What a wonderful world it would be

Sharon Heal, 29.04.2016
Challenging commonly held beliefs
I read an interview with an actor the other day that made me think about norms in society and how they are constructed.

The interviewee was asked about feminism and as a starting point took the idea that if the majority of us believe in gender equality – hardly a radical proposition in the 21st century – then the majority of us are feminists.

She went on to say that if you are opposed to the idea of equality you must therefore be sexist. For example, the norm is to believe in equality and the aberration is to not.

It made me wonder if this "normalisation theory" has any application in the museum sector?

People often talk about the “traditional role” of museums – I’ve done it myself.

Plenty that we do could be classed as normal or typical behaviour: collecting, preserving, conserving, exhibiting, interpreting and displaying.

And often that is what the public think if they are asked about the purpose of museums – they tend to see us as organisations that look after the past.

This is hardly surprising - we have spent more than a hundred years describing museums in this manner, so it’s no wonder that it is a commonly held view.

But at the Museums Association we have begun to challenge this, following in the footsteps of many who have argued for a more engaged and progressive role for museums in society over many decades.

I was struck by the possibility of changing and challenging what is deemed normal practice when I was in Belfast this week.

I was there for two events: a seminar on Positive Change for People and Communities organised by National Museums Northern Ireland and a symposium on the social role of museums organised by Ulster University.

Speaker after speaker described community engagement, often in difficult and challenging circumstances, as if it were the norm – as if this was the bread and butter of what museums could and should and are doing.

Examples ranged from museums working in partnership with third sector organisations to make their institutions accessible to people and communities who think museums are too "posh", "exclusive", "old fashioned" or just “not places for me".

It was a revelation to hear how museums had overcome these barriers and how their work had lead to life-changing experiences for their new audiences.

By the end of my day in Belfast it made me wonder: what if the radical museum with a progressive agenda to realise its potential in society was the norm, and those that fail to engage were the exception?

It’s a bit like achieving true gender equality - what a wonderful world it would be.

Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association. Follow her on Twitter @SharonHeal


This article was updated as the last paragraph was missed in the initial upload.