Posts Tagged ‘Museums Association’


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘culture’ on one hand, and ‘the cultural sector’ on the other. The two are not the same, although many in the cultural sector seem inclined to claim they are. I am going to call that hybris. And I wonder if such hybris will cause – and may already be causing – the cultural sector’s fall. I’m cynical about the cultural sector, yes, but I would nonetheless argue that such a fall would be detrimental to all of society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


The cultural sector is not the whole of culture

In a rather scathing review [1] of the European Commission’s brainstorming session as part of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants Through Culture, this fellow participant wondered, “Why is it always culture that has to make excuses? Why, despite all examples of good practices, should culture still be substantiating to its funders its importance and its role in major issues, such as the issue of refugees and migrants?” To me, this is a prime example of ‘culture’ being conflated with ‘the cultural sector’. ‘Culture’ exists without funders. ‘Culture’ is you and I going about our business on a daily basis, relating to others, expressing ourselves, making sense of our world. ‘The cultural sector’, on the other hand, is primarily made up of professionals and their initiatives asking wider society for funding. It is structured and organised, and made up of institutions such as the museums the author of the review refers to.


Why the equation ‘cultural sector = culture’ is hybris

It seems obvious to me, but perhaps it needs stating that it is hybris for the cultural sector to claim sole ownership of ‘culture’. Not only that: it is also a questionable hegemonic attitude that dismisses the cultural practices of everyone else. We might want to explore whether this attitude isn’t also a reason for the diversity issues the sector continues to struggle with. And there is a democratic problem here too: noone has elected us ‘cultural professionals’ as the spokespeople or architects of culture. We may have been granted a greater voice and clout in the larger (social, political, economic) system we live in, but that is also the very reason for the following:


Yes, ‘the cultural sector’ is accountable to the rest of society

It is becoming tiresome to hear cultural professionals bemoan the fact that wider society is asking us to ‘prove’ our impact and worth [2]. After all, we’re taking their money, and in quite considerable sums, too. ‘All the examples of good practices’ that we heard at the brainstorming session had not in fact been evaluated, so we can hardly be surprised to be asked about the basis for the cultural sector’s claims, especially with such grave social challenges as those we currently face regards integration of large numbers of people. The fact that cultural impacts are hard to measure is not an excuse; it is a call to us ‘professionals’ to use our professional skills to assess what we are doing, and to do so critically. How else can we develop our practice? Furthermore, we claim not to act within the sanctuary of ivory towers, and yet this does make it seem a bit like we are. We’re basically asking funders – and society – to just accept that what we do is great and worthy of their money. However, not being untouchable and above everyone else also means answering to uncomfortable questions. That’s the reality of being on eye-level with others [3].


Or are we still living in ivory towers after all?

At the actual dialogue meeting with representatives from the European Commission in mid-September, a British colleague whose work and intellect I highly value expressed what I’ve heard from other cultural sector people in the UK: how shocked he and colleagues were by the Brexit vote, and how all of them had supported staying in the EU. And I felt and still feel for them, but I also pointed out during the debate [4] that not even the UK’s professional representative body for museums was making a positive case for staying in the EU, nor managed to speak up against the rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric of the debate. I cannot quite arrive at an explanation as to why the cultural sector in the UK now should be so shocked – unless I resort to the image of that ivory tower from where the cultural sector simply did not see what was going on elsewhere. As if the sector believed that people would naturally share its (unspoken) belief in the EU and follow its (invisible) lead. As if the debate was just too nasty for something as civilised as ‘the cultural sector’ to get down and dirty.


This hybris is dangerous

I won’t claim that this is objectively what happened in the UK, I’m merely stating my personal observations and thoughts. To me, they are a call to action: not only is it dangerously arrogant for ‘cultural professionals’ to see ourselves as above the rest of culture. It also undermines even the potential for the very impact we claim to have. The UK has shown us what happens if a country’s cultural sector remains so painfully quiet, and we need not wonder when funders ask whether we are indeed equipped to make a difference in the key issues that face our societies today. Now that I live in Germany, my greatest fear is to find myself, as a ‘cultural professional’, in a context where the AfD dictates what culture we may have, and our own europhobes further undermine the EU until we lose it altogether. While thinking we’re too obviously important to be ignored, the cultural sector may well find itself sleepwalking into oblivion, abandoning society to its fate [5].




[1] This is not the place to respond in full to the review. However, true to my new determination to speak up politically, I feel obliged to point out that the European Commission, by its very constitutional nature, cannot but act as a facilitator making suggestions to EU member states. It cannot, on its own, act. To criticise the Commission for pointing this out in an introductory session simply emphasises the need for this very introduction in the first place. To criticise the Commission for the treaty that limits its powers is to undermine the European Union in the ways we have seen during the EU referendum debate in the UK. Here, half-truths and flat out lies supported so-called arguments. If we as EU citizens want a stroger European Commission that can act on such initiatives as the Voices of Culture dialogues – initiatives which I find laudable! – then we must argue for it within our national borders. If we don’t like how the European Union acts, we must first take our national governments to task, for they make the EU, even more so than the European Parliament.

[2] It should also be noted that the European Commission, in the Voices of Culture process, specifically invited representatives of organisations with large networks, in other words, people within the organised cultural sector who are part of the ‘official’ system within which the EC acts.

[3] I ought to make it clear that I do think the cultural sector plays an important role, precisely because it is part of that official system and machinery in ways that regular ‘culture’ often is not. But that also means it plays by different rules than ‘culture’, including the rule of being accountable for the money and position we are given. It’s not a benign distinction we earn by our very existence; we earn it by our contribution and service to society. Mind, ‘culture’ would not die out if ‘the cultural sector’ didn’t exist. But it may be less visible, play less of a role at a higher, ‘official’ level, at least in the systems we live in today.

[4] For new readers of my blog I should point out that I lived through the whole sad EU referendum debate in the UK, and what an unpleasant experience it’s been.

[5] Although of course in Germany  institutions have in the past taken a stand very publicly. My task will be to do likewise.

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I have tried for a week now to pen a dispassionate response to the British Museums Association’s (MA) article in this month’s Museums Journal relating to Britain’s EU Referendum [1]. I can’t. However, I still think that my experiences and views, and my bitterness, can offer something of value not only to British colleagues, but hopefully to others also.


This is a deeply personal and subjective post. I make no apology for it.


Just take a stand already

I don’t actually think the MA needs to take a stand for or against remaining in the EU. But there is a stand to take for an organisation that is fundamentally about culture and society (all of society!) and an organisation too, which, according to its own account, seeks to make a positive social impact for everyone. We’re getting the economic argument everywhere in the current debate, and that is already immensely frustrating to someone like me [2]. I would have liked to see the MA move beyond the question of the financial impact of leaving the EU on museums, and pick up on those things most others leave out. Listening to museums discourse at any other time, we’re led to believe that museums work with groups outside the mainstream, that they are about social cohesion, inclusion, and justice, about providing space for safe debates and engagement with views other than our own. So at the very least I would have liked to see the MA comment on where they stand for example on the one-sided way EU Citizens are being portrayed as mostly a drain on the UK’s social services.


This is not being neutral

I cannot help but feel that most likely, despite declaring that ‘museums are not neutral’, this lack of a clear stand by the MA is meant to be just that: neutral. They probably don’t want to be seen as trying to influence members, and alienate those who might disagree. But this complete silence on those very issues (above) that normally museums claim as their natural territory for making an impact is anything but neutral. This assessment by an associate professor at the London School of Economics expresses eloquently what it feels like to live in Britain at the moment as an EU Citizen, and the questions quite a few of us are asking ourselves right now about this country. By not highlighting and responding to these far-reaching social and political concerns that are raised here, the MA and museums are not only leaving unoccupied a space that in my opinion they should claim, they also suggest that they’re okay with the current state of affairs.


How about something like this?

I’ll make a quick excursion to Germany. Only this week, cultural institutions including museums (!) in Saxony-Anhalt, a state that has been particularly plagued by Pegida and recent gains in the state assembly by the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland party, came together to take a stand. They had the perception that ‘in recent months the political climate in the state has changed and public discussions have taken on an ever sharper tone. During the course of this, callous statements have found their way into these social debates that are unacceptable.’ [3] And so they are displaying banners, visible for everyone, declaring their belief in Article 1 of the German constitution: ‘Human dignity is inviolable.’ To this institutions add their own values that are most important to them, for example, ‘the right to asylum’. This is not mainstream. The refugees for example are not the majority in Saxony-Anhalt. But these institutions stand by them, and they make it known, which is likely to annoy quite a few people in the state. The institutions are happy to have a discussion with them. But they state clearly what values they want to see upheld, and which ones they will defend.


Context, you say?

In the two short paragraphs that end the MA article that set off this outburst, the MA’s policy officer is quoted as saying that the EU referendum provides an opportunity for museums to ‘give the debate a historical and social context’. Now, in the same issue of the journal, there is an interesting exchange on dealing with the legacy of empire [4]. Here, a – to me – very peculiar attitude emerges toward what museums can explore and how [5]. I may be unfair in thinking that this type of approach might be used also by others (the majority) to give context to the EU referendum. And if you come across an exhibition that does more than give a history of the EU and Britain’s relationship with it, go beyond some form of ‘fact-check’ of the arguments put forth by other players, and add more challenge to the mainstream view than an ‘I am an Immigrant’[6] style of display about the contribution of EU citizens to Britain, then do let me know. If, however, this type of exhibition is all that we’re getting, then I do not find this a context worth having. It’s not inclusive, it’s not representative, and it’s not contributing to the critical development of society. This is a mainstream narrative with the most tame of interventions (that would be the ‘I am an Immigrant’ element).


Let’s assume there is a future for us

But let’s imagine Britain stays in the EU, and EU Citizens can continue to live here without having to go through Britain’s famously hostile immigration system. What then? Are we just going to pretend that none of this ever happened? Is the MA suddenly going to become ‘my’ organisation again even though it too was content to ignore how EU Citizens in Britain were treated and represented? Or has instead a veil been irreversibly ripped off Britain’s face and my illusion of belonging? All I know is that silence, ‘neutrality’ and exhibitions like those I described above are not going to heal the wounds [7].




[1] The article focuses on funding: Steel, P., 2016. ‘What would leaving the EU mean for the cultural sector?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 7. The editorial of the journal includes a reference to the referendum around the broad questions of identity, but mostly in terms of what Britain’s identity is. The existence of non-Brits in this country is not reflected.

[2] I’m first and foremost a European (and YES, that is in an ‘EU’ sense, not a loosely and near-meaninglessly defined historical Europe). For me, Europe is about social integration, shared histories, shared culture, and most importantly, a shared present experience. I realised that most forcefully when I lived in the United States. I am reminded of it every time I go across to what Britons call ‘Europe’: the Belgians, the Poles, the French, these are my people. I know that Brits don’t see the EU like that. But I do.

[3] ‘…in den vergangenen Monaten [hat sich] das politische Klima im Land verändert […] und die öffentlichen Auseinandersetzungen [haben] an Schärfe zugenommen […]. Dabei haben sich auch menschenverachtende Töne in die gesellschaftlichen Debatten gemischt, die nicht hinnehmbar sind.’ (my translation)

[4] Mohammad, A. and Smith, A., 2016. ‘The conversation: Are museums doing enough to portray the legacy of British empire?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 17.

[5] An art curator writes that ‘museums are fundamentally concerned with the details of history, as represented by specific objects’, and therefore, ‘we are perhaps placing too heavy a burden of responsibility on these institutions expecting them to address such a contentious subject [like empire] through individual artworks’. The curator continues that, ‘The challenge is how to address empire in a way that engages with, rather than alienates, the public. There is no point in mounting worthy projects in empty rooms (my emphasis).’

[6] I do in no way mean to belittle this campaign – when it first came around, I was really rather grateful that someone wanted to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric. I do have a slight issue with the fact though that it focuses on immigrants, and suggests that we have to prove we’re ‘good’ immigrants. I firmly believe in integration, but I also believe in host societies questioning their own values and actions. And the fact that this campaign had to be launched in the first place says something.

[7] And again, I apologise to all my so-called ‘BAME’ colleagues, which, let’s be honest here, mostly means ‘non-whites’/’non-European’. I know you’ve known this for a long time. I’m actually thankful, in a really angry sort of way, for this experience I’m having. It’s making me a better museum professional, and a better person, as long as I will remember what this feels like. And I’m determined never to forget.

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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.

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Over recent months, living as an immigrant in Britain [1], I have gone through a process that leaves me feeling increasingly alienated from museums and heritage sites in this country. In still-used museum discourse terms, I’m probably becoming one of the ‘hard-to-reach’.

I feel let down by British museums. You see, these days, I daily feel in the firing line. Today, I am the other, the unwanted, even the enemy, if we go by some of the language used in the increasingly hostile discourse on immigration [2]. The UK Independence Party may have tried to soften the suggestion that upon a British exit from the EU people like myself will be deported (yellow stars anyone?), but when Radio 4 [3] not only fails to question the implications of such a notion, but actually appears to defend it, it’s no longer something I can ignore. This has become personal. This is my future that’s been threatened. This is my presence in this country that is being criticised, misrepresented and undervalued.

And while all this is going on, the First World War-dominated outputs from many museums are also spinning an inward looking narrative of ‘Britain’s just war’ against an enemy, and ‘heroes’ that will ‘not be forgotten’. Suddenly, I find myself thinking that I really don’t care to see yet another exhibition telling me the story of Britain’s sacrifices and battles. That’s not because I am no longer interested in Britain’s war stories, or British history in general. Rather, in combination with the current public discourse on immigration this has become the extension of an exclusive story that makes me uncomfortable. I neither feel safe at the prospect of visiting such exhibitions, nor happy.

If nothing else, I would have liked to see balanced stories that show the not-so-glorious aspects of history, to give a counter-weight to the current portrayals of Britain as a country once again under threat, fighting against injustice – this time from the EU and its migrants. But really, if British museums and heritage sites are serious about policy aspirations of mutual understanding, integration, and diversity, or even just the Museum Association’s vision that museums change lives, then they should be taking a stance. I’ve previously blogged that I think museums have a moral obligation to be the final line of defence, to hold a mirror up to society as a challenge to be better, and to be humble in the face of the tragedies its actions have caused in the past. Well, I think the time to hold up that mirror is now.

Crucially, that’s not a mirror that reflects me. I don’t need, nor am I interested in, an exhibition or programme about Germany. I don’t live in Britain to connect with Germany. I’m here because I want to live in Britain. If I’m beginning to be less inclined to visit museums and heritage sites here it’s not because they don’t ‘relate’ to my being German. Frankly, my heritage isn’t the issue here. The issue is a social and political environment that is casting me out, and which appears to be uncritically, if not intentionally, supported by museum and heritage narratives. That’s the problem. And I suspect that my experience as an immigrant at the moment, which leads me to feel this way, pales into utter insignificance compared to the experience of those who maybe were born here, but who happen to not be white, or straight, or middle-class, or well-educated, or whatever else classes one as ‘hard-to-reach’. Maybe their experience too is that it’s society as a whole that misrepresents them and turns them into ‘the other’, and they simply don’t care to get yet more of this by coming to a museum or heritage site. The exclusion does not lie in an excluded narrative about ‘the other’. The exclusion is the exclusion of a challenge to the mainstream, of a critical perspective not on the other, but the ‘majority’, and quite probably the very structure of the museum itself. I quite agree with the MA’s vision for museums to have an impact on social change: changing this societal context will tackle ‘exclusion’. Let’s get to it.


[1] Now here’s a label I never felt had any relevance for me. I was always simply a person who had moved from where she was born to elsewhere. And always because ‘elsewhere’ was a place I loved and wanted to spend more time in.
[2] A month ago a cabinet minister (!) talked about British towns being ‘under siege’ from immigrants, and ‘swamped’. He had to tone down his language, but ironically not over the siege part, but over ‘swamped’. ‘Under pressure’ was the expression sanctioned by Downing Street. It’s really not any better in my ears.
[3] For those of you not living in the UK: Radio 4 is the ‘serious’, publicly funded news outlet of the UK. For the US, think NPR. For Germany, think Deutschlandfunk. So having them not question the other side of this coin to me is nothing short of astonishing. I want my TV license money back that funds these guys. Which by the way is just one of the many (financial, as that is all that seems to count these days) contributions I make to British society. Just sayin’.  Because no-one else is.

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This Monday past I went to the launch of the UK Museums Association’s ‘Museums Change Lives’ vision document.  And I will say that as ever, it is nice to hear and read a good few confident assertions of why our work as (museums) professionals actually matters.   And it is good to have a large organisation such as the Museums Association put themselves out there and say, Yes! This is what we think we (can) contribute to society.  I’ve already referenced the document in a grant application.  The next step, David Anderson, President of the MA, and Maurice Davies, their Head of Policy, explained will be for the MA to engage in-depth with funders and decision-makers, do some lobbying, get the doubters behind the vision.  And that’s great.

The thing is, despite the above, the document leaves me a bit cold.  It starts off with a set of ten principles, of which some seem rather commonplace [1] – especially to someone with a background in interpretation.  Museums offer ‘excellent experiences that meet public needs’, the principles say for example, and museums ‘engage with contemporary issues’, and are ‘rooted in places’.  Read (and I can’t believe I’m quoting Freeman Tilden here): relate, reveal, and sense of place.  So my first reaction to the principles was to think, but we know this already.  This is not the issue.

The document then makes further statements under the three headings of Museums Enhance Wellbeing, Museums Create Better Places, and Museums Inspire People and Ideas. My concern here is that the statements made are not actually supported by any research.  Of course, this is a vision document – it doesn’t need to be supported by research.  However, as we’re talking about impact here (the document is ‘The MA’s vision for the impact of museums’) I had hoped for something more reflective of the discussions and research already going on around impact.  Museums and the heritage sector have for a long time asserted their positive impact on, or contribution to society.  What researchers and policy-makers have been grappling with for years is how to measure this impact.  ‘Museums Change Lives’ doesn’t reflect that at all.

There are also a few assumptions in the document that I think would benefit from a more critical elaboration.  The one that jumped out at me is the work that museums should do with ‘disaffected people and those from marginalised sections of the community’ (under Museums Enhance Wellbeing).  As I’ve reported here, this is still an essentially hegemonic view of ‘the other’ that needs to be brought into the fold of the majority.  But do they?  Again, I appreciate that this is a vision document, and yet, as so many critical discussions are already taking place around these issues, I just can’t help but feel that in including these assumptions without at least a nod of acknowledgement to the associated issues, the document opens itself up to easy dismissal by those not converted to the cause in question.

Finally, and I am sorry if I sound too critical of what in the end is still a very worthwhile effort: the document really feels as if it was already decided on before the research into public attitudes was completed.  Select findings from the research are included, but they are blatantly reinterpreted: While research participants ‘strongly rejected’ [2] the purpose of promoting social justice, and merely felt that museums should be ‘accessible and inclusive to all’ in terms of free entry and aids for the disabled [3], the vision document states that the public’s support for accessibility [4] is intrinsically connected to social justice, thus reiterating that promoting social justice is a purpose museums should pursue.

I applaud the MA for having started a really good discussion.  Museums 2020 was a great stimulus, and the research into public attitudes (while perhaps not as comprehensive as one might have wished) was still very, very useful.  Museums Change Lives is bound to be quoted often, and hopefully as it is put out there now it will encourage further conversations – maybe also of the issues that I’ve highlighted.  I’m supporting it, but I’ll also continue to look for that research, that critical analysis that doesn’t contend itself with stating beliefs and giving examples of work we think fits the bill.


[1] Let me immediately qualify this: The feeling behind the document, and one borne out to some extent by the sectors’ responses to the MA’s Museums 2020 discussion paper, is that many museums aren’t actually implementing these principles yet.  And although it doesn’t feel to me that this applies to very many museums, I was at a workshop yesterday where participants confessed to having a ‘conservative attitude’ about museum curatorship.  Of course, they were at a workshop on co-production, so their commitment to change is obvious.

[2] BritainThinks, 2013. Public perceptions of – and attitudes to- the purposes of museum sin society. A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association, p.20

[3] ibid.

[4] On a side note, accessibility really shouldn’t have to even be mentioned anymore at this stage.  Any person responsible for interpretation/presentation/management in museums who is not considering access should not hold their job.  Yes, that’s how strongly I feel about this.  This is like telling an archaeologist not to use a digger when excavating Richard III’s body.

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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.

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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 [1]. 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 [2].  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.   



[1] 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.

[2] 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.  

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