Resistance is fertile

Sharon Heal, 14.12.2016
My New Year's resolutions for museums in the age of intolerance
It’s been a funny year, all things taken into account.

At the start of 2016 I wrote a spoof blog for the University of the Arts’ 2025 Forecasting Futures conference.

In it I joked about the opening of the Trump Museum on the Mall in Washington, which had been built to celebrate Trump’s reign as US president and to replace the Smithsonian after the US government had refused any further public funding.

So far so prescient.

At the Museums Association conference in November, a session entitled The Year Everything Changed delivered a post mortem on Brexit and a sober analysis of the upheavals of 2016; and that was before Trump’s victory had even happened.

To counter the gloom there were also brilliant examples of museums making a difference with their communities at the conference, whether that was the My Primary School is at the Museum pop-up or the Scottish Maritime Museum’s boat building school.

It reminded me that museums have a use and purpose in society above and beyond collecting and preserving. And that they are needed now more than ever. So as people do at this time of year I started to make a list – not things I want for Christmas but things I would like to see a bit more of in museums in 2017:

Activism – if we are not happy with the status quo and we’d like to see change, activism is a necessity. It doesn’t have to be shouty, but to quote Maya Angelou, “it’s the rent I pay for living on the planet”.

Empathy – when we live in a world of difference and division, consciously walking in others’ shoes could help us all feel we have a little more in common and are a little less apart.

Bravery – small acts of being brave, speaking out in the face of bigotry and prejudice, can make a difference; to quote a very different woman – Lady Macbeth – we need to “screw our courage to the sticking-place”.

Passion – museums are great places that hold amazing collections and are full of connected and curious people, visitors and staff alike. I’d like to see a bit more passion about what we do and the potential for social change and impact that we can have.

It would be easy to be gloomy pondering the events of the past year. But if anything there are causes for hope.

We might well be living in an age of intolerance and a post-truth society, but I am confident that museums and those that work in them can continue to make a difference in 2017.


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Robin Johnson
Museum Education Consultant
15.12.2016, 14:54
I would also add "awe & wonder" to this list. Museums are such incredibly inspiring places for school children, community groups, students, families etc., but I'm sometimes not sure that we celebrate that nearly enough. I've seen for myself countless life changing (yes, I mean that) experiences happen before my eyes in museums over my years in the museum education field.
Thanh Sinden
Strategic Audience Development Manager, Culture Coventry
14.12.2016, 16:37
Thanks Sharon. Great motivational piece. I share your New Year's list. Change is dared by the few, willed by more.