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Steve Davies takes over at MOSI

Jonathan Schofield and whether the new director will be the new broom the Museum of Science and Industry needs?

Written by . Published on August 26th 2008.

Steve Davies takes over at MOSI

We were going to call it guerrilla renovation.

Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) has Grade I listed buildings of international importance, including the oldest railway station anywhere, with a collection to match, across several acres of prime city land. This in turn gives it the kudos to bring in temporary exhibitions such as Bodyworlds 4 which attracted more than 250,000 paying visitors in the first half of this year.

“I’m aware things aren’t as they should be in certain areas. Some of the displays are exactly as they were 25 years ago. We need to refresh the displays and maintain them.”

Clearly this 25 year old museum is a significant player on the UK heritage and cultural scene.

Yet it’s also a mess, a city embarrassment. Take a close look round the permanent exhibitions and you’ll find illegible signage, bits broken off and a general air of tiredness.

If a museum’s role is to explain, it fails when part of the explanation lies faded or rubbed out and has done for years. The worst areas are the gas and electricity galleries but there are problems all over the site. Other items just need a good dusting.

This is where Confidential was going to lend a guerrilla hand. We were going to sneak into galleries, find out what the original signs said, re-type, print and laminate them, then sneak back in and stick the replacements up. All for what: 20p a go? Our designer Kelly, who loves things shipshape, could have the place dusted and polished in a week.

Now we might not need to. MOSI has a new director, Steve Davies, ex military commander, full-time industrial enthusiast and a good-looking chap with a sparkle in his eye and an underlying steeliness. Davies brings a track record of strong leadership and a network of high profile contacts, including Government Ministers. He has a military background, most recently as the Chief of Staff Headquarters 2nd Division, based in Edinburgh . His responsibilities extended to around 250 central staff and some 20,000 troops. During his spare time in Sierra Leone Steve established the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum . He has strong links with the North West and was an original member of the Museum’s Liverpool Road Station Society.

He sounds like a fella who’s going to roll up his sleeves, get stuck in.

“I’m aware things aren’t as they should be in certain areas,” Davies says. “I was involved here at the beginning, as a volunteer, and some of the displays are exactly as they were 25 years ago. The out-of-date mannequins in the station building in period costume would be funny if they weren’t shaming - the wig of one keeps getting snatched off its head by kids.

“We need to refresh the displays and maintain them. Even, as you say, sort out the cleaning which has been a health and safety issue given the size and complexity of say, the trains, in the Power Hall. But I’ll crack this.

“First off we’re going have a major spring clean, polish the brass, get it right. We have an ambition to be world-class and with the raw materials here that shouldn’t be a problem. But we have to show that attention to detail before we move on.”

So when will the displays start looking loved - by Christmas?

“You’ll see a lot of progress by then,” says Davies with a smile and without giving an exact date.

Good, that’s one problem nailed – sort of. Time to move on. So what are Davies’ other main jobs?

“We have to energise this museum at every level,” he says. “ You’ve mentioned the maintenance of the displays but we also have a lot more to do. We have to look at how we can use technology in explaining the exhibitions, become more relevant to today’s audience. I also want to see greater access to the collections, at present two thirds is hidden away.

“And I absolutely want to see more activity, we have to get more machines working, more demonstrations taking place. We’ve got our hands full. We have a strategy called Revolution MOSI plan which is all about opening out and improving the museum in lots of ways.”

The policy over the special exhibitions (big revenue earners for the museum) is another issue over which people have questioned the museum. Occasionally you wonder whether MOSI thinks of itself as a pier-end attraction not a museum.

Last year’s Dr Who exhibition was a case in point. It seemed to have precious little to do with what a museum of science and industry should be about. If anything it seemed like a scam to expand the audience. The fact that it was crap, over-priced and you were out in twenty minutes didn’t help either. You have to wonder whether those who came for Dr Who lingered long elsewhere on the site - in which case they might as well just pay for a different celebrity to sit in one of the galleries every week. People love celebrity don’t they? That’ll boost numbers.

“Modern museums have to provide education and entertainment,” says Davies. “We have to be strong on traditional values but we are publically funded, we have to draw in people who otherwise wouldn’t come in, these are government guidelines and something we’re committed to.

“But it’s true that we have to decide what the museum stands for. It’s a communication challenge. For me this means describing the role of Manchester in shaping the modern world, its place right at the heart of that. How do we tell that story and keep the momentum going with what we display and how we display it?“We are fundamentally not a venue for temporary exhibitions, we are about the permanent collections. With temporary exhibitions we have to consider how they are relevant and to what extent can we accept compromise.

So will there be more stuff with little connection to the museum’s theme of science and industry?

“That’s a matter of interpretation but we’ll see. My job is to put in a basic programme for the museum across all aspects of performance and then we have others, curatorial, exhibition staff, who will also have a major input.”

“At the same time,” Davies adds unexpectedly, “I want to give this museum a more active role in the city. We have to break down the walls. We are a free attraction (special exhibitions aside) and we should have easier access into the site. I see MOSI as a focus for the whole of Castlefield. Why can’t we have here an urban Beamish (the north-eastern industrial village museum )? Our story is far more significant.”

But back to basics.

It’s a bore having to compare ourselves to London. But the display decay at MOSI simply wouldn’t be tolerated in the Science Museum. Let’s hope Steve Davies (the puns had to come didn’t they?) is in the frame to make a break with the recent past and pot that one first. Then he can move on with the big plans. Otherwise we’ll have to put that £20 laminator to use.

Still, he does seem like a man determined to make this happen .

“I want to get this right,” he says. “I’m in this for the duration. I’ll either get fired or retire from this job.”

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17 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

NigelAugust 26th 2008.

carlos - you've not been in a railway depot where they scrape off the bits of someone who's been hit by a train, have you? I have an excellent "sense of perspective" - it's you who could do with one.

Museum fanAugust 26th 2008.

But getting back to the point of the article. MOSI is in a shocking state, its displays can be ludicrously embarrassing. The new man really does need to concentrate on the basics and forget about the blockbusters for a minute.

NigelAugust 26th 2008.

The photograph of Steve Davies, standing on wet and slippery track in front of a locomotive in steam is utterly reprehensible. What message does this convey to the young regarding trespass on the railways? GET RID OF THIS IMAGE IMMEDIATELY

LylaBAugust 26th 2008.

Oh the irony - after slagging off MOSI's shoddy design you have left a editorial note in for a missing link - or a 'click here' as you call it. Ace!

ClaireAugust 26th 2008.

Steve Davies should take a look at the Japanese equivalent in Tokyo - the Miraikan. It is fabulous and really engages you from the moment you walk in.

Slip DigbyAugust 26th 2008.

/ I'm with Motorsportsfan

Johnny Young BloodAugust 26th 2008.

Well, aroundM21, I am reading it. I want to do it as well, standing in front of a train letting out a big smelly boff. We haven't got anything do for us teenagers round where we live, on the wrong side of the tracks, so I think loco farting could catch on. I mean, if we lose one or two of the lads them being a bit slow then that means the rest of us will get more hand jobs off them fit Brown twins. Has this got something to do with taht dude Darwin, sort of natural selection? I would love to see Kyle Pennington get it up the arse by a steam train. Right good laugh.

AdamAugust 26th 2008.

Doesn't look like Steven Davies is super-imposed onto that rail track at all Nigel. Ever heard of Photoshop?

aroundM21August 26th 2008.

You have to keep the comments on this article on the web forever. It's the funniest page I've seen for weeks.Thank you, Carlos, Motorsport, and Lou !!-- Mike

FFSAugust 26th 2008.

errr nigel, get a grip pal. seriously. go and live in london where your boringness will be more diluted.

George StephensonAugust 26th 2008.

The displays are a disgrace. I've stopped going in protest. It's ridiculous that we get a Dr Who exhib and then we can't read the simple material explaining what this or that machine did.

CarlosTheJackalAugust 26th 2008.

The photograph of Steve Davies, standing next to a huge silver goblet is utterly reprehensible. What message does this convey to the young regarding underage drinking? GET RID OF THIS IMAGE IMMEDIATELY. And, also, get me a sense of perspective, as I seem to have misplaced mine.

leeAugust 26th 2008.

Nigel i doubt it if kids are going to start a craze of wearing suits and standing on disused lines in the rain to have their pictures taken, like carlos meant, its in context with the article, next we will have to get rid of any photo taken from the top of a building in case kids go up there to jump!

louAugust 26th 2008.

I want to know how many of the youths who are like to consider standing on a railway line would also read an atricle about a museum getting a new director?

MotorsportsfanAugust 26th 2008.

The photograph of Steve Davies, standing on wet and slippery track in front of a locomotive in steam is utterly reprehensible. What message does this convey to the young regarding the art of photography. The subjet is dead centre in the frame, and Steve seems to be wearing the smoke stack of the engine, have they never heard of composition? But seriously, Nigel if you think for one moment that removing the photo would prevent any youth from becoming a hood ornament on a loco then you are probably a little loco too. The reality is that the human animal has an innate drive to perform risky acts, particularly when young (although I confess that I still do dumb stuff "just for the thrill" despite being 47). We should teach our youth responsibility, the consequences of actions and how to assess risk (clearly a skill Nigel has not yet mastered). Risk is calculated by multiplying 'how likely an adverse outcome is to happen' by the 'severity of the consequences'. In SD's case the chances of the engine sneaking up on him before he could step out of it's path are vanishinly small especially as the photographer and/or driver would probably have given him some warning. This bears no comparison to the likelihood of the youth misjudging the approach speed of an intercity express. I actually believe that the attitude implied by Nigel's post is an extremely dangerous one that is ever more present in our culture. It is an example of the removal of common sense that allows individuals to abdicate responsibility and promotes a climate of fear and mistrust. ***Now that's what you call a rant!!!***

charliebobAugust 26th 2008.

I can remember my first visit to the museum with my mum and the whole experience being one of awe mixed in with a lot of fun. I went back recently for the Bodies exhibition (it's a long time since I've been as I'm now 30) but was really saddened by how it looked. I'm so pleased to hear it'll be refreshed and refinished.

KarenhAugust 26th 2008.

Have you seen the lamps in gas gallery that used to light up and now just gather dust? Laughable and this is supposed to be our premier museum.

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