeper of the Royal Pavilion here so I do feel very fortunate.
Janita: And it’s transformational because I came back from holiday and I thought that day ‘right, get out of doing the emails as fast as possible’ and I couldn’t believe the impact just going into the Music Room. I actually thought if one had been dropped down in there, would you know that you were in the Music Room? Obviously other things are completely the same but you know, when I first came to Brighton that room was being restored after the horrific thing that had happened to it,
David: The fire.
Janita: And then we had the lovely carpet done
David: Hurricane 1987 which I remember.
Janita: Gathered it up, it had a hole in it.
Sophie: Remarkable moment.
Janita: And if you think back in time to 1850 just before that, all of this stuff would have been taken by horse and carriage to London.
David: From 1847 to 1848 the building was cleared of its contents and this was a kind of reversal of that stuff coming back to the Royal Pavilion and it was very moving, moving moment.
Sophie: I wonder about how they removed it in the first place, I wonder if it was with such –
David: Well we were talking about this weren’t we the other day. It was done in some secrecy so that I have not seen any detailed reports, but they were obviously removed by horse and cart and the objects must have been packed in straw which was the usual way of moving things and it was you know, 150, 180 carriers, wagons moving all the objects from this building mostly to Kensington Palace and moved because it was thought the building was likely to be demolished.
Sophie: Really different time. I guess the final thing I wanted to ask was just about your aspirations for Royal Pavilion & Museums in the next couple of years, you know.
Janita: Well it’s to build on all the good work that’s being done and sort of continue engaging the public greater, greater ways. There are some areas with the Pavilion we’re telling more and more stories around it, we’ve got the whole Pavilion estate thing and build on, in fact, you know, like the fantastic story about the India Hospital. There are some other lovely stories not necessarily going to change things but actually just have the opportunity for that. You know, I think one of the things with all of the museums going with time is make sure that you can change our collections around easily so that if something comes up in the news or something becomes very topical and I think it is that museums aren’t static either so it’s sort of building on that. We’ve got plans for the Booth which we hope and it seems dangerous saying we are doing things at Preston Manor, but actually how do you ensure that it’s sort of continues? And also that whole collaborative working, you know build on that and hope as much as possible that people who want to get different opportunities that one can one can do that and build on our partnerships and it’s been great with the Royal Collection, we’ve got other really good partnerships, stuff that we’ve done with universities and of course actually that goes back to another interesting bit of history that course the art school , which is now Brighton University, it was its first place in the Royal Pavilion.
Sophie: What didn’t the Royal Pavilion house at one point?
David: Some of the things it housed were absolutely extraordinary, there used to be corset displays in the Banqueting Room, performing fleas in the Kings Apartments, dog shows in the Music Room. This is in the municipal period it seems utterly bizarre to us but for the Victorians is this was quite usual.
Sophie: Performing fleas!
David: Performing fleas, loved performing fleas in those days.
Janita: It was a big thing in those times wasn’t it? I think they also did them on the West Pier. I think that was one of the sort of little things that you could go and see as well.
David: What performing fleas on the West Pier?
Janita: Or something like that, actually going and watching performing insects.
David: I remember the ‘what the butler saw’ machines on West Pier.
Sophie: There’s all these links everywhere. And how about you, David?
David: Well, to use that expression I quoted earlier ‘we’ve got to make these old things new again’. Whenever, if I feel a bit gloomy about life, I always feel cheered up if I see what’s happened at St Pancras Station in London that buildings I’ve loved it ever since I was a little boy is now a completely revived. It was so close to demolition of on stage and if that can happen there, we can do that kind of thing here. We’ve got to make the building relevant for a changed society, it’s got to be inclusive. It actually has some built-in advantages for the Britain of today, you know, it is an extraordinarily, to use the word, diverse building. It’s got an Indian exterior, it’s got a Chinese interior, its associated with really interesting people. There’s the Indian Hospital display but there’s also the Prince Regent’s shampooing surgeon Sake Dean Mahomed, you know, who was a Muslim convert who came here and administered in this building as a time when, just when the building was being rebuilt in an Indian style, there was an Indian from the Indian subcontinent working in this building and this story is another story that needs to be told. The other thing I’d like to do is bring more people back into this building. Currently it’s too object focused. Now I’m a museum man so I love objects, but what one needs to do is balance it so we keep the objects but also introduced the people, so for instance in Queen Victoria’s bedroom, which we’re going to reinterpret next year, people legitimately ask ‘why is the Wardrobe Maid, a relatively junior servant, sleeping in a room right next to the queen?’ well previous curators didn’t ask that question, what they looked at is what was in the Wardrobe Maid’s room, why the bed is like that, what that chest of drawers is, but didn’t say who was the Wardrobe Maid? We now know because of digitisation the name of her and why was the junior servant sleeping so close to the queen? I don’t actually quite have the answer to that. I think it’s because there was a lot of make do and mend in this building. One reason Queen Victoria left it was it was too small, it’s just too small and so I think that there was no other accommodation. The other question that people ask, and it’s not improper to ask this, is where was Prince Albert’s room? And this is really interesting. The queen and Prince Albert shared a bedroom. This is very, very unusual in aristocratic and Royal circles. The rich had separate bedrooms but here they had the same room. There wasn’t a Prince Albert’s bedroom and this kind of thing is not in the guidebook. So, it’s that kind of thing introducing the people back into this building but keeping objects as well but getting the balance right.
Sophie: Hence why the guidebook’s being rewritten?
David: That’s one reason it’s being rewritten, yes. But I’m so aware of how little I know and how much is likely to emerge with more things being digitised. This is a worry about the pace of change today and another effect of digitisation that when you publish something it all goes out of date very quickly because new information is constantly coming online so it’s always a bit of an interim story. That’s the fascination of history.
Sophie: Yeah. I think we’ve covered an awful lot and I think it really nicely kind of polishes off a lot of conversations I’ve had. Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it and like I said I think it’s really sort of nicely top and tailed a lot of what I’ve got already so thank you. I’m indebted to Janita and David for taking the time to let me probe them on their experiences at RPM, an interrogation that was both thought-provoking and inspiring. While Janita reflected on the ceaseless pendulum swinging of funding and policy-related matters in museums, David’s calls to bring people back to make the building relevant for a changed society and to make things new again, a mantras that will surely never grow old. I hope you’ll join me next time on Voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums where I’ll be speaking to Jody East, the Creative Programmes Curator at the Royal Pavilion & Museums who will be describing how the Royal Pavilion was used as a hospital for Indian soldiers during the First World War and how the creative programme at RPM has commemorated the impact of the First World War amongst its communities on the south coast. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode hit like and subscribe and please leave us a very nice five-star review. Find out more about the Royal Pavilion & Museums at brightonmuseums.org.uk and more about this project at one-by-one.uk. On Twitter I’m @soph_frosty and RPM is @brightonmuseums. I really hope you can join me next time. Till soon, goodbye.
Narrator: The Voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums are supported by the One By One research project, the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, The Keep, Arts Council England and produced by Lo-Fi Arts.
Sophie: Is Preston Manor really haunted? I think David needs to comment on that, really.