Making people matter

Maurice Davies, 02.04.2014
How museums have changed
As announced yesterday (no, it wasn’t an April Fool), after 25 years I’m leaving the Museums Association.

I’ve had a great time - over the years I’ve edited Museums Journal, organised the annual conference, helped change the code of ethics, done my bit to make museums think differently about audiences, workforce, engagement and collections, helped get new legislation on illicit trade and return of human remains - and best of all had endless thoughtful conversations about museums with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people.

For my last few blogs, I’m going to look at what’s changed in museums over the past quarter century. This week, it’s museums’ changing attitudes to people – undoubtedly the biggest shift.

When I started work in museums I was told to aim the interpretation at "an intelligent sixth former" and I regularly heard senior museum people assert that museums were no place for children. There were of course some pioneers, who could see the merits of taking more of an audience focus.

Then there were other pioneers who tried to represent histories and cultures other than those of wealthy white people, and there were still others who made links between their museum and other community organisations.

But those pioneers were exceptional, ahead of their time.

Some of them were in independent museums, often taking a commercially-minded approach, others were in museums run by left-wing local authorities pursuing a more socialist agenda. And some were in national and university museums, beavering away, often taking great risks, to change their museums.

We owe them all a lot. Over the past quarter century UK museums have come to embrace the idea of being more business-like, access for all, active inclusion, and audience development. Now we’re just beginning to realise the potential of our social impacts.

This series of changes has made museums much better. It’s made them more interesting for visitors; it’s made them think about a wide range of audiences with different needs and different interests; it’s made them actively seek out non-users; and it’s made them think seriously about the wider benefits they can have.

Most importantly, it’s made museums much more connected. They are better connected to audiences, to communities, and to society in general.

Many museums, or at least many publicly-funded museums, used to see themselves as an island, separate from everyday life, puzzled by their relationship with their funders and generally thinking it was self-evident that they were of public benefit.

Now, museums know they have to articulate their public benefits, and make their benefits tangible. They know the key to that is being more engaged with more people from more backgrounds.


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02.04.2014, 20:30
You have contributed so much in making museums more relevant, inspirational and less elite and are respected in so many quarters. I look forward to continuing to work with you, Eithne Nightingale
Maria Xanthoudaki
MA Member
Director of Education and Research, National Museum of Science & Technology
02.04.2014, 14:01
Dear Maurice,

please allow me a personal comment. We don't know each other, but I came to read you very often and I always found inspiration. Your critical spirit and, often, sharp words made me think more carefully about our work and about what we should do to make things better --and to serve our community better.

Thank you for your contribution to the field. We should cherish your message and try to keep people at the very heart of everything we do.

Best regards, and good luck
Maria Xanthoudaki
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
02.04.2014, 15:09
Ah, thanks, Maria. My main aim has always been to get museum people to think a bit harder, so they serve society better. I hope I'll continue doing that, just not from the MA!