GEM Obituary for John Roles
Written by Kate Fellows, Yorkshire and the Humberside Area Rep and Head of Learning and Access at Leeds Museums and Galleries
There are things left unsaid in every relationship, we hope you knew how much your leadership meant to us before your death on 18 November 2020.
You put learning, participation and engagement at the heart of everything. The moral and ethical duty of representational equality, and collections being owned by the people, ran through you like words through seaside rock. This came from your joint learning and collection focused roles early in your career, and your own moral and ethical compass. You would tell stories of baking bread on skillets on a Victorian range for schoolchildren, not as a cautionary H&S tale, but as one of awe, wonder magic and the joy of eating hot bread together. You honed your craft at Royston Museum, as their first curator, then at Brighton Museums as their Head of Collections. As Head of Service at Leeds Museums and Galleries and a trustee at Thackray Medical Museum, you created a culture of participatory value where ‘objects are just objects without their stories’ and all staff play a part in learning and engagement.
Your considered leadership protected all at Leeds like a large umbrella, bouncing away the political raindrops and giving us the freedom to create awesome rainbows underneath. You trusted us. You encouraged and supported us with spot-on anecdotes, a well-placed expletive and a dry sense of humour. You gave us the confidence to step forward and lead. You knew you weren’t the expert in everything. You cared.
You valued calculated risk taking and inspired it in the team, along with a healthy disregard for the ‘rules’ and a cynicism about local authority processes. You weren’t scared of ‘failure’ and supported us when things didn’t go to plan, naturally coaching us through reflective processes. You didn’t suffer fools, got cross about injustice because you believed in the importance of civic duty, were fairly techno-phobic and turned the air blue around the printer. You were, as you said of other good guys across the sector and the council, ‘on the side of the angels’.
There are stats from your time at Leeds: visitor numbers increased from 358,000 in 2004 when you started to 1,698,640; you drove the opening of the Kirkstall Abbey visitor centre, Leeds City Museum and the Leeds Discovery Centre and put a new roof on Leeds Art Gallery. But these are only part of your legacy. Other parts are the people you cared about, both staff and visitors, who cared about you; a mutual respect across the sector and an organisational culture of a learning organisation.
Goodbye boss, mentor, friend. We will miss you.