The culling of the 'dinosaurs'

August 20, 2004

Steve Farrar on the labour pains at Manchester University's museum rebirth.

It was the coup de grâce in a struggle that had rumbled around the mummy cases, stuffed birds and dinosaur bones of Manchester Museum for eight years.

The keepers, who had long battled against their director, Tristram Besterman, and his radical programme, were told their century-old titles and the academic status that came with them were to be abolished.

New positions were made available. But most felt they had no place in this brave new world.

One former keeper remarked: "We valued that title highly - it was completely trivial to him."

But Mr Besterman had considered the move carefully. "It was very important we signalled internally and to the outside world that things had changed," he said.

Indeed they had. The restructuring of Manchester Museum, backed by the university senate and council, represented the most radical overhaul of any of the UK's university museums. Its architect was a star of the British museum community and had been tipped for one of the top jobs in his profession.

Now the director has announced that he too will be leaving.

Mr Besterman, 54, led the campaign to make university museums VAT exempt, pioneered the repatriation of human remains and helped shape policies that guide the governance of institutions across the country.

He is geologist by background, and was city curator of Plymouth's museums and art gallery in 1994 when the directorship of Manchester Museum came up.

The museum, housed in an impressive Victorian building on Oxford Road, boasts world-class Egyptian galleries, archaeological and anthropological objects from every continent and extensive botanic, geological and zoological collections.

The 14 or so keepers who looked after the collections, carried out research and sometimes taught students greeted Mr Besterman's appointment with trepidation.

Mike Hounsome, former keeper of zoology, noted: "The members of staff felt it was their museum and decisions were reached in a collegiate way."

But there were some at the university who felt the museum had been left to its own devices for too long. Mr Besterman said: "The person who hired me made it very clear that it was my job to turn that place around."

He had a clear vision, one tempered by his acute awareness of the latest ideas in the field.

"We want to be entirely led by the notion that we're here to do the public good," Mr Besterman said. "The culture of the museum needed to be re-engineered to be outward looking, user-focused and accountable."

Dr Hounsome described a rather different vision: "What the public wanted was not the primary driving force. The primary driving force was academic rigorousness, research and the collection."

At first, Mr Besterman adopted an "evolutionary approach". "I did my best to bring the keepers on board, but there was resistance," he said.

Bill Pettitt, former keeper of invertebrates, acknowledged the strength of Mr Besterman's vision but complained he ignored their objections, "so we drew up plans to counter the things we felt Tristram was doing wrong." Most perceived that their institution was being transformed from an academic museum into a regional one.

Dr Hounsome said: "We were all 'dinosaurs' concerned with standards and academic truthfulness and things like that. That's why we didn't get on with him."

Mr Besterman strongly refuted any suggestion that he was not concerned with academic rigour and, indeed, questioned the academic credentials of either Mr Pettitt or Dr Hounsome to criticise him. But many found him difficult to work for.

Mike Bishop, who had helped him manage the Plymouth museums, remarked that Mr Besterman had enjoyed some success but "he wasn't the easiest of people.

He has a great eye for detail, but the majority of the staff were not happy during his time."

At Manchester there were angry confrontations, tears and complaints. The porters dubbed Mr Besterman the "smiling assassin". The keepers referred to him as TB.

Mr Besterman admitted there had been "painful aspects of this journey" but rejected claims of bullying. "I mentor, nurture and cherish my staff but will deal robustly with people who are underperforming," he said.

One by one, the keepers started leaving. Some went through ill health, others took early retirement. Dr Hounsome said he quit in 1999 after realising that he could not stop Mr Besterman's reforms given the support the director had from within the university.

Their replacements introduced a layer of management, outreach experts and fundraisers, alongside new curators. The keepers felt increasingly marginalised.

Meanwhile, Besterman masterminded a £20 million refurbishment scheme, largely financed by the heritage lottery fund.

As his reforms hit home, more sources of cash became available to the museum. Visitor numbers also increased, and are expected to top 150,000 this year. More recently, links with university departments have been forged, with joint academic appointments and joint ventures.

Virginia Tandy, director of Manchester city galleries, praised Mr Besterman's museum as a "wonderful ambassador for the city... The museum has been able to engage very actively with the communities in the city, an example we hope to follow."

Then in 2002, after consultation with the vice-chancellor, Mr Besterman called in consultants to review his staff.

The conclusion, backed by the university's senate and council, was that the post of keeper was unviable. Their threefold roles - research, curation and teaching - would henceforth be separated. Their titles and research responsibilities had to go.

Peter Meudell, the pro-vice-chancellor who oversaw the changes, said the review bore out concerns about the keepers' curation and research output.

"We employed them on academic contracts but we were getting very little back," he said.

A subsequent complaint signed by the remaining keepers spoke of "appalling treatment", but it came to nothing.

Two subsequently left for posts at the university. Two are set to retire.

Just two are in their newly defined curatorial posts.

Phil Manning, who joined the museum in January as curator of palaeontology after a previous stint there in 1994, felt Mr Besterman had been, if anything, too compassionate, noting his reforms had taken a decade to complete and had not involved any redundancies. "It was hard for the keepers, but sometimes you have to grasp change and run with it'" he said.

A few weeks ago, though, Mr Besterman announced that he would be leaving in October 2005. "I've achieved what I wanted to achieve," he said.

Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association, said Mr Besterman's reforms were now being mirrored in other museums in response to changing demands and a new funding and regulatory environment. He said it was understandable that staff recruited in an era when primacy was given to a knowledge of the collections would find it difficult to adapt to a new culture.

But he applauded Mr Besterman's efforts. "The Manchester Museum is the first of the major university museums to be fully put into the 21st century," Dr Davies said.

Nichola Johnson, chair of the University Museums Group,said: "Mr Besterman has done a phenomenal amount for university museums, pushing them into the wider world of museums where good practice is usually accepted."

Mr Besterman was coy about the future. "I've a lot of energy and some useful experience to offer," he said.

Dr Hounsome, though, is still troubled, like many of his former colleagues.

"That an institution that was, next to my family, the most important thing in my life could be so belittled, that our life's work could be devalued and disregarded and to be told that everything one held most dear was rubbish was hard to bear," he said.

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