The activist museum

Maurice Davies, 13.08.2012
Can museums make a better future for everyone?
Museums take the long view, looking back hundreds or even thousands of years. In their desire to preserve collections, they implicitly think decades or centuries ahead, too.

In many ways that's a good thing. Humanity's short-termism is wrecking the planet, as the global financial system prioritises quarterly financial performance above everything else.

People want – and need – to think longer-term and museums can help with that. In fact, helping people think about past, present and future could be the special contribution of museums.

But not many museums do that. Their concern with other times can make them aloof from the day-to-day. Looked at positively, they can be a haven – an escape from the trouble of the world. Less kindly, they can be seen as an ivory tower, isolated from earthly concerns.

As David Lowenthal once pointed out in a Franks lecture at the British Museum, ivory towers can be valuable. An ivory tower can be a watch tower – able to warn society of threats and dangers.

Of course it's not enough just to see that things are wrong. In Lowenthal's words: "It is up to the watchman to sound the alarm."

Museums need to help people understand the threats. They need to relate what they know of the events of the past and the needs of the future to warn people about what must be done today.

The Museums 2020 discussion paper urges museums to play a more active - even activist - role in engaging with the issues that really matter to society. The pioneering Museum of East Anglian Life is recruiting a museum activist onto its staff to help the museum understand the concerns of local people and find ways to use the museum’s resources to promote debate.

Museums could have a particular role in promoting ways of living that are less environmentally damaging. By showcasing the problems of the planet and alternative ways of life from other times and other places, museums could help people make the transition to a better future.

And in that better future museums could thrive. As Museums 2020 says: "Many models of a more sustainable future see an increased role for organisations such as museums [which can] help satisfy people’s appetite for novelty and creativity.

"In any less consumerist society, there is likely to be increased demand for worthwhile experiences and 'meaning making'. Museums could choose to help people make the transition to a better future – and contribute to people’s quality of life once we get there."

To play that special role of linking the present to the past and the future, museums need to remain museums. That is what makes them special and, potentially, gives them their special power. They will always be places that care for society's heritage, even when they engage with issues of current concern.

And, as Lowenthal said, there can be benefits in a keeping a bit of distance: "To abnegate all aloofness, to respond only to immediate needs, defeats our ultimate interests. It maroons us in a shallow present devoid of temporal insight."