Have museums already become irrelevant?

In her latest blog post ‘Following up on Ferguson’, Gretchen Jennings mentions that several museum people told her that they had been specifically forbidden from answering visitor questions or commenting on social media about Ferguson [1]. Having worked in local authority museums in the UK and knowing from my work here as a consultant the constraints that many organisations work under politically, I expect that this is in fact the case for most museums. In the UK, it will not be Ferguson that museums are forbidden to engage with, but you can take your pick of any of the pressing issues that we are facing over here and which will no doubt be deemed ‘too hot’ by decision makers.

Contrast this with the drive to make museums more ‘democratic’, with ‘co-production’ and ‘community engagement’, with ‘audience development’ and ‘Museums Change Lives’. These are all eminently worthy and truly important initiatives. But are we deluding ourselves by not facing up to a fundamental hypocrisy here? If Ferguson, to stick with the American example, is on communities’ minds, then what on earth are we doing avoiding the issue? I am beginning to wonder whether museums are becoming irrelevant even as they’re trying, at least nominally, to become more people-focused. Here are a few questions that I’ve been asking myself:

Is this really what museums are for?
A couple of weeks ago, the UK Museums Association (MA) published case studies for its Museums Change Lives campaign [2]. And what these museums have done is all great: the Tank Museum has taught young offenders engineering and basic skills qualifications; Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service have engaged homeless people, and Glasgow Museums have created memory walls off-site to help people with dementia. But is this really what museums are for? Aren’t there other organisations, dare I suggest perhaps even the state, who should be tackling the underlying issues here? And what about actually discussing these issues? Who is asking the question about what makes young people so disillusioned that they just don’t seem to care anymore? Why do we live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and yet people have to go to foodbanks?

Is it really about collections?
In her post, Gretchen also mentions that several colleagues had commented that museums should always be first and foremost about mission and collections [3]. I know I keep writing this on this blog, but I really feel that in light of this continued insistence on the importance above all of material collections one has to keep saying it: collections are dead. And let’s face it: the majority of local history museums are full of stuff that’s neither local [4] nor particularly interesting [5]. By focusing our energies, resources, and our professional self-concept primarily on collections, we spectacularly fail to actually connect with what makes our communities go around. Yes, good practice is to find the angle that will ‘connect’ ‘the public’ with our collections. But like it or not, you will always and forever be limited by what that collection item is if that is how you set the parameters of your ‘connection’ with your community. And they just might genuinely not care, because when it’s between debating what can be done about institutional racism that rakes their lives, and talking to you about their cultural connections to an African kora, they might just deem the former far more relevant and pressing than the latter.

Are we too self-absorbed?
At the start of this year, the MA wondered what was around the corner for museums. This was the day before Charlie Hebdo, but many months after Ferguson and UKIP’s victories in Britain. And around the corner were concerns about budget cuts, the impact of the election on culture policy, and tucked away at the bottom, the current consultation on a new code of ethics [6]. Now, obviously budget cuts have an impact. Without money you won’t do much. But it does seem to me that certainly in the UK the focus has been on cuts, and relaying the impact of cuts, and gathering evidence of why cuts in museum budgets are wrong because museums contribute to society – see the Museums Change Lives case studies. And that’s all valid, but when there are people leaving our societies to join terrorists on the other side of the world, and a political climate sweeps the country in which the Prime Minister suggests that Britain would be a ‘better, stronger country’ if there were fewer migrants, then museums talking primarily about cuts in their budgets just sound a bit out of touch.

However, the question does, I suppose, come back to what service museums are meant to bring to society. Is it engaging the ‘hard to reach’ with collections? Is it using collections to support the health agenda? Or:

Should museums be something different altogether?

Last week I was struck by Richard Wendorf’s description of museums as ‘the chapels and cathedrals of an increasingly secularised society” in his comment on the MA website. Setting aside the Christian and religious connotations, and the inherent elevation of collections as objects of reverence [7], I did feel it expressed well a need that does exist in a secular society for a space that is special, that does hold society’s respect, and that does provide sanctuary to discuss, debate, grieve and celebrate together in safety. One could argue that perhaps there are many institutions that could provide this space: the local community centre perhaps, or the library, or maybe just even the town square. Like many others have done, however, I too would argue that if there is any relevance and purpose left for museums, then this is it. There is a need for places where we can encounter, share and further develop our collective memories and our collective aspirations – in many ways, museums are already set up as that. I think if museums really are serious about reflecting their communities, and providing a service to them, then we need this radical rethink that builds on and expands what museums are – both from museum professionals, but also crucially from decision makers. Museums need the political autonomy to explore and respond to the issues that are of concern to their communities. There cannot be any external, or internal censorship. If we are serious about being of service and use to our community, then this is what we need to do. Museums may well survive, drawing on the same white, educated, over 55 audience that lobbies for their funding as they’ve done for decades. But should they?


[1] You’ll know all about Ferguson, no doubt, but just in case you might want to read this. And for museum responses, check out Twitter #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[2] That’s the ‘MA’s vision for the impact museums can have on individuals, communities and society’ (see link).

[3] The joint statement by museum bloggers on Ferguson suggested otherwise: ‘As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.’

[4] How many ethnographic collections are there in local history museums just because a notable citizen brought these back. Let’s not probe too deeply into where and how they got those items in the first place, or ask those ethical questions whether they should be on show at all.

[5] My colleague Adam Ditchburn has eloquently said it in August last year in this post: “I get that the ‘Coming of the Railways’ was a big deal, but for goodness sake, let it go, or tell me something new about it, or ask me to tell you something, just don’t make me read another panel about it.”

[6] I dismissed this at the time, assuming that it would be concerned only with acquisition and particularly disposal, as it seemed this is all that’s been in the MA news over recent months. However, laudably, the code of ethics does raise questions about museums’ role in society, and public access etc. Well worth responding to! You’ve got until Friday this week (13th Feb).

[7] I can’t embrace either of these – I think all religions at times in their history have a questionable track record of giving and deserving respect, and I’ve already made it clear that I do not hold objects in particular esteem for their own sake.

6 thoughts on “Have museums already become irrelevant?

  1. I think museums have a really great opportunity to thrive, a thrive for their community rather than for the sake of it. However, as I’m sure people are bored of my saying there needs to be a radical overhaul and reimagining what exactly a museum is and what it should be right now…
    Too often they are vanity projects of staff/professionals or of politicians and so on.
    I think there are a number of people out there who want it to change….
    But, ultimately to the point of your blog, I do think museums (particularly local history museums) are irrelevant – but it’s not too late to change that, but only by changing what the accepted view of a museums purpose is, we have to realise that it is not, anymore, about (physical) collections – that change is not easy to bring about… I feel like I’m
    Banging my head against a wall to often on this issue
    But it’s nice to know I’m not alone

    PS sorry if my comment makes no sense, I’m commenting from my
    Phone and can’t see what is written :0)

    1. It did make sense, Adam :-). I think there are indeed lots of people who see the need for change, but it’s very easy to be satisfied with a few small projects, and not challenge the underlying foundations, or things like decision-makers interfering. Reading the latter re Ferguson really disappointed, but did not surprise me.

  2. For me, the biggest question is: Who is going to fund the relevant museum?

    Governments, even in the “free” world, are increasingly expecting the organisations they fund to serve as their mouthpieces – state broadcasters like the BBC (and ABC in Australia) are under increasing political pressure. Museums often don’t even try to push the envelope for fear of alienating their paymasters.

    Philanthropists often have their own agenda, or possibly see funding the arts as an indulgence compared to more pressing global poverty issues.

    So who is left? Can we get the public to fund independent, relevant museums directly? There are some promising indicators that they can, such as the crowdfunding of Australia’s Climate Council in response to the incoming conservative government’s abolition of the Climate Commission https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/about-us

    Is this where we need to be headed?

    1. Thanks for this really good point, Regan! Only this week past I’ve had discussions around crowd-funding museums. I think that’s a very potent idea that certainly should be explored further. I’ve no doubt it will come with its own issues, but it would certainly shift accountability to where it belongs – being accountable truly to ‘the public’, ‘our communities’. I hadn’t heard of the Climate Council project, that is great! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Interesting thinking of museums as secular cathedrals — and cathedrals were never places for free discussion and debate. You wouldn’t expect them to be. The one who pays the piper calls the tune, as the saying goes.
    In interpretation today, “Not instruction but provocation” may be a slogan in the secular cathedral choirs, but in practice most people choose “Not provocation but employment”. Few want to be a secular martyr, and it is hard to know when to make a stand on these things, when to push for change despite the risks or the consequences. Interpreters know that for every famous, influential martyr there are also many un-famous ones.

    1. I agree that the religious connotation doesn’t work well. And you’re quite right, for many it does and will come down to keeping their employment, and who can blame them. I think that’s why it becomes ever more important to bring these discussions and considerations to the academic/theoretical/philosophical table, so that change can slowly seep through to practice. Having said that, I’ve also worked for some managers who self-censored, anticipating political pressure when those same politicians actually might have been open to a discussion. I should like to see more leaders standing up for better practice and more risk-taking.

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