Annual White Lecture

assets/Uploads/_resampled/SetWidth214-13-Balshaw.jpg Dr Maria Balshaw

The IMA Annual White Lecture in the autumn provides a forum for some of the most influential national and international contemporary museum professionals to speak on matters relating to museums. It is held in memory of Dr James White, who was one of the founders of the Irish Museums Association.

Past speakers at this prestigious event have included Enrique Juncosa, Director, Irish Museum of Modern Art; Sir Timothy Clifford, Director General, National Galleries of Scotland; Sune Nordgren, Director, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway; Neil McGregor, Director,  British Museum; Professor Jack Lohman, Director, Museum of London and Chairman of ICOM (UK); Philippe de Montebello, Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, President of the Acropolis Museum, Athens; Sir Mark Jones, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and Dr Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain, London; Dr Michael Ryan, former Director of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

2013 Annual Lecture
The 2013 Annual Lecture was given by Dr Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth Gallery and of Manchester City Galleries. This event is supported by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Title: A place where good, odd things happen: galleries and museums in the 21st century
Venue: National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square West, Dublin 2
Date: Thursday 14 November 2013

The speaker

Dr Maria Balshaw has been Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery since June 2006. She has coordinated a challenging programme of historic, modern and contemporary exhibitions that capitalise on the Whitworth's centre city university location as well as having a strong international profile.

In 2011 she took on the role of Director of Manchester City Galleries alongside her duties at the Whitworth. This dual directorship represents a unique partnership between the University of Manchester and Manchester City Council, bringing the two institutions and Manchester's historic and modern art collections into complementary alliance for the first time in their history. Her early career experience included working as Director of Development and External Relations at Arts Council: West Midlands and from 2002 - 2005 she was Director of Creative Partnerships: Birmingham.

In 2004, Maria was selected as one of the inaugural Fellows for the Clore Cultural Leadership programme. Before moving into the cultural sector Maria worked as Research Fellow in Urban Culture at the University of Birmingham and as lecturer in Cultural Studies at University College Northampton. She published a number of books and essays on African-American urban culture, gender and visuality.


"20 years ago, a noted report by the London Museums Agency took its title from a visitor’s description of a museum as ‘Dusty old places with different kinds of stuff’.  The report challenged our profession to move into the 21st Century and become places that were focused not just on the dusty old objects, but on people, how they could engage with the paintings and artifacts in our care, how they were looked after and what they wanted to do.

A museum revolution has taken place since those days.  We all operate in institutions now that have audience development staff, learning and engagement teams, visitor welcome staff, good shops, cafes and family facilities.  We have learnt valuable lessons from visitor attractions from other parts of the cultural world; there has even been an important backlash, reminding us that curatorial knowledge and expertise is something visitors want to see and that museums and galleries aren’t quite the same as going to a theme park.

But I want to suggest today that we are in need of another renewal of our paradigms for thinking about what we do as galleries and museums.  The title of my talk comes from another visitor comment, this one more recent, from 2010, from a visitor at the Whitworth Art Gallery, where I have been Director since 2006.  ‘A place where good, odd things happen’, has become a hugely important driver for change for the Whitworth; a guide for our journey.  I want to suggest today this is because it captures something important about what visitors appreciate about museums and galleries in 2013.

Rather than being something people have to be persuaded to enjoy galleries and museums are now some of the most popular attractions in the UK and Europe.  Furthermore, this popularity is not just for instantly recognisable ‘blockbuster’ shows.  In fact, quirky, odd, downright difficult things are proving to be huge draws for audiences whose demographics are also not those of so-called ‘traditional’ museum visitors.  My contention is that far from being a minority sport – a bit like fencing in the Olympics – galleries and museums are now the cycling or athletics of the cultural world.  I will explore what’s behind this new adventurousness on the part of visitors, and – using some examples from my own institutions – explore what’s to be gained from embracing a more daring conception of what audiences want and like.  I’ll also suggest the dangers of ignoring what are wider cultural trends, born out of the new modes of connection and communication made possible through social media and the internet.  My belief is that our next phase of museum and gallery renaissance has a radical social potential, not so much toward greater social justice but, to steal from Jeremy Deller’s recent exhibition title, toward greater ‘joy in people’, in objects, unique experiences and ideas."