Spread the word

Maurice Davies, 26.02.2014
How we can show people the impact museums can have
Perhaps the most powerful way to convince people of the social value of museums is for them to experience the museum in action.

It's often memorable to see a museum having beneficial impact on alienated young men, lonely elderly people or unsettled refugees. We know that museums really can make a difference to people’s lives. But most people – and most organisations that might fund us – never see a museum in close contact with its client communities and so have no idea at all about what we can achieve.

When I say to people outside the cultural sector that museums can have life-changing impacts, they tend to look puzzled, even confused. They think of museums as big buildings full of old stuff that you visit occasionally. Apart from a bit of light learning, how can that possibly be changing people’s lives, their uncomprehending eyes ask me?

I usually explain how handling objects can be a powerful way of stimulating thoughts and memories for people with dementia. The doubters then tend to show a flicker of understanding.

I then talk about how museums and their collections are used to bring together children from savagely divided republican and unionist communities. That’s when people usually begin to recognise that there may be more to museums than places to shelter in when it’s raining.

Of course, we’ll never be able to show everyone we want to influence what museums can achieve, or talk to them face to face.

That’s where documents like Museums Change Lives can help. I think most powerful of all are the accounts museum users and clients give of how museums have touched them.

There’s some examples of that in Museums Change Lives. My current favourite is a comment by Mamtimyn Sunuodula, headteacher of Durham Chinese School, which uses Durham Oriental Museum as a venue for its classes and community activities.

Here’s what he said in the Museums Change Lives booklet: “The rich Chinese cultural artefacts displayed at the museum and the inspiring cultural activities it organises for young learners have been extremely important for enhancing our students’ cultural and linguistic education. It helps us to relate the past with the present, China with Britain, and develop the intercultural competence and pluralistic worldview of our students.”

Do you have testimonies like that? If so, it'd be good to see them so we can use them as part of promoting Museums Change Lives.

And if you don't have much from your users, there's a great writing competition being run by the British Council that you could encourage them to enter – Inspired By My Museum, which is looking for poems and short stories from people about any aspect of a museum that has inspired them. Anyone age 16 and over from anywhere in the world can take part.

There' s also a new organisation taking an interest in how audiences value art and culture. The What Next? network describes itself as a movement that wants to engage the public and others in new and different conversations about culture, to come up with new policy ideas.

I go to my local What Next? meetings regularly and they are reliably among the most exciting and stimulating meetings I attend. You can find them all over the place and they are enthusiastic about more museum people getting involved. Why not go to a meeting near you?.


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Samarjit Guha
Head Programmes, British Council
28.02.2014, 05:41
Thanks Maurice. The Inspired by my Museum competition has really attracted over 300 entries from 20 countries. So here's hoping the book (when it is launched) will show the world around museums and lure more people into it