The German Museum Association has recently published guidelines on ‘Working Professionally in a Museum’. The guidelines are intended as a snapshot of current roles in museums. What the guidelines also reveal, however, is a continued imbalance between the focus on collections and museums as institutions for the public.
On one hand, the guidelines acknowledge the need for visitor focus, participatory formats, decolonization and provenance research. They highlight that professionalism is required in each of these areas and they call for strengthened collaboration between respective roles.
However, from the discussion of these roles themselves emerges a more traditional picture of museums. The guidelines repeatedly declare collecting, collections care and collections research to be the core of museum practice. Curators are consequently established as those with overall responsibility for anything visitors encounter, providing the core concepts and frameworks. Their required qualification is an academic degree in a discipline related to collections.
‘Education and Interpretation’ is also stated to be a core task of museums, but not until the forth section of the guidelines. Nor are acitivies engaging communities and visitors, and particularly heritage communities, on heritage values mentioned anywhere as a must. This applies even to the engagement with collections. Of note is also that the guidelines do not consider specific qualifications in museum education and interpretation necessary.
And here lies the imbalance. The emphasis is still placed squarely on collections. It is from collections that everything else flows. ‘The public’ are framed as consumers of collections, in ways that are determined by those in control of said collections. Collections are where the power lies. It is the roles concerned with collections that make the decisions. Working with and for the public is considered most strongly in terms of increasing the museum’s profile: an ultimately inward-looking, self-serving objective.
The museum that emerges from these guidelines is therefore a museum that still defines itself and its collections without recourse to people. Its primary purpose is not to be an institution for the public, but one concerned with its collections.
In many, if not most cases, this is indeed the reality on the ground. Visitor focus, participation, democratization: these are all too often lip service, and not at all reflected in museum roles and resources. When pressed, museum managers will consequently argue freely that they consider these activities to ‘detract’ from the core of museum practice.
I will not go into the argument why museums can no longer be defined by collections and collections research only; I’ve done so in numerous posts on this blog. My point today is that unless and until the roles and their responsibilities, and thus the power relations within museums change, the current situation will remain the same. Museums will remain a closed shop. The knowledge and expertise of heritage communities will remain marginalized in museum practice. Museums will fail to speak to the majority of their surrounding community. They will become less and less relevant. They will not fulfil their responsibility as public institutions, particularly where they are publicly funded.
I hope the next iteration of the guidelines start with roles that focus on communities and visitors, stipulating specific academic and practical qualifications for such work, and paying staff accordingly.