Early in December last year, the British Museums Association issued an exciting research brief. They want to find out what the public think of the present and potential purposes of museums, and their roles in society.
I am really looking forward to this research report, which is due at the end of March. Crucially, the research isn’t about what professionals think – the MA’s Museums 2020 campaign has already given us plenty of that. This research finally goes out to the public directly and asks them what they think . The brief asks for a ‘detailed, qualitative exploration’, and it will be interesting to see what methodology the researchers will apply (I understand they haven’t been appointed yet).
The research questions are really intriguing for museums and heritage professionals:
- What do the public think are, and should be, the fundamental purposes of publicly funded museum services?
- Which purposes (if any) would they prioritise in times of limited funding
- What principles do they believe should underpin public museums services; and
- What should museums be trying to achieve now, and over the next decade.
It might be a real eye-opener for the sector to hear what the public think about the purposes, priorities, and principles that we have established for museums (and heritage sites). My only concern is that these questions are very conceptual. The brief suggests that these questions are further refined by the researchers, but answers to these questions is what the brief demands. The brief acknowledges that this will require what it calls ‘deliberation’ on the part of respondents, and it expects that they will be given background information and time to ‘debate’ issues raised in Museums 2020 so far. However, unless the methodology is radically different from the (traditional) focus groups and interviews anticipated by the brief, this will seriously limit the diversity of respondents and responses. The prospect of having to read through dry, specialist museums and heritage discourse will be intimidating for many, not the least for the underrepresented, hard-to-reach groups that are at the core for example of our social inclusion agendas – social inclusion being of course one of our self-identified ‘purposes’. The irony is obvious.
Another worry that I have is that the questions are also very much predetermined by our own professional framings. The brief specifically requests that responses are sought to the existing professional discourse, including Museums 2020. The underlying desire is clear. However, we might limit respondents’ creativity and overwhelm them with our own learned conceptions. I hope the researchers find a methodology to approach this whereby they truly enable respondents to develop their own discourse and free them from having to use our own thinking as their starting point. What we don’t want is ‘our usual suspects’ to simply confirm what we think. This might be comforting, but really wouldn’t be helpful.
The research will focus on publicly funded museums and those run as charities. The brief consequently makes a distinction between ‘the public’ as visitors, and ‘the public’ as tax-payers and citizen/funders, the latter being the research subject. Personally, I wish the MA hadn’t made that distinction. It artificially slices the whole person into separate roles, and asking someone a question about purpose on a funding and societal level might produce an entirely different response from one based on personal motivation/benefit . My argument would be that it’s that personal motivation that determines the public view of a museum, practically expressed through visitor numbers and impact, for example. I would say it is therefore that personal response that will give us the insights that the research seeks: how to make museums ‘more responsive and more sustainable’.
Finally, it’s notable that when specifying the sample requirements, the brief uses demographic segmentation. I’ve recently had conversations online and offline about how widespread the implementation of non-demographic audience segmentation is in the (British) museums and heritage sector. My experience has been that it isn’t widespread at all, and the Museums Association’s brief seems another case in point. I would be really interested to know why they’ve chosen this demographic approach, for I know that motivation for example is a key category in their current thinking on audience development. It would seem that when researching the public’s views on the purposes and roles of museums it is particularly important to ensure a sample that is representative of the different motivations that bring visitors to museums, and that make the public care about heritage. However, in practical terms the challenge is of course that motivation itself is far more difficult to establish as a distinguishing attribute than are demographic categories – you would basically need to do a piece of research first to identify your (potential) sample.
Either way, the research will be interesting when it comes out, both for its methodology and its findings. I can’t wait.
 Why research doesn’t do this as a matter of course in our sector remains a mystery to me. Only yesterday I read through a book-length study of the continued relevance – or not – of (heritage) myth and symbolism in society, and the study had not spoken to a single visitor or member of the public.
 This is similar to issues around economic valuation, where studies have shown how willingness to pay changes in response to questions framed on a personal and political level.
One thought on “What is the purpose of museums?”
Great post, I would also be very interested in what they have to say. In a time where the funding is decreasing, it’s good to know why it is so important to keep these museums going, especially from the point of view of the public.