Museums 2020 and the Public: Not quite in harmony

Last week, the UK Museums Association published the research report into what the public think are the purposes of museums. I’ve blogged about the announcement of the research, and especially the brief for it, here.


I was particularly interested in their methodology [1].  My concerns were that the framework established in the brief would limit the range of responses participants could make.  I still think that might have been an issue: the method used was a workshop format that guided participants through set exercises in order to answer the research questions.  The report doesn’t say much about the segmentation put forward in the brief, but it does mention that participants were evenly split between museum visitors and non-visitors (it doesn’t specify recruitment methods).  Perhaps most crucially, while it gathered unmediated views on museum purposes at the start, participants were then presented with purposes discussed by museum professionals.  In this, it appears that their ability to explore their own new purposes was indeed limited.


The findings, however, are nevertheless interesting.  Most notably, ‘the public’ [2] fundamentally rejected two purposes that have been heavily discussed in the museums sector: Promoting social justice and human rights, and providing a place for public debate.  Even the purpose of providing a sense of community was half-heartedly supported as a ‘can do’ purpose (as opposed to ‘must do’), and there was no real support for museums playing a greater role in the community overall. Helping the vulnerable, another purpose cherished by museums professionals, also ranked very low in the public’s estimation, being a ‘can do’ purpose to which they were not willing to give much funding.


The purposes of museums that they identified without prompting were very traditional: to collect and care for historic objects, to make them accessible to the public, to promote economic growth, to facilitate personal development, and to promote well-being (read: provide enjoyment).


So what does this mean for the museums sector?  I first come back to methodology: I’m just not sure how much one can get from ‘the public’ by asking them about something so conceptual and vague as ‘the purpose’ of an institution.  It may have been more fruitful to really explore with them why they do or don’t go to museums, what they expect, what they think about them, etc.  The report did note that there were several participants that changed their attitude from never, ever wanting to go visit a museum to stating their surprise at the diverse offer modern museums provide.


The latter may be an argument for dismissing ‘the public’s views altogether as just not very imaginative.  And perhaps it’s true that ‘the public’ simply do not have the necessary overview or in-depth understanding of the potential of museums.  However, I hope that’s not what the sector’s response will be.  There may have been limitations to uncovering what ‘the public’ really think off their own back, but there is clearly something to be said about their informed rejection of the purposes we proposed to them.


I cannot emphasise enough how telling I find it that the sector has spent such considerable time engaging in a debate that has been viewed as ground-breaking and visionary, only to find its key proposals dashed by the public.  To me, this signifies a continued lack of public focus – even in the UK.  How can it be that we so grossly differ from what the public think about the future purposes of museums?


In some ways perhaps this report also points to an underlying truth that we may find hard to accept: museums and other institutions have a specific purpose, and just because this purpose no longer produces the (economic, quantitative) outcomes we want from it doesn’t mean we can change the purpose without changing the nature of the institution itself.  By that I mean quite literally what the research respondents have said themselves about, for example, the sample purpose of helping the vulnerable: There are other institutions that are better placed to do that.  This could also mean looking at alternatives where financial pressures limit museums’ ability to fulfil a traditional purpose.  Universities, for example, may be the collections stores of the future.


Maybe we also need to review our responses to a changing environment.  I have been wondering, even before reading this report, whether in some ways our drive to be all and everything is a knee-jerk reaction to a looming fear of becoming obsolete.  The report suggests that ‘the public’ aren’t all that worried about that.  Maybe what the report tells us is that we should refocus on why the public already come to museums – and see how we can improve our offer in this area.


Finally, and I’m not just writing this because I’m an interpreter: I do think that museums (or heritage sites) can contribute a lot to modern societies’ needs, like social justice.  The thing is, ‘the public’ don’t want to be hit over the head with it. They don’t want a ‘social justice’ theme.  But they will be open to great interpretation that just so happens to also get them to think about social justice.



[1] Since embarking on my doctoral studies, I have noticed first my own increasing interest in methodology, and then many practitioner colleagues’ exasperated response to my examining methodology before I say anything about content. This is one example where I now feel strongly that practitioners need to review academic working methods more regularly.  It does not do to manipulate surveys (unconsciously) to obtain the desired results, or to blindly accept others’ findings when they happily fit our own agendas. Methodology can be boring to some, I suppose, but it’s the spine of any valuable study.

[2] The study had 90 participants over six day-long workshops.

3 thoughts on “ Museums 2020 and the Public: Not quite in harmony

  1. Really interesting post Nicole – thanks for summarising.

    While it might be too soon to declare that the Emperor is indeed naked, findings like this should be taken seriously by museums and museologists. I may have mentioned it before, but I’m surprised at how absent the visitor/ the public is in much museological discourse, by which I mean REAL visitors that people have actually spoken to – not abstracted versions of them that are really just hypotheses.

    I always had my doubts about the very strong “social justice” agenda of museums that was being widely promoted in the UK in the early 00s. My analogy at the time was that a museum is to a social problem what a cup of tea is to a broken leg – it’s not going to do any harm, it may even make you feel a bit better about your predicament, but the leg will remain broken unless it’s directly treated.

    I’ll continue to follow this with interest.

  2. Firstly I strongly agree that looking at the methodology of the study first is the right thing to do! That makes all the difference in the results.

    Unfortunately it sounds like the study isn’t even trying to identify what will lead the public to support museums, but rather just what the public expects museums to be. There’s absolutely no guarantee that that will in fact lead to museums succeeding. I personally think the ads that Facebook puts on the right side of the page should be enough for them to fund their operation, but they know otherwise.

    Nor is this an academic question about the future for private non-profit museums like mine that don’t get a regular operating budget from the government. We have to think about questions of relevace and how to interpret
    our relevence to the public every day as we open the doors.

    Nostalgicly we think that folks in the 19th century had thought up a dignified and sustainable model for museums etc. to support themselves, when in fact they were continuously trying new things and experimenting just like we do. And they did a great job of making themselves relevant for their times, often in ways that seem even more shocking than the “out there” things we try now.

    The question I ask myself as I plan projects for my museum is, “What does the community need, and how is my museum positioned to help fulfill that need?” I just wish I were in a position answer that question with a scientific study.

    1. Hi Robert,

      You are very right in raising the point about what the public say about museums on one hand – and whether or not that translates into tangible support for museums on the other through visits or donations. I think there are a handful of studies out there about that (although admittedly I can’t think of details of any at the moment), but as practitioners we all know that there can be quite a discrepancy between opinion and action.

      In fairness to the study, it is only about publicly funded museums, but again I think there’s much in what you say about what you as a privately funded museum have to think about: your relevance to the public. In may ways, perhaps, past secured funding has given national and local government museums the luxury of being able to pursue a narrow agenda of academic interest and inward focus. This has changed somewhat over recent years, partly due to changing recognition of what is good practice and also partly due to funding cuts.

      As for your last point: hopefully my own research can contribute some insight to this big question: what *does* the public/community need, and what does that mean for our practice. I’ll keep you posted!

      Thanks for your thoughts,

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