Heritage Month | Modern history: The Cartoon Museum and the role of museums in a post-pandemic world

There’s no question that the pandemic had a huge and still reverberating impact on the country’s cultural and heritage sector, forcing shut the doors of establishments across the UK, and applying a financial squeeze on an industry largely dependent on footfall and wallets of the nation’s leisure and tourism market.

According to the latest research from Art Fund – having drawn together some 400 responses from museum directors and museum professionals, the most pressing concern for almost all organisations across the country is safe reopening and attracting audiences back. In fact, 85 per cent of directors have expressed concern over the ability to attract visitors upon the continued easing of restrictions.

Among the many to be hit by the pandemic was London’s Cartoon Museum, an institution that shares strong ties not only with the cultural and heritage sector, but the licensing space, too – housing some of the most iconic comics and cartoons to have populated popular culture of the modern era.

Last year, the museum found itself the focus of a fundraising campaign to help keep its doors open – when doors were allowed to reopen, of course – that had ignited the passions of the comic book and cartoon fan communities across the country. The museum is now happy to report that those doors have firmly swung back open, and the museum is already welcoming back visitors from schools and pre-booked groups looking to get their cultural fix this year.

But from the pandemic, suggests the team, a new era for museums, and the cultural and heritage sector overall, could be arising, as organisations are forced to look towards local communities and audiences and less on the tourist trade. 

Here, Licensing.biz continues its look into the heritage sector and catches up with The Cartoon Museum’s Director, Joe Sullivan, to uncover the museum’s learnings through Covid-19 and what the future role of the museum could like in a post-pandemic world.

Hello Joe, it’s good to catch up with you again, and under happier circumstances with the museum now reopened! What has reopening the museum been like for you? What has reaction been like from visitors and public?

It has been wonderful to finally reopen to the public after another enforced lengthy closure during the Winter. During the downtime we worked hard on enhancing the museum to make it even better for our visitors – painting floors and walls, boxing noisy pipes off, hanging comic art in our learning space, revitalizing the shop, and putting up two new exhibitions. Visitors have enjoyed coming back to the site over the past month, with half term particularly busy, and it has been great to chat with people about cartoons again in person.

A really encouraging thing for us is that we have had a lot of first-time visitors. We hope that this continues as we bed into our new home properly (we still haven’t had a complete year open at the new site), and as people start to feel more comfortable leaving the house. Reopening has also been tinged with sadness however – we lost our Front of House Manager, Alison Brown, to COVID-19 in January. She was the heart and soul of the museum for 14 years and we all miss her terribly.

Can you talk us through some of the latest developments for the museum? You’ve mentioned some new exhibitions – can you talk us through these and what reception has been like so far?

 The two new exhibitions have been received fantastically, and I feel like our visitors can see the direction of travel we are taking and are enthused by it. By taking a larger theme – such as protest in the case of V for Vendetta: Behind the Mask – we can connect with visitors in a more personal way. 

The V exhibition not only displays incredible high-quality original art and rarely-seen film designs, it also encourages visitors to reflect on the world of V, how it relates to the world now, and what a subject like protest means to them individually.

We are very lucky with V as David Lloyd, the artist, is a close friend of the museum (he very kindly auctioned an original V page as a fundraising donation to our survival appeal last year). His support through the exhibition has been invaluable, allowing us to really dig into how V was made, and why certain design choices were made.

This focus on people stories and more universal themes crosses over to our In-Focus exhibition, Natasha Natarajan: FML Comics, a display of the work of British-Indian web cartoonist and animator Natasha Natarjan. The first two people through the door on the day we reopened were two older visitors who had travelled all the way from Scotland, one of whom went away grasping a copy of Natasha Natarajan’s FML Comics book. I was delighted to see this!

The book – which is linked to our current In-Focus display – is full of frank, funny, very personal cartoons about Natasha’s experience as a young millennial woman in modern London. The fact that people from a different demographic and part of the UK related so strongly to Natasha’s work really showed the strength of the stories and art we are sharing, and how it can connect to people’s experiences universally.

 You’ve also mentioned the return to learning and engagement work with young people. What does this look like for the museum? What spurred the decision to return to this kind of work through the museum, and is this indicative of a new ‘post-pandemic’ role of museums and their position in the community?

Engagement work is my personal passion, and has been very high on the agenda since I came to the museum. The great thing about cartooning is it has a very easy ‘in’ – anyone can pick up a pencil, and our collection ranges from the finely engraved detail work of Hogarth to the comedic minimum-line doodles of Times cartoonist (and Museum founder) Mel Calman. The point this makes to me is that anyone can pick up a pencil and draw a cartoon.

Alongside restarting our cartooning workshops in an online form (we hope to return to physical workshops in the summer), we have spent the last few months building local partnerships in our local London borough, Westminster. Westminster has one of the highest indices of deprivation in London (the gap between richest and poorest areas) and it is essential that the museum serves and represents all of our local audiences.

We recently started a project with local youth centres called Life Under Lockdown, which works with local young people to draw comic strips telling their personal stories of their lockdown experiences. We will collect these for the future but will also compile them into a comic book to give to participants and libraries, and will hopefully display some of the work either on the museum site or on our website. 

Our team attended a street festival during the May bank holiday, taking cartoon and drawing resources with them for local families to take part in, and we are currently planning a really exciting local offer for the summer.

So, the big question: What does running a museum post-pandemic look like today? How do you think the public’s method of engaging with heritage and history has changed over the course of the pandemic, and what are you guys doing to tap into the new ‘lay of the land’?

Running a museum right now is based on balancing hope against financial pragmatism! The reality is that it will be a slow road back for visitor numbers, especially as foreign tourism will be absent for a while longer, and it isn’t certain that there will not be further lockdowns.

It is important that we are careful with our spending as 70 per cent of our income is through the door, and we have no idea when fluctuations and growth on that front will happen. On the other side is the hope – we want to be open so people can come in, and we have to move forward hoping that all of the doom and gloom lifts!

During the pandemic a lot more audiences went online, and at the times where there haven’t been lockdowns, people are not travelling far to go on outings. We need to ensure local audiences can find us and enjoy themselves, and we need to keep our online offer in mind.

We have had good success with our free downloadable drawing resources and our online workshops have reached a wider audience than we have done in the past, so we will be keeping a part-online approach to our engagement work in the future.

What is the role of a museum in today’s culture?

I believe a museum should form the hub of its community, both in terms of topic (in our case cartoon and comic artists) and locality (for us Westminster, and London). For a long time museums have been unique in that they are considered a trusted source of information. The work by academics over the past few years that has led into the so-called ‘culture war’ have started to challenge that, both for good and bad, as questions are being asked of the truth presented and how truly representative they are of Western Europe in the 21st Century.

I personally think that museums need to continue to be upheld as arbiters of truth, but to do that they need to take that responsibility seriously and ensure they are fully representative of the people, audiences, objects and stories that they champion.

 What’s the next big move for you guys? What does the future have in store for the Cartoon Museum?

Excitingly, we are currently pulling together our exhibitions programme for the second half of 2022, and getting ready to announce our next In-Focus exhibition that starts in August. We are also looking forward to getting schools and events back in the building!

With a slightly wider lens, we are beginning a period of collections work that will audit our current collection to understand exactly what we have, and the stories that it tells. This will feed into new collection policies that inform what we will collect and display, to ensure we can tell as full and representative a story of the cartoon art form in Britain as possible in the future.

Comic effect: How the UK’s love for comic books is keeping The Cartoon Museum Covid-secure

Whether it was at its former home along Little Russell Street in London’s Bloomsbury, or its new Wells Street, Fitzrovia abode, The Cartoon Museum had never previously had an issue with footfall. At the height of its popularity in the former location, the museum was pulling in 38,000 visitors a year. In its new site, it was on track to hit an all-time record.

But that was a time before the coronavirus had hit 2020 like an over-sized mallet over the head. By March this year, it was inevitable that numbers wouldn’t hold, with fewer and fewer making the journey to the UK’s capital. In the same week that the museum’s doors were finally closed at the hands of Covid-19 on March 18th, visitor numbers had hit an all time low of 50 per cent of its average.

Six months later, the museum’s doors remain closed, and the some 18,000 pieces housed within, decorate the walls of empty rooms. The Cartoon Museum has missed its key Easter to summer period – the period during which UK museums make most of their money – and subsequently has lost as much as 75 per cent of its income for this year. But however bleak this picture may seem, the optimism and support surrounding the museum and the community it embodies tells a very different story.

In a firm stance against the plight, The Cartoon Museum has found itself at the centre of a rallying cry from the comic and cartooning communities, with some of the biggest names on the scene throwing their weight behind actions taken to preserve this staple of modern British history. 

It’s without doubt a reflection of the size and passion of the UK’s comic book community that The Cartoon Museum has seen donations come in from its members and visitors, found itself the focus of an exclusive fundraising t-shirt by the UK comic book publisher Rebellion, the subject of a cover price percentage donation from ComicScene Magazine, and at the heart of a fundraising sale of The Bad, Bad Place by Soaring Penguin Press, as well as an art sale of unique pieces by the artist Dan Digby.

Not only all of this, but the museum curator’s husband has even ran a half marathon, all to help raise money for the cultural attraction. Then there’s the matter that it recently managed to secure a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

It would appear that, even as the UK navigates some of its toughest months in recent history, the nation’s affinity for and history with comic books has held as firm as ever. If ever there’s a story that exemplifies the passion of a homegrown fan base, it’s surely this one.

Licensing.biz catches up with The Cartoon Museum’s Director, Joe Sullivan and its Learning and Outreach Officer, Steve Marchant to tell the story of The Cartoon Museum and Britain’s undying love for the comic book.

Comic and cartoon aficionados Joe and Steve, hello to both of you, and thank you for chatting with us. By way of an introduction, can you talk about the history of the Cartoon Museum – when was it established, why so, and your roles at the museum?

The Cartoon Arts Trust was founded in 1989, as a way to collect and preserve key elements of Britain’s unique and nationally-important cartooning history. In 2006, The Cartoon Museum opened on Little Russell Street in Bloomsbury, London. In July 2019, the museum moved across London to a new, larger premises on Wells Street in Fitzrovia.

As of 2006, the museum has developed a reputation as a key champion of British cartoon and comic art, and a strong track record of innovative ways to democratise access to the arts. We have received 420,000 visitors, and built a nationally important collection of cartoons, comics and caricature, as well as a reference library of 18,000 items.

Over 50,000 children and adults have attended workshops, and we receive 3,000 student visits a year. We work in partnership with community-based organisations, including Laydeez do Comics, Geek Syndicate, Sketch Appeal, and MIND. We also work closely with universities and colleges, including Staffordshire, Dundee, Exeter, Westminster and Syracuse (in the USA).

Joe Sullivan is the Director of the museum, setting the vision for the future, and leading the museum forward to increase visitor numbers, and develop the collection and exhibitions programme., 

Steve Marchant is the museum’s Learning and Outreach Officer, and has been with the museum since 1991. He develops and leads the museums learning programme, teaching drawing skills to children and adults, and opening new pathways into careers and hobbies in the arts. 

How have you guys been impacted by the ‘explosion’ of the pop culture scene in recent years? What has the matter of underground culture going mainstream done for the museum?

The ‘mainstream-ification’ of pop culture has definitely been a benefit to the museum, with increased interest particularly in comics, which gave us some of our highest exhibition attendance figures. This created the opportunity for us to run the Comic Creators project, from 2015 – 2019, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We collected 402 pages of original British comic art, including ages from the Beano and Dandy alongside pages from legendary comics such as Judge Dredd, Asterix and Watchmen.

We also are beginning to see interesting patterns relating to pop culture – for example, the highest attended UK exhibition last year was Manga at the British Museum, and our Manga half-term workshops have been incredibly popular and over-subscribed. This is a clear response to the current popularity of anime, manga and Japanese video games among children, teenagers and young adults.

So, what kind of collections and exhibits do you house at the Cartoon Museum? And what are some of the most popular?

We have a large and varied collection of cartoon and comic art, but only five to 10 per cent of our collection is on display at any one time, meaning we have a veritable treasure trove stored away. Our cartoon collection traces the history of satirical cartoons, from Heath Robinson and Gillray through to current Cartoonists Martin Rowson and Steve Bell – both of whom are Trustees.

Our comic collection of 402 items contains pages from key British comics such as the Beano and Dandy, as well as famed graphic novels including Dave Gibbon’s work on Watchmen.

In addition, we have a large library and some interesting items and ephemera, including an original Spitting Image puppet and a replica of William Heath Robinson’s infamous ‘pea counting machine’. Our collection is almost entirely original pieces of art, and part of the fascination for me is the look you get into the artists mind-set. On some of our comics you can see how the page has been assembled, with cut-out word balloons positioned over the artwork.

Our current temporary exhibitions, Hail to the Chief: The Best and Worst US Presidents, and Dear Mr. Poole (which you can view online) celebrate a theme around ‘tools of the trade’, and delve into the types of pen nibs different artists use, their relationship with specialist art stores, and what a cartoonist’s work space looks like.

How do you think the way we as a society engages with comic books has evolved across the generations?

If you look back 17,000 years into the past, Stone Age cave art shows us how narrative art has always been an essential communication for humans. It is an older form of communication than writing, and potentially older than formalised language.

Cartoons and comic books are the successor to this form of narrative art. Like anything, there are ebbs, flows and reactions in style, content and readership. Right now, the age of the internet has changed the landscape for comics. Anyone can self-publish widely on the internet, and often do, leading to a huge rise in webcomics and other narrative artforms, such as memes.

How far do comic books and cartoons go to reflect the sensibilities of their generation?

Like many mediums that are consumed en-masse, comics have evolved in response to political and social situations, which often change on a generational basis. For example, in the 1950s and ’60s, ‘girls comics’ presented a specific view of what was expected of girls at the time, with stories about boarding schools and relationships. At the time this led a lot of girls to pick up a ‘boys comic’, like Eagle, and read that instead.

‘Boys comics’ featured topics such as war, or sport. If you compare that to today, these lines are much more blurred and comics are largely written for and read by a more general audience – Roy of the Rovers, for instance, a football strip previously a bastion of ‘boys comics’ relaunched in 2016, and was quickly followed by a new strip starring his female cousin, Rocky of the Rovers.

What would you highlight as some of the most notable steps of evolution of the comic book? How do you think engagement with the medium today compares to that decades ago?

One of the earliest steps towards modern comic books in the UK was the change from featuring single-panel cartoons and prints in newspapers, to using two or three panels to create cartoon strips. One of the earliest popular characters was Ally Sloper in the late 1800s, who set a type for a lazy ne’er-do-well surrounded by a troupe of colourful characters drawn in grotesque stereotyped ways. He is considered the first ‘recurring character’, which set a precedent for new regular newspaper and magazine strips with readers returning to check in with their favourite characters.

DC Thomson started the Dandy and the Beano in the 1930s, starting a boom in comic anthologies and books. This continued through to the 1970s, where independently drawn and published ‘comix’ started to pop up, often featuring more adult-orientated material. In the 1990s web comics started to gain popularity, and in 2020 we see a mix of all that has gone before – beloved characters in long-running formats (The Beano is still being published) sit alongside deep, thoughtful graphic novel material, all of which is published often in both physical and digital formats.

Can you describe for us, the British affinity with comic books? How does the UK’s engagement differ to the likes of the US, for example?

Comics and comic readers of today are largely viewed in a different light by the mainstream today in Britain than they are in America. In Britain, the over-riding view is (and has been for a few decades) that comics are only for children. This is of course, nonsense, but you do generally see a graduation towards other entertainment mediums as children get older. However, in America comics are viewed as a viable medium for all ages, making the market bigger and healthier. Part of this may come down to the cheap and disposable nature of comics – in the US this led to a wider variety of children and adults having easy access to them before disposing of them or passing them on.

What makes a British comic British? Across the decades, has there been a common thread that holds it together as a particular ‘genre’ within comics?

British comics are often more inherently satirical in nature – 2000 AD in particular filters its action and square-jawed heroes through a lens of social collapse, providing commentary and warning on the importance of working together to make a better society. Perhaps there is a strong link to political and satirical cartooning in this, something which is a very British tradition of narrative art.

Modern comics continue this trend, and are easy to digest, and provide a great entry point into reading and telling stories. Comic books also offer a mid-point between the voyeurism of films and the imagination needed to create images in your head when reading a book. Comic books encourage the reader to create the voices of the characters and the movement between panels themselves, but in return show the reader fantastical images, design and art.

There is a give-and-take element not seen in other media.

We know that you guys have felt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the temporary closure of the museum… How has it been, seeing the action that’s been taken by the community to support you guys?

The museum has been very lucky during its closure, as the UK cartooning and comic communities have rallied around us to lend their support – it has been very humbling to be a part of.

We have had donations from our members and visitors, an exclusive fundraising t-shirt by Rebellion, a cover price percentage donation from ComicScene Magazine, a fundraising sale of The Bad, Bad Place by Soaring Penguin Press, an art sale of unique pieces by artist Dan Digby, and our Curator’s husband even ran a half marathon to help raise money! In addition to that, we received a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

We hope to reopen soon, but things will remain quiet for a while, and 2021 and 2022 will be difficult years for both us and other museums, with school visits not happening for a year, and a huge reduction in overseas tourists. We are safe for now and continue to fundraise, and hope to get back on our feet properly over the next year.

How can those interested help support the museum through this period?

We are expecting 2021 to be very quiet in terms of visitors, so we are still fundraising for our long-term survival. If you would like to donate to our appeal, please visit: https://www.cartoonmuseum.org/

You can also buy an amazing exclusive t-shirt from our friends at 2000AD, with all profits going to the museum: https://shop.2000ad.com/catalogue/XRC032

UK comic book publisher Rebellion launches fundraising t-shirt to support London’s The Cartoon Museum through Covid-19 crisis

Rebellion, the renowned publisher behind one of Britain’s biggest comics, 2000 AD, is raising funds to help the UK’s only musem dedicated to comic books survive the current Covid-19 pandemic. In an effort to support The Cartoon Museum in London, the outfit has launched a special t-shirt bearing classic art from the heyday of British comics.

The new T-shirt is available exclusively from the 2000 AD and Treasury of British Comics web shops and features the cover of Battle Picture Weekly #423 (cover date: 11 June 1983) by the artist Eric Bradbury. As well as the museum’s own logo, it features the cover from the Invasion 1984 comic strip, depicting a Piccadilly Circus invaded by aliens.

All profits from the sale of the shirts will go towards the independent museum’s £150,000 fundraising appeal, which seeks to help it through the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.

The Cartoon Museum’s director, Joe Sullivan, said: “We are incredibly grateful to our friends at Rebellion for their kind offer to help with fundraising towards The Cartoon Museum’s survival during this difficult time. It is humbling to receive support from our peers and colleagues in the UK comic and cartooning scene, and shows the depth of feeling for the museum.

“We hope Rebellion fans and our visitors love the brilliant shirt design, and look forward to continuing to work with Rebellion in the future.”

Jason Kingsley OBE, the CEO of Rebellion, said: “Comics have a vital place in Britain’s culture and heritage, and The Cartoon Museum does great work protecting that legacy, preserving it for future generations, and showcasing the best creators of today. The heritage sector has been hit really hard by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown, and so we’re delighted to do what we can to help this nationally important museum survive and thrive.”

75 per cent of the museum’s yearly income is from admission, shop purchases, school visits, and venue bookings. However, since its closure on March 18th at the hands of the pandemic, the museum has been hit hard, with no regular government or local authority funding to supplement it. When visitors do return, the museum is expecting an 80 per cent drop in numbers.

Such a big expected drop in revenue, along with the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on key audiences for the museum such as schools and overseas tourism, has huge implications and so The Cartoon Museum is fundraising to survive the closure period.

Set up by the Trustees of The Cartoon Museum, so far the fundraising appeal has raised £86,000 towards a total goal of £150,000. Various contributions have come in the form of small grants, proceeds of a half marathon, cover price and book sale reductions from publishers close to the musem, proceeds from a sale of one-off comic art, and donations from friends and the public.

In July 2020, the museum announced an award of £98,700 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The Cartoon Museum champions cartoon and comic art, highlighting its importance to culture and society. Since 2006 it has received 420,000 visitors, and built a nationally important collection of 4,300 cartoons, comics and caricatures, and a library of 18,000 items.

The Cartoon Museum runs a well-attended school programme and sell-out school holiday workshops, and over 50,000 children and adults have attended cartooning, comic and animation workshops and the museum receives 3,000 student visits each year. The museum is a registered charity.

If you would like to help secure the museum’s survival, you can donate to the appeal at www.cartoonmuseum.org