Posted 30th November 2016
The death of Giles Waterfield at the age of 67 has robbed the British museum world of one of its most effective and well-loved advocates. A museum director and scholar, Giles will long be remembered for his instinctive and tireless way of bringing people together. Like the great teacher he was, Giles was always willing and able to show you what – or as often who – was out there waiting to be linked up with. He was a civilising influence on the very many people who knew him: after a good chat with Giles you felt cleverer, more optimistic and certainly better connected.
He moved into the extraordinary position he came to occupy as friend and mentor to so many of us following a museum career squeezed into the first half of his working life. At the age of just thirty, Giles was appointed Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery. The fact that many might covet that position today is in large part down to his having led an extraordinary revival of a long-moribund institution during his tenure between 1979 and 1996. At Dulwich, Giles's ability to connect and inspire was seen in his recruitment of both heavyweight benefactors as well as a fearlessly pioneering learning team who set out to engage with some of their less privileged South London neighbours.
With elegant timing, Giles left Dulwich to take a leading role in many educational programmes, forging a particularly strong relationship with the Attingham Trust courses (including Royal Collection Studies), which introduced international cohorts of curators to British country houses and palaces. Through this role and his teaching positions at the Courtauld Institute and elsewhere, Giles developed close ties with each rising wave of new curatorial and art historical talent.
Post-Dulwich, Giles's own expertise was further put to thorough use by an extravagantly long list of organisations and museums on whose boards he sat, whose staff he advised and whose exhibitions he occasionally curated. He retained a penchant for small, charismatic museums, and Watts Gallery - Artists' Village had the good fortune to work with him to develop the Artist's Studio Museum Network, linking up European museums founded in the former homes and studios of artists. It was the perfect project for someone with a genius for connection.
Giles's academic research was often focused upon the history of museums, an interest that culminated in the publication of his ambitious survey The People's Galleries in 2015. That work along with his other books (including four novels) forms part of his legacy. But above all he leaves an example of how to live, to the full, a life devoted to history.