Last word

Maurice Davies, 16.04.2014
How museums have changed in the last 25 years
After 25 years I'm leaving the Museums Association (MA) and I'm looking at how UK museums have changed. In my previous blogs I've talked about the transformed relationship with people and the changed attitude to collections.

Here, in my final blog for the MA website, I'm going to think about how the purpose of museums has evolved over the past quarter century.

Then, in the 1980s, almost every museum saw its fundamental purpose as being to collect things and preserve them, primarily for “future generations”. Now, I'd suggest most UK museums see their core purpose as communicating with people with the help of collections.

That's a significant shift. Collecting and preservation are no longer seen as ends in themselves, but as processes that support the more important work of communication.

And museums may be on the cusp of another significant shift. It's possible that museums are beginning to take more interest in the difference they make to the world by communicating with people. If so, communication will become seen as simply a process that supports the key purpose of making the world a better place.

There are signs of this new sense of purpose in the Happy Museum Project, in the Our Museum Initiative and in Museums Change Lives. It could be another fundamental shift in museums' understanding of their role in society.

When I look back over 25 years of change, I think museums' biggest failure has been around diversity, particularly race. The workforce is still much whiter than it should be if it is to properly represent the people it claims to serve. And the collections of most museums represent an essentially white experience.

That's my great disappointment. Race was one of the issues I first covered when I started editing Museums Journal in the late 1980s and the lack of change is shameful. I've previously written that we'll know the UK is taking race, heritage and culture seriously when there is a public debate about what the National Gallery collects and displays.

Twenty five years from now, I hope it will no longer be the case that the so called National Gallery, located at the very heart of the most racially diverse major city on the planet, focuses on paintings restricted narrowly to the white European tradition.

The fact there isn't even a serious debate about that reveals how far the UK museum sector has to go to rid itself of 250 years of institutional racism.

But looking back more generally, I'm pleased with what I see. Like many of my generation, I came into museums to get them closer to their audiences and potential audiences and there has been a significant improvement. Indeed, over half the population of England has visited a museum in the past year.

But there's still so much more to do. Few museums yet feel at the heart of their communities, in the way many libraries do. And few museum visits give the mind-filling experience of the best cinema or theatre. Similarly, few museums have the depth of community engagement achieved by local amateur sports societies.

I don't offer those as criticisms, but to demonstrate the huge potential museums still have to matter more to people and places. There's much change still to come and over the next few decades I think the UK's museums will continue to lead much of the world and become more important to more people in more ways.

I look forward to continuing to help and encourage them. I'll be doing that as a writer for a variety of publications - most recently Museums Journal, The Art Newspaper and Apollo; as a researcher, particularly in the department of management at King's College London; and, primarily, as a consultant with the Museum Consultancy.

Here’s to the next 25 years.


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John Orna-Ornstein
MA Member
Director, Museums, Arts Council England
18.04.2014, 09:26
Hope this doesn't sound too much like an obituary...but it's been a pleasure working with Maurice at the MA over the years. Intelligent, provocative, public-focussed. And even the challenging things are said with a sense of humour that I fear will be sorely missed at the MA. He's been influential in changing our sector for the better - and I know that will continue for years to come.