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Maurice Davies, 08.05.2013
What our stakeholders think
Last month we published research into public attitudes to the purpose of museums. It caused a bit of a stir, mainly because people were disappointed that the public were pretty cool on some of the things proposed in Museums 2020. You can read people’s reactions here and here.

Now, we’ve published a small additional report about the attitudes of a sample of stakeholders to the purpose of museums. 'Stakeholders' is shorthand for people from organisations that have worked in partnership with museums.

The report is based on a workshop that included people from organisations with interests in public health, the environment, grandparents, blind and partially sighted people, and disadvantaged women.

As the research shows, compared to the public, the stakeholders have a far broader sense of museums’ purposes. As you’d expect, they were much more positive about museums supporting vulnerable people.

They also agreed with Museums 2020 that museums should take risks and behave as leaders. They were happy for museums to tackle challenging subjects, especially where museums gave a historical perspective on current issues. The general preference was that museums should aim to “prompt thought” rather than overtly campaign or be “activist”.

Two key things struck me at the stakeholder workshop. First, the strong belief that to support vulnerable groups, museums must work in partnership with expert organisations like theirs. They believe museums’ key role and expertise is to be welcoming and truly accessible to all.

However, and this brings me to the second point, they felt museums are often less accessible than we might like to think. The stakeholders reported many positive experiences with museums, but in other cases had found museums risk averse, protective and resistant to meeting people’s needs.

For example, one museum had been reluctant to change interpretation to meet the needs of partially sighted visitors; another had failed to respond quickly enough to the lively and changing interests of hard-to-reach teenagers participating in a creative project.

Like the public, the stakeholders cherish and trust museums and think they have changed for the better, but they think they still have some way to go to if they are to broaden their appeal. In fact some stakeholders reckon museums are still a little precious and risk averse.

They can also be a little stuffy, adopting an academic tone that can seem daunting to some. This is a problem for museums not least because stakeholders see us as just one among a great many potential partners. They want to work with us, but if we make it too difficult, they have other options.

In museums, we’re delighted that half the adults in England visited a museum in the past year. But that can’t disguise the fact that the other half didn’t. To reach more people, we need to keep improving accessibility and to do more to open ourselves up.

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