We need to respond to the world around us

Tonya Nelson, Issue 117/01, p15, 01.01.2017
Museums can show their relevance by providing context and analysis
During a Directors In Conversation session at last year’s Museums Association Conference, I spoke about the need for museums to be more responsive to current events. Our 24-hour news cycle no longer allows for more considered “long-form” reporting, and museums can show their relevance by providing greater context and deeper analysis of social, economic and political issues through their exhibitions and public programmes.

Our collections and curators hold valuable knowledge that can inform how we think about challenging problems and help shape future action.

I’m not alone in this thinking. At the Rapid Response conference session, Ian Brunswick discussed the Science Gallery Dublin’s immersive exhibition programme, which engages the public in discussions about issues such as internet privacy and climate change. Fiona Romeo, the former director of digital content and strategy at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art, drew parallels between museum work and journalism, proposing that museums think of themselves as a new type of media outlet. At the Adapt or Die session, National Media Museum staff spoke about using radical organisational change, such as cutting the lead time for exhibitions, to make them more responsive to current events.

It also turns out that many journalists see opportunities for themselves in museums. In a recent interview, Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, said: “There’s a generation of journalists who have moved out of magazines and into museums.” He cited Johanna Agerman Ross and Kieran Long, who have moved from journalism to be curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Sudjic added: “The instantaneity [of online journalism] is very well for reporting the next big thing, but it’s not necessarily the best thing to reflect on ... that’s what long-form journalism could once do and maybe the way that museums operate is now beginning to move into some of this territory.”

My thoughts on the issue stem from a visit to the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art to see James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room, which is a reconstruction of a Japanese-inspired dining room. By chance, I discovered that some of the pottery is called “Raqqa ware”, and wondered whether it could be from the place that CNN reports is Isis’s stronghold. I soon found extensive research offering an insight into the pottery, as well as the city as a cultural centre. I also discovered that there are large holdings of Raqqa ware in US and UK museums.

But why are we not seizing opportunities to use such collections as vehicles to deepen visitors’ understanding of current issues? I’m not talking about major shows, just small displays with labels pointing to other resources, or an evening event using an object as the basis for a discussion.

It’s not a skills or capacity issue – we don’t need to have journalists on our staff to do this. It is a mindset issue. If we want to be valued, we must be relevant and responsive to the world around us.

Tonya Nelson is the head of museums and collections at University College London

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