What next?

Maurice Davies, 15.05.2012
Focus on impact, not collections or buildings
Last Friday the Guardian hosted a live webchat: What Next for Museums.

It was billed as looking at the next 12 months, which is a bit short-term for my liking as I try to get my head around Museums 2020, the Museums Association’s campaign to formulate a vision for the next decade.

But plenty of the things people said in the webchat have long-term implications that I hope will be reflected in the Museums 2020 discussion paper when it comes out in the summer.

Keith Merrin, the director of the Woodhorn Trust, wrote: “I think there is a new philosophy in museums emerging which is less about us as the guardians of collections and delivering our services to communities and more about us facilitating communities to celebrate their own heritage and create their own experiences using our resources (collections, buildings, people etc).”

In a similar vein Jim Richardson, the founder of Sumo, observed: “The museum experience is becoming increasingly collaborative. Museums are becoming more comfortable with letting audiences have a say.”

I was saddened by the comment from Oonagh Murphy, freelance arts manager and PhD student at the University of Ulster, that: “In difficult times museums are forced to focus on core business, keeping doors open and looking after their collections. Audience engagement, relevance and quality of overall visitor experience inevitably suffer.”

Surely we can’t believe any longer that simply opening the doors and caring for the collection is the core business of museums. Imagine if we thought that about schools, hospitals, restaurants or theatres.

They would never see their “core business” as opening the building and stopping things falling to bits. If push comes to shove, better close the building, forget the other physical assets and teach/heal/feed/entertain people however and wherever you can.

Working on Museums 2020 has led me to think that the core business of museums (like any service organisation) is in fact to have an impact - to make a difference to people’s lives.

How about this: if times ever get so tough that we can no longer have it all, perhaps it should be the building - and collections care - that we let go, giving priority instead to Keith Merrin’s “facilitating communities to celebrate their own heritage”?


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MA Member
26.07.2012, 12:17
I would agree that it is a thoroughly good thing that museums exist.

However, existence today should not be taken as an entitlement to exist tomorrow; increasingly museums will need to prove their worth to society (however unreasonable that may seem) if they are to keep their place in it.

So to focus first on the impact of museums (outcomes, results, benefits, lives transformed) looks obvious.

That is the societal end to which museums are, or should be, the means.

Maurice Davies is right to challenge any rationale for museums that is based on assumptions of continuity rather than on proving why the world is a better place with them in it.
MA Member
29.06.2012, 11:03
I concur that the most important thing is being valuable to people and making a difference. If that means changing our core business, so be it. We invented the concept of the museum so we can change it too. We also invented our financial system and can change that too. We didn't however, invent the planet and we only have one of those, and we can't change that. So, one priority for adapting our core business for me is 'planet care'.
25.05.2012, 10:57
I was unaware that I had been quoted in this article until last night. I am keen to re-establish the context in which my quoted comment was made.

The quote was taken from a 2 hour live chat, and I feel has been taken out of context within this article.

My comment was not an endorsement for this approach, but instead a reflection on conversations I have had with numerous museum professionals. My research focuses on digital engagement, audience development and participatory design. So for the record, in my opinion visitors should be core business, digital engagement, audience development, outreach and education are as core to museum practice as collection care and keeping the doors open.

I hope my clarification does not ruin the flow of impassioned debate that seems to be raging in the comments thread below.

24.05.2012, 16:07
The latest DCMS 'Taking Part' figures show museum visits at 47.9% of the UK Adult Population, the highest by some margin since the survey began in 2005. 57% of respondents to the 2009 Nation Brands Index cited culture and heritage as the primary motivation in their choice of holiday destination.

While these arguments provide endless fodder for debate among those of us that enjoy museum theory, the UK public and tourists from all over the world are quite happily getting on with it and visiting museums in their droves.

What occasionally worries me is why we feel the need to have this debate at all. Punters know what they want from museums, and it is a testament to the creativity and fortitude of the 50,000-odd people that work in them (many of whom are themselves volunteers) that they have continued to provide it in spite of a period of reducing Government subsidy.

Not only should we be shouting from every rooftop about the brilliant museums the UK has and the extraordinary collections they protect and make available for the public, we should be celebrating the extraordinary resilience that they have displayed in the last 18 months. In normal circumstances, discussions like the one in the Guardian can be a bit of fun. In the current environment, they look mean-spirited, de-motivating and even hostile.

The people with a voice have largely failed to raise it either in defense or in celebration of the rest of the museum community. This is a shame, but it is not solely the fault of the MA. If I were at the helm of one of these organisations, the first thing I'd do is set aside a decent budget to remind the general public to go out visit a museum, enjoy its collections and find out a bit more about the world. We do need to get the basics in place before we go about re-imagining the future!

I think that is why so many people in the community feel disappointed - as soon as the winds of fortune turned against us, museums were left pretty much to fend for themselves. I suspect this why a record number of people have come together under the MA Membership for solidarity and support.

Someone once characterized my relationship with museums as 'I love them but I want to change them'. Over the years, I have learned that it is important every now and again to reaffirm the love! Provocation is fine, and sometimes valuable, but it works best when it builds on a solid foundation of trust and solidarity.

I'm not responding to the polarised collections/people debate because it's pointless - we need both, and we need both to acknowledge that they depend in equal measure on each other. Ever since there have been museums, there has been a debate about how to get this balance right, and there has probably been a Maurice to remind us not to take anything for granted!

MA Member, MP Subscriber
24.05.2012, 11:43
Peter, no one said we should hide things and no one said that museums are only storage units. I think you will find that that you are interpreting statements in the wrong way to suit your prejudice. If you don't see the benefits in retaining a collection and all the good work
which is done with it then I suggest you should get out more. I think that you misunderstand peoples concerns [DELETED BY MODERATOR TO MEET COMMUNITY STANDARDS]. So instead of forcing museums to only tick the boxes on the assessment can you please let us know how these assessments can be changed to better represent all the amazing impacts museums have? Better still tell the council/government as well.

Secondly, Peter, saying that we should look after and interpret our collections AS WELL AS meeting all the criteria listed by you in 23.05.2012, 16:18 should not be interpreted as we are against all the criteria listed by yourself in 23.05.2012, 16:18. What I intended to
call for in my last post 23.05.2012, 15:45 is that all the points you listed AND care and understanding of the collections be championed by the MA. The MA representing all museums should not champion one area of museum work whilst suggesting we should forget another. I also find it incredibly worrying that anyone in the heritage sector dismisses collections care and curation as putting things in an acid free box
behind glass or that curators only retain objects for the rich and educated. If that is how you and others at the 'policy level' of things see it then no wonder you don't see the value in retaining collections. And shame on the curators/specialists for allowing this to happen but that does not make this type of opinion right.

Victoria, you are right, not every museum needs/has a collection, however that should not be translated as 'all museums do not need collections'. Why? Because many members of the diverse communities we serve value cultural objects and expect museums to look after them. The public do see that as a core function for some/many museums (Maurice please take note) however, it many not be necessary for all. So the generalisation that it isn't a museum if it doesn't have collections is as wrong as the assumption that museums do not need to store, care for or know about collections. This polarisation of the argument is not helping anyone.

There are huge benefits to utilising collections and/or heritage knowledge to all aspects of museum work. This is because collections and/or heritage knowledge forms the basis of all the functions listed by
Peter in 23.05.2012, 16:18 as well as others and without which these could not be undertaken as effectively. You are right to point out that caring for collections is not the only way museum should make a
contribution to society, however museums with collections should not be encourage by the MA to jettison these important cultural items just because an organisation can engage (in some ways) with communities without them. Collections/cultural knowledge and care can and does provide impact and is valued by the public. It is not the only way to do it but it should not be dismissed in the off hand way especially by an organisation which supposedly represents museums with collections. It
should champion all museums; collections 'n' all.

If there is anyone out there who does not see the huge and varied benefits of collections (or cannot see what there is to champion) then I suggest that you visit
http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/micropalaeo/2012/05/18/do-we-need-specialist-curators?fromGateway=true and attend the Q&A session titled
"In Defence of the Curator" at the Open Culture 2012 on June 27th. If there is anyone who is concerned about the status of collections within the museum sector and would like to know more about how to champion their collection to attend the Open Culture meeting or contact the speaker.

Finally, I have just seen Maurice's response. Sorry that you feel you have been misrepresented Maurice however, you have voiced on several occasions your view that collections in stores should be disposed of.
So, all I can say to that is nice try mate! Regarding your other blog curators and conservators already take decay into consideration so what you have said may not be obvious to you but has been understood for years (although there was a time long long ago (perhaps when you formulated your opinion) when that was an aspiration-only)! Furthermore, there is a very clear feeling in many museums that collections care and cultural knowledge are not championed by the MA and that in fact it is being actively discouraged.
Comments by people like yourself in this blog and at several conferences and those of Peter 'terrify me' (to use the later's phrase) when they think that people who know about the collections and the collections
themselves are an irrelevance. I have heard you, Maurice Davis, express that exact sentiment. So saying that you are now only advocating 0.001%
loss is either another misrepresentation, that you have changed your mind or you were just being controversial before. Either way, why is the MA not doing more to champion collections care and retention of cultural knowledge in museums? Why does it not use the benefits of collections and cultural knowledge to assist it in its advocacy? Why does it only
champion disposals? Does the MA not know the benefits of collections and cultural knowledge? - there is no help on the website!

Apologies for the sarcastic tone, but it is exasperating have to expend so much time and energy doing this. All I am hoping for, as said above, is that the MA will recognise the importance of collections and knowledge of our heritage and utilise this amazing resource to better museums and peoples celebration of their culture rather than encouraging the disposing of it as an irrelevance. One last thing, as you are in a
position of some considerable influence I would request that you start representing all museums and all museum work and stop being so antagonistic towards your peers. Instead please start being antagonistic to those who seek to reduce cultural offers in museums.
24.05.2012, 11:08
Paper tigers and Straw men abound. Personally I prefer the Whittlesey Straw Bear.

Rather than kick around the perennial debate about collections care and social impact (which of course are not mutually exclusive), we should be mindful of the worrying trend of organisational decisions made solely on economic grounds. I know of Museums which have reduced efforts in community learning and participation in favour of working with schools because of their potential to generate income. Likewise more emphasis has been placed on the development of commercial hires over creative programming. The danger is that the short term exigencies to preserve organisational habits and norms will take precedence over long term strategies to develop collections and programmes which better reflect the interesting times in which we live.

Rather than think about how better we make our core business work , perhaps we should look at how our core assets are better used. A museum’s assets are not just buildings or collections, but the people and social networks created around the organisation. As Clare Cooper notes in another Museums 20:20 blog we live in such an interdependent world, it is impossible to separate the material from the social world.

I am a museum curator at heart and I think the physical space of a museum building is important as a place for encounters. So whilst giving priority to “facilitating communities to celebrate their own heritage” seems appealingly radical, I think something is lost if a by-product is the diminution of an institution which puts all this local heritage into a regional national or international context

Thanks to Peter Davies for referencing the Happy Museum project which in some part my fault. The project absolutely recognises the value of the collections, stories and the institution of museums to help people think differently about their world and their place within it.

As for letting stuff go, anyone want a very large 1970s Ransomes and Rapier docks crane? Collected by a former curator 30 years ago, its taking up an awful lot of room in our store, never been relevant to our story and the space would be better used to house new (smaller) material to reflect contemporary concerns in the countryside.
24.05.2012, 08:45
Coo, it really seems to be kicking off! Thanks for all your comments, everyone. I'll return to them later and try to address the concerns of people who think I'm somehow anti-collections. But for now, I just wanted to correct a major misrepresentation of my views by Anonymous at 23.05.2012, 15:45. There it's claimed that I've argued 'we should ... let everything go' and not care for collections. My point in that blog was in fact that we could consider letting one percent of our collections 'go' every hundred years - that's just 0.01% - or one in ten thousand things - every year. For more of my dangerous views on sensible collections care (and details of a guide written by real experts on how to do that) see http://www.museumsassociation.org/maurice-davies-blog/08052012-risky-business
24.05.2012, 08:25
21:45 - I didn't feel I was lecturing anyone, some others would appear to be doing this much better than I ever could.

My point is - although maybe poorly expressed - that museums deliver positive impacts everyday, and yes, I would imagine every museum, museum professional, intern and volunteer plays their part in that delivery. However, we do not communicate this, we do not identify this as a product of our work, and we do not see this as something to be 'selling' to other professions or funders.

To see some people still stating that the main (or even worse, only) aim of the museum is to 'hide stuff behind glass' fills me with terror. It may be why some people joined the profession, but that wasn't why I did. And ok, I shouldn't impose my values on others, but to blankly reject the idea that museums can be more than just 'storage places for our heritage' is absurd.

How many times have you told your board, members, peers, funders or even the actual communities you serve, about the impacts, like those listed below, that you deliver through your museum? And if you don't, how can they value them and so further value you, your institution and your reason for existing.

We really need to get to the point where the public and policy makers value us while we're open, and not just when we're being threatened with closure - that will be the true measure of a museums value and impact.
23.05.2012, 21:57
I always find this a useful touchstone:

"The Museums Association (MA) agreed a definition in 1998. It says: 'Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.' "
MA Member, MP Subscriber
23.05.2012, 21:45
The avant-garde won't win over anyone by categorising everyone against them as the old guard. That old trick may have worked in 1917, but not in 2012. The fact is, Peter, the vast majority of museums, perhaps even in Kent, do those things you list in your 23.05.2012, 16:18 posting and are working on how to do more.

My colleagues and I (even me and i am a bleeding reactionary!) are doing this stuff every day to the best of our ability and we don't claim to be cutting edge at all, plus trying to do all the traditional curatorial tasks as well. Meanwhile there are loads of other museums pushing the boundaries and they certainly need no lecturing from policy experts.

I find it really obnoxious that commentators tar the whole sector, with their generalisations which are based on a reality I just don't recognise as being the one I encounter at work and in studying good and best practice elsewhere.

Maybe there are some curators out there, who believe the perfect place for our heritage is in an acid free box, in an environmentally controlled store, with the lights turned off, far from the grubby hands and the gaze of the public, but frankly i have yet to meet them ( well, apart from at a few really important....). They are not the present, let alone the near future, so stop using them as an alibi for your arguments.
MA Member, MP Subscriber
23.05.2012, 21:02
Care of collections is vital to ensure that something remains that museums can use to engage the audience with. But the days of museums as storehouses surely are over. It is not about putting objects in boxes safe and sound, but surely opening the boxes and letting the audience dig around (metaphorically speaking). Museums are important for reserach, education, community work and as a place of leisure. These are not secondary concerns but surely the rasion etre of the modern museum. Collections care and upkeep of buildings is important to ensure these activities take place, but on their own will result in nothing but dusty storehouses of objects. I know that I have been generalising, but without visitors then what is the point of a museum at all? Their is no point conserving heritage if it is presented in a way no one can enjoy it and learn from it
23.05.2012, 19:38
Are you seriously suggesting that you as a lecturer would see using collections to teach as secondary to keeping them nicely boxed? Leaving aside your slurs on a good many proud professionals despite claiming to talk for us all, your argument is astoundingly out of date. Palaeontology is enormously popular with audiences precisely because other colleagues in your subject area understood that it wasn't enough to collect without sharing.

If anyone wishes to spend their time looking at carefully stored collections and no more, that might be indulged as a rich man's hobby but don't expect society to support and pay for it.
23.05.2012, 19:24
It is appalling that our profession has gradually been infiltrated by people with such views as given in this 'blog'. Yes, Maurice, actually we DO believe that caring for our collections is the core business of museums. It is their raison d'etre and everything else is secondary, and that is what all true museum professionals believe. Our role is NOT to 'make a difference to people's lives' - hopefully we might achieve that as well - but the preservation of our heritage is why we came into this profession. If you do not understand that, then you are in the wrong job.
23.05.2012, 18:26
Put a sock in it, Maurice. Of course museums should make a difference to people's lives. One way of doing this is to give them simple, authoritative help in understanding the things (and the ideas associated with them) that make museums unique, ie museum objects. I know you won't believe this but some museum visitors actually want guidance from the expert and there is plenty of feedback in surveys that confirms this, unfashionable as it may be.
23.05.2012, 17:04
I am not sure that schools, hospitals, restaurants or theatres are accurate analogies. A better analogy may be national parks which conserve natural heritage resources in much the same way that museums conserve cultural heritage resources. If we see the collections/objects as resources which are 'held in trust' for communities isn't that a more helpful way of looking at the relationship? The Australian Museum in Sydney holds a 'gamelan' in its collections which members of the Indonesian community in Sydney regularly come into the museum and play, but also take out of the museum to stage concerts with. The existance of museums as 'keeping places' is very important for communities (and is one of the key services which museums provide) - and it focuses the discussion back onto issues of who has control and access rather than the either/or of funding priority. On the whole, we don't say "if times get too tough we will let the natural environment go and stop caring for it ", nor do we say "if that nature reserve is not being used by many different groups it's a luxury"; so why should we think that cultural heritage resources have any less intrinsic value as resources which can materially impact on our quality of life now as well as being significant resources for future generations.
23.05.2012, 16:40
So, a museum without subject specialists and a definitive view are in some way not proper museums? What rubbish. We have over 50 museums in Wiltshire and the vast majority are totally volunteer run. They aren't all polished and cutting edge but they do a great job at bringing together communties and working with people to tell their stories and share their history. I for one applaud them.

We also have a couple of new museums who have decided permanent collections aren't for them but that they will work with loans to tell their stories. After 30 seconds of considering whether a Museums Advisory Service could work with them, we got over ourselves and are building great relationships.

In these threatening times, can not say strongly enough that if we do not value the impact we can have on communities then there's no reason for communities to give a damn about museums and then we really are in trouble. I would rather go out fighting!
MA Member
23.05.2012, 16:20
I suspect Maurice Davies is being provactive - and rightly so. Yet if the key is for Museum's to have impact, for a Museum to do that is through its collection. What makes a Museum a Museum is that it has a collection. If it does not have a collection, what is it?
23.05.2012, 16:20
two ideas i have seen recently - 1. oxford unitversity advertising for teachers who will use objects from museums probably the ashmolean to teach various subjects/ideas/etc. to university students.

2. the EC aqueduct project - using heritage to develop key competencies for children - i think museums do alot of this already but with this project the collaboration between children, artists/faciltiators/heritage was very creative. worth having a look at if you haven't already.

23.05.2012, 16:18
Not suprisingly, thsi is causing debate.

Not suprisingly, my views seem to be on the least popular side.

Ok - firstly, Patrick. without going into detail, I always think our friends in Australia have managed to grasp the idea of the community impact museum - not many levels above us, but understand their 'role'. In Canterbury we are slowly changing, but it will always be slow, checked and monitored change. The value I bring is in trying to unpick the everyday 'stuff' and show how this impacts on any number of areas, communities or priorities. Impact analysis, Outcome frameowrks, Logic modelling, these are the tools we need to become better equiped to use and utilise if we want to survive.

Now to the counter-arguments.

What is it people expect the MA to champion? The fact we store stuff really well? In fact, really, really well? Hardly the argument of the century for continued core funding, attention and public approval.

What the MA should be doing - and seems to want to do - is explain the value of our brilliant storage solutions 'that preserve our heritage for perpetuity' through the impact collections have on people's lives.

To be blunt, everyone being within 20 mins of a Roman coin, pottery shard, Old Masters, or World War 2 ration book doesn't really cut it.

But everyone being able to develop their identity, build confidence through volunteering, understand cultural differences, have non-partisan public spaces to enjoy, support intergenerational understanding, help recently arrived migrants learn a language/culture/history and find their place in it, give a place for a father to take his son/daughter on their one day a week/month together, inspire the next generation of scientists, provoke debate, build community cohesion, help prevent illnesses associated with old age, make people go 'wow', encourage tourism, promote economic growth through cultural regeneration, and let people learn through the power of touch - now that could cut it, that might just see some people look twice at museums, that might - just might - see us through the ills of the world at present, and make us feel like we are a little more than custodians of someones heritage.

That is why our impact - and lack of understanding of it - will be this sectors undoing, because at every turn, every glimmer of change we revert back to 'but it's all about the objects' - no, it's not, the objects are the tools of our trade, and a poor tradesman always blames his tools.
MA Member, MP Subscriber
23.05.2012, 15:45
I am a first time writer who felt compelled to speak out about the misrepresentation of museum work by an organisation which trumpets itself as being "the only organisation to truly represent the museum sector". I should also say I am all for enabling communities to
celebrate their culture. I just don't agree with the direction you are heading in. Maybe you have not done enough to convince me and I would welcome your attempts.

I do not agree because museums have a dual purpose. They exist to both protect our heritage AND enable people to engage with/celebrate it. Whilst I agree that there is room to improve our engagement with communities and welcome enabling them to celebrate their history, I do not believe that this should be done at the expense of other vital areas of museum work. The two are not mutually exclusive and money should not be used as an excuse.

As far as I am concerned, the most powerful impact our heritage can have is by having objects accessible to the public in a conducive environment (somewhere out of the weather preferably - e.g. a building), interpreted to many different levels and in different ways, for all, with the involvement of someone who knows something about that object or the story that it represents. You can have heritage provision without
objects in buildings interpreted by people with limited knowledge of the objects and the stories that they represent however, this will have less impact. This also does not meet the criteria of preserving the physical representation of our heritage through objects and their stories. This is, like it or not, something which provides a vital link with our history and which the public value.

The solution to the problems outlined here and those which you raise (and Peter in later reactions) is for the MA to put its energies into championing everything museums do and help them get more cash. Reducing
what museums do (i.e. absolving our responsibilities to care for our cultural objects) is not only unethical but means that we will become less relevant to the public we serve. Thus, we should not be choosing between collections care and outreach, we should be doing BOTH. You, Peter (in later reactions) along with several other directors I know, appear not to have grasped that simple concept.

It is so sad to see that someone in a position to do so much to support museums instead feels the need to be controversial, to forecast the demise of the "traditional museum" with such gusto and thereby be so undermining. Instead of undermining everything about existing museums and the people (and public who they serve) who are passionate about
their success, should actually be championing everything we are doing as well as innovating. Because like it or not Maurice, the vast majority of
the public still want to be able to go into a building, see objects and learn about their culture. Politicians and bean counters appear to think otherwise. That does not mean we should acquiesce.

Maurice, you are doing a lot of damage to a sector of immense importance to the cultural heritage of this country by taking this line. Having innovative ideas is great and they are needed to get the most out of our
heritage but we should not be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Like it or not we need to also actually hand something tangible about our heritage to our grandchildren rather than a lot of hot air without
any evidence that it actually existed apart from perhaps a few patchy records on a database or the odd book/journal featuring best practice employed in a display of something we do not have anymore.

Therefore, the MA needs to focus more of its energy away from criticising museums and get on with the seriously needed job of championing them. Otherwise it will find itself out of touch and isolating itself from its membership and more importantly from the public they are supposed to be serving. If the MA insists on focussing on the negatives in this way without actually championing museums, supporting collections development and the employment of specialists
then it does not really represent museums fairly, wisely or effectively. As such calls for votes of no confidence are inevitable.

P.S. Your analogies to hospitals and theatres are confusing, unhelpful and without, as far as I can see, any sort of relevance! Whilst I agree that we cannot save everything the stupidity that we should therefore
let everything go is quite absurd (I note you had another blog post on this and maybe I should have showed my disagreement with that there as well).
23.05.2012, 15:37
I'm not surprised some people feel threatened by a change of emphasis - collections care and management has been the central focus of museums for far too long to let go. I am, however, a bit sad that we haven't move on from this argument yet. Surely we have to ask for whom we are collecting and preserving and why. Without people being able to engage and enjoy collections in a multiplicity of ways, what we are collecting is just stuff. I do not support the idea that collections aren't important (my own service offers free conservation and collections advice to museums in the county) but if they aren't being used by many different groups then they are a luxury.

I was particularly disappointed by Anonymous' "not a social worker comment". It shows a depressing attitude to our audiences and a pretty poor grasp of what social workers really do!

In my first post a woman came to complain that our football exhibition was inappropriate as it wasn't a proper topic for a museum. Her image of museums was outdated and I fear so are those of some of our colleagues. I for one do not want to see our sector become an irrelevance and the only way to do that is to remember who we're here for.
Patrick, Website Editor, Museums Association
MA Member, MJ Subscriber, MP Subscriber
23.05.2012, 15:19
Thanks everyone for some very interesting thoughts on this subject.

Peter and Chris, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on specific ways that museums could become deliverers of positive impacts using museum principles rather than the institution (other than to replicate the Happy Museum project)? And Peter, is this is something you are working on in Canterbury?

Jenny and anonymous 13.11 and 13.56, do you have any thoughts on new and innovative ways in which we can both 'facilitate communities to celebrate their own heritage' and to keep collections alive, healthy and safe?

Is it enough that we look after the objects as best we can in the buildings we have for as long as possible? And should the definition of a museum remain static?
23.05.2012, 14:49
Hmm. I recognise that Maurice Davies is courting controversy with the intention of igniting a debate with his final sentence. I do have difficulties, however, with his analogy of museums’ contents alongside those of schools, hospitals, restaurants and theatres. I can’t help that feel that collections are integral to museums in a way that fixtures and fittings in schools aren’t. Having said that, even schools, restaurants, theatres, and particularly hospitals, could not function adequately without their buildings and buildings’ contents.

As I see it, collections in museums are analogous to learning in schools, medical facilities in hospitals, food in restaurants and actors in theatres; essential.

I recognise that museums exist to share the heritage they safeguard with the public, but how can they do this if the physical manifestation of that heritage no longer exists following neglect? I’ve just looked up the definition of “museum” and found this: “a place or building where objects of historical, artistic, or scientific interest are exhibited, preserved, or studied”. I think that Davies’ ideas about public engagement are laudable, but it seems to me that a building in which such events take place in an object vacuum will not be a museum. I for one hope that museums can strive to follow Merrin’s advice and “[facilitate] communities to celebrate their own heritage”, in part by keeping museum collections alive, healthy and safe. Perhaps this way we can indeed maximise our impact.
23.05.2012, 14:04
These comments are such ashame.

Museums, by their very nature, are repositories of change, innovation and evolution. Yet the very things we share with others seems to be the one thing our profession seems least able to apply to itself.

The fact that these comments are probably quite representative of the profession, illustrates exactly why the change in museum ethos has left its potential role firmly rooted in the discussion arena.
MA Member
23.05.2012, 13:56
I never signed up to be a social worker.

"The Happy Museum" project was very exciting - for the first couple of pages. Yes, of course the primary purpose of museums is to improve lives, and it's thrilling when they do. But the projects call to turn out backs on collections in favour of communities (whatever they might be) left me with a bad taste in the mouth, which Maurice's article has strongly reinforced.

I came to work in museums because I love old things, their beauty and what they can teach us, and I have aways had a strong belief in their value in bringing joy and insight to society. As a curator, I have always understood my purpose to be the care, study and interpretation of collections. It now seems that the skills and knowledge of collections curators are redundant (as well as the collections themselves), and that we are expected to abandon everything we hold dear (including the loyal audiences who have always enjoyed and sustained museums) to become social workers.
MA Member, MP Subscriber
23.05.2012, 13:11
How about this: that we get out of the box ticking world of museum theory and actual create a museum experience that is beneficial and interesting to visitors.

I find this article offensive and demoralising and it becoming increasingly apparent that Maurice Davies, rather than representing and championing museums, is actively undermining them.

After becoming exasperated and frustrated by this continuous museum bashing, encouragement of binning collections and removal of any type of subject specialists I can only express a vote of no confidence in the Museums Association and its leadership.
23.05.2012, 12:21
Excellent! At last it's been put down on paper (of a type).

The most worrying thing in all this, is that we are still in the 'talk and theory' stage, and haven't really made any headway into the practice and application of museum impact/outcomes.

Other than the 'Happy Museum' Project, I can't think of any serious applications of museums as a deliverer of positive impacts and benefits that uses museum principles rather than the institution as a catalyst for change.

Lets get more of this sort of thing out there. We know we will likely lose a fair few museums over the coming years - lets not be blinkered - yet we also know the potential of museums for communities and individuals. Lets finally bed these two things toegther and look at how we shape things where the institution is merely the postal address of amazing work and ideas in our communities and peer networks.
MA Member, MP Subscriber
18.05.2012, 17:08
It is hard to engage in this debate when there are so many paper tigers in this forest. The real challenge for museums is to manage collection care, access, engaging their communities and involving individuals and groups in the preservation and interpretation of their heritage.

There are a lot of traps in this forest: who are our communities? Are they the people who shout loudest? Are they that long list of boxes that must be ticked? Can everyone's voice be heard if we are all talking at the same time?

A successful habitat will be a diverse one. Sometimes museum professionals will take the lead, sometimes a particular community, sometimes a story, sometimes an object. It is not a them or us choice.

Meanwhile, no one should underestimate the importance of a place, ie a museum as a building, to many of our users. The fact that museums exist is a good in itself, let alone before opening the doors and doing all the wonderful things that most museums do. Museum people can offer their services any time, any place; but museums are particularly good places in which to offer our unique experiences. It's so obvious!!!

The duty facing people in the museum profession is to see the bigger picture, to anticipate what visitors,communities, users don't know they will like as well as to experience what they do and countless other tasks that most museum people undertake every day. For comparison, cooking for yourself is great, but sometimes it is nice when a chef introduces you to something new, something you have not tried before. The chef is not the enemy!

We should all be a bit suspicious of commentators who undervalue what museum workers do. We have seen what similar attitudes have achieved elsewhere and the precedents haven't always been good.

17.05.2012, 16:10
Great effort in refocusing. Sometimes it's difficult to see the forest through the trees, especially in difficult times.