Alumnus of the year 2004

Stephen Feber

Stephen Feber was named Alumnus of the Year in 2004 in recognition of his work in museum and gallery management.

Stephen runs Stephen Feber Ltd, a consultancy company which specialises in consultancy work for museum and art gallery projects. Stephen has applied his research and experience in the field to consult on such projects as Eureka! the first children's museum in the UK; World of Glass at St Helens; and has worked with the Imperial War Museum.

Oration

Oration given on 14 July 2004 by Professor Jonathan White, Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies

Chancellor, the University of Essex Foundation has determined that Stephen Feber shall be the recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award for 2004

Later this year the University will celebrate its 40th anniversary. In that time, over 50,000 Essex students have graduated and gone on to make their mark in the world.

Each year we now honour the achievements of one alumnus whose successes have affected others positively, and who hence represents an exemplary ideal of what our present year group of graduands gathered here today might seek to accomplish in years to come. For who knows? – with us in this lecture hall may very well be sitting several future winners of the award.

This year we have chosen someone who has had an illustrious succession of senior roles in some of the UK’s leading museums, galleries and innovative visitor attractions. After graduating from us in 1980 with an M.A. in Literature, Stephen Feber achieved early success in his career when he was appointed as Development Director of Eureka, the first children's museum in the U.K. This multi-award winning museum established itself as a true innovator of the sector and attracted millions of new visitors to Halifax, leading to regeneration of the area. He went on to direct one of the National Trust’s most popular properties, Quarry Bank Mill, a working textile mill in Cheshire. This Mill is distinguished by its interpretation of living history, and its re-enactment of the cotton processes though drama and daily demonstration. Between 1995 and 1998 Stephen Feber established the new museum service of York, comprising the three main institutions of York City Art Galleries, York Museum and the Castle Museum. Overlapping that post in 1997 and 1998 was his work on a further urban regeneration project, St Helen’s World of Glass, a £14 million visitor attraction that mixes commercial production of glass with education and heritage elements.

But Stephen Feber’s crowning achievement to date has arguably been his contribution to the Magna Centre between 1998 and 2002, initially as a consultant, and then as its Chief Executive. He led this £52 million project from its conception, through design, development, building (on time and within budget), to its opening moment and early years of operation. Let us therefore focus for just a little longer on the Magna Centre itself, and upon what Stephen Feber brought to the initiative.

Magna is a science adventure centre based in a large converted steelworks at Templeborough near Rotherham in Yorkshire. It is an attraction which has brought regeneration to a deprived area of South Yorkshire and won a series of high profile awards. Under Stephen Feber’s stewardship this conversion of a former industrial space won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Award for Building of the Year in 2001; incidentally beating off strong competition from the initially better-known Eden Project in Cornwell. And whereas other Lottery funded ventures such as the Millennium Dome and the National Centre for Popular Culture in Sheffield have been somewhat notorious instances of projects which failed to achieve the successes originally aimed for, the Magna Centre, under Stephen Feber’s management, housing as it does interactive challenges and spectacular shows in four pavilions named after the elements, year on year exceeded the projected visitor figures in popularity, so as to become one of the nation’s best loved and most educational of attractions. Stephen Feber’s own highest goal in all the projects he has tackled – one that he has lectured on extensively - is that of influencing and enhancing the learning opportunities of the next generation. The Magna Centre, for instance, includes a centre for educational technology, robotics unit, creative partnerships project and adventure playground. Land values have doubled since Magna opened, new offices and a business park are being built. Despite Magna’s success Stephen believes there is a long way to go before informal learning, the education sector and the media are properly linked to form an effective supply chain to support our human resources in science and technology.

In 2002 Stephen Feber formed his own company to focus on regeneration and development. He is currently working across Yorkshire on urban regeneration projects for the Regional Development Agency. He is also developing a £300 million project, Rapid City, for the Science Musuem in York which will integrate sustainable transport, urban living and a new cultural quarter for the historic City. He is also working for the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts on creativity in science teaching in schools in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Lastly, he runs courses on effective leadership for the construction industry and housing associations.

In short, Stephen Feber has reached that point in his career when he is something of a regenerative institution in his own right; a crucial mind in the thinking going on not in one sole project at a time, but within many aspects of urban development, museum and visitor-attraction planning, together with their deep tie-in with educational opportunity in some of the formerly more deprived areas and sectors of our society. We honour him today for almost a quarter of a century’s innovative, cutting-edge planning and development projects. If today we have visitor attractions and urban regeneration schemes that show us our industrial and architectural past as never before whilst also stimulating us to re-think our goals for future development in arts, science and industry, it is largely because of the outstanding achievements of a figure such as Stephen Feber.

Chancellor, I present Stephen Feber

Response

Response by Stephen Feber

Thank you, I'm embarrassed by that long list of things.

I got in to museums originally because I realised that revolutionary politics weren't going to work. It all came home to me in 1980 when I was simultaneously Director of a National Trust property and Branch Secretary of the Derby Socialist Workers Party. And one evening, we were leading a demonstration against the nuclear submarines crews dinner in Burton upon Trent (it's always a slow news day in Burton upon Trent) and things were going well until one of the comrades got carried away and shouted "murderers". At which point the local constabulary panicked and arrested him. Of course, I knew what to do because I'd watched a number of Eisenstein movies when I was a student here. I leapt up on the statue in the town square, and directed the comrades to march on the police station. Which we did, and freed him. And things were great, until two days later I appeared on the front page of a local paper in this pose, over the headline "The National Trust goes from green to red". And I was called in by the regional director of the National Trust, and talked to, and he said I had to think about this because the people in the green wellies and the wax jackets weren't too happy. Which brought home the force of Bernard Shaw's dictum, that it's the choice between socialism and barbarism.

I got in to museums because I thought that, and I still think that informal learning where children and parents could learn together in structured environments, which map back to schools and universities, was a worthwhile thing to do. As was said in the oration, I don't yet think we have joined up that chain between the informal and formal sector, but I sincerely hope we will in the future.

What did Essex do for the process? Well, I can't say it gave me a memory of great architecture, sorry about that. I did feel a little lost here from time to time - I was told all the corridors look the same because this was democracy in action in architecture. And I can't say I made great friendships. But I did get one thing, which stays with me every day, which was we talked a lot of structuralism (remember that in the '70 and '80s?) In fact the course was pretty unstructured; it was pretty relaxed, which was fantastic. It gave me the opportunity to voyage philosophically and intellectually, where and when I wished. And that stays with me today. It was a fantastic present and legacy from the university, and I thank you very much for the award. I'm proud of it and pleased. And thanks particularly to Dominic, who links my two universities.

Good luck with creating not the continuous present that we all live in, but the continuous future that your children will live in.

Thank you.