What the public thinks

Enriching our thinking about the future of museums
We commissioned BritainThinks to research public attitudes to the future of museums and their impact.

A report into the research is now available to download here (pdf).

The research examines what people perceive as the main purposes of museums and their role in society. This will help us develop the Museums 2020 vision.

BritainThinks has produced a toolkit to stimulate discussion about the research (pptx).



Conclusions

The most immediate finding from the research was the strong, resilient positivity felt toward museums and the passion which some of the discussions elicited.

Interestingly, this was displayed by visitors and non-visitors alike, suggesting that museums are perceived to have a societal role that is broader than just satisfying individual visitors. The context for this emotional response is a widespread perception that the future of museums is threatened, either by diminishing attendance, budget cuts or technological advance.

Against this backdrop, there is a clear impression of what purposes museums currently have and this strongly informs attitudes to those that they should have in the future.

There was a reluctance to endorse purposes beyond those considered ‘essential’. This does not simply reflect a lack of imagination or a stubborn reluctance to evaluate (rather than describe) the purposes of museums. Instead, there is an intuitive sense (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) that moving beyond them would undermine the core purposes of a museum.

What the public sees as essential purposes – care, preservation and display of heritage; entertaining education for all children; and trustworthy information for all adults – explain why museums are held in such high regard. They help to define what a museum is and, furthermore, constitute desirable goals which museums are extremely well-placed to achieve compared to other societal institutions.

Museums are uniquely positioned to care for, preserve and display shared heritage, with items of historical importance otherwise either lost to private owners or altogether for want of storage facility.

Similarly, museum visits, particularly to modern and interactive, hands-on ones, are perceived to be an inimitable way of encouraging children to learn and to enjoy learning, especially compared to formal schooling.

Finally, museums are in a rare position of being trusted to provide accurate and reliable information in a national conversation increasingly dominated by bias and vested interest.

It is because these core purposes are deemed so important, and because museums are well-placed to achieve them, that museums are so admired. It is also for these reasons that there is a reluctance to endorse additional purposes: there is a concern that museums will undermine their core purposes and overreach themselves, a concern that is particularly acute given the perceived threats to their continued existence.

Significantly, these additional purposes are not deemed undesirable in their own right but there is a strong belief that other institutions are better placed to fulfil them (especially in a time of economic and budgetary uncertainty).

There is not, however, an aversion to any form of evolution. Indeed, museums are widely seen (by all except those who haven’t visited since school) as having changed for the better over the last generation, going from stuffy, sterile and boring to entertaining, interactive and stimulating.

This change led to the incorporation of an element of entertainment into the museums’ core purpose of education and suggests that attitudes to purposes of museums are not always conditioned by the purposes they are currently seen as having.

Furthermore, there was widespread acceptance that museums will have to continue to modernise and evolve, particularly in terms of accessibility, sustainability and the incorporation of technology.

Implications for Museums 2020

The public have a clear perception of the essential purposes of museums and strongly believe that any additional objectives must relate to them and not undermine them. If the expansive Museums 2020 vision is to be realised, this message must be understood and incorporated both into thinking about the future of museums and into dialogue with the public.

About the research

We commissioned the research thanks to funding from Arts Council England, CyMAL (Museums Archives Libraries Wales) and Museums Galleries Scotland, and it was completed in March 2013.

Download the full report here (pdf).

You can read more about the research here.

And download the brief for the research here.

The research was project-managed by Sara Selwood, who prepared a literature review of the subject, setting out related work and the methodological challenges of finding out why people think we have museums. You can read it here.

At a time when many museums are rethinking their role - and when the Museums Association’s Museums 2020 is stimulating more debate on the impact museums could have - it is valuable to have reliable information on public views.

Knowing what the public thinks about museums will help museum become more responsive and more sustainable.

The research will in particular inform the development of our 2020 vision. We also hope it will help museums, funders and policy makers make good decisions by better understanding what people think about the role of museums.

You can read more about the next steps with Museums 2020 here.

Reactions

The research findings provoked strong feelings in the sector, and many people commented when news of the findings first came out.

The Museums Association also held a webchat to discuss the findings, which brought to light some differing opinions on the purpose of museums.

Downloads

Public perceptions of - and attitudes to - the purposes of museums in society (pdf)

Research brief (word)

Literature review (word)