Tracy Puklowski

Associate Chief Librarian, Research Collections
National Library of New Zealand
Which impacts do you think it’ll be most important for your museum (or museums in general) to develop over the next five years?

In answering this question I thought it would be useful to first explore definitions of the term "impact". Thesaurus.com defines impact as "collision, force", and suggests synonyms such as blow, buffet, crash, crush, pound, punch.

Roget’s II says:

1. Violent forcible contact between two or more things.
2. The strong effect exerted by one person or thing on another.
3. The capacity to create a powerful effect.

…and suggests a further range of aggressive synonyms including bump, shock, force, influence, wallop.

My point here is that when we talk about museums having "impact" and "impacting on", we’re suggesting that museums do, or should do, stuff TO others.

Not WITH them.

And it’s this shift from to, to with that I believe is central to the future relevance and survival of museums. And if we’re dead-set on using the term impact somehow, perhaps we should start thinking of the "impactful", compelling things museums can do with others.

Looking at the question again, I believe that museums over the next five years (and beyond) need to do impactful things with communities and their collections. And it’s those things that may in turn impact on society, the environment, etc.

The museums-communities-collections nexus creates a new space where we are challenged to do what we do in very different ways.

In New Zealand, where I come from, this nexus is reflected in the fact that a majority of museums consider themselves to be guardians, rather than owners, of the cultural material they care for on behalf of communities (most specifically with regard to Maori taonga, or treasures).

We see ourselves as holding material in trust, which requires very close relationships between Museums and source communities.

These source communities often work with the museums in question to determine issues of care, interpretation, and access to their cultural material.

Caring for our collections requires a very real commitment to partnership.The New Zealand example may be hard for UK museums to relate to.

However, we all hold collections in trust for our various communities, be they ethnic communities, donors, or taxpayers. So, over the next five years, it’s vital that we look at how we can work with our communities and their collections to have a greater impact overall.

How might your museum (or museums in general) need to change to achieve those impacts?

Museums need to get past what I call "the muesli effect" (visit us, we’re good for you). Merely existing and expecting everyone to understand your vast importance doesn’t work.

How often do we actually ask our communities what they want of us? And do we ask them whether and how they value what we do? The shift from doing to, to doing with, needs to be across everything that museums do – not just exhibitions.

Jane Legget has done some great work exploring stakeholder-based accountability frameworks, an example of the approaches we’ll all need to consider if we’re serious about our relationships with, and responsibilities to, our communities.

How else could your museum (or museums in general) be different in ten years’ time? And in what ways might they stay the same?

The impetus for museums to work differently is being driven by a number of factors; cultural, political, and technological. Cultural and political factors are major drivers for rethinking notions of ownership of collections. Technological factors, on the other hand, are driving a reconsideration of ownership of knowledge.

Social media, for example, often shifts the role of user from passive to active, from receiver of information to co-creator (and challenger). This shift has significant potential to challenge, or reposition, the role of the curator as expert, and museums as shapers and interpreters of knowledge.

A lot of museums haven’t quite "gotten" this yet – yes, they might have a Facebook page, but many still use social media as a one-way didactic device, rather than as an opportunity to create two-way dialogue. Again, doing things to, and not with.

Would you like to make any other comments about the future of museums?

The future of museums is one of active partnership. The relationship between collections and communities is at the heart of a museum’s purpose, adding value, meaning and depth – a bit like finding a brazil nut in your muesli!


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