Maurice Davies

Museums 2020: speak up now

Maurice Davies, 30.10.2012
It's not too late to share your views on the future of museums
Last week’s Museums 2020 webchat was fascinating. There are many wise comments, showing that the Museums 2020 focus on impacts is completely compatible with caring about collections.

Chris Kirby from Coventry Heritage and Arts Trust (and the Museums Association's representative for the West Midlands) observes: "There is a simple reality: collections cost money and to justify their existence they need to show impact."

A few comments on Museums 2020 somehow see collections as separate to impact.

Simon Carter, director of Avoncroft Museum, refutes this: "The discussion by its very nature seems to regard collections as something separate to being a museum – things that if staff had time, they'd get out and do more with – and from past work in museums they sometimes are.

"But surely if an organisation hasn't pinned down the very essence of what it does, and what its core collection and displays do, it will consider collections as being separate to its purpose."

Sally MacDonald, head of University College London Museums and Collections (and an MA board member) sums it up: "I would say this is a sterile debate. A collection that nobody knows about or encounters can have no impact.

"Most people would say that a museum without collections is not a museum. For a museum to have impact it has to be using its collections to do interesting and worthwhile things, with and for people."

So, for now, I’d like to declare the collections/impact non-debate closed.

The webchat covered a range of other issues, such as whether museums should avoid politics and strive to be neutral.

Another MA board member, director of National Museums Liverpool David Fleming, thinks this is naïve: "I can't think of any museum exhibition about anything, anywhere, that hasn't been influenced by someone!

"We all have our beliefs and prejudices (call these political if you like); it's simply not possible for museums to attain some kind of neutrality. Ultimately, as a visitor I am receiving messages from the exhibition organisers, and it's dishonest to pretend otherwise.

"The challenge for museums is to engage people's brains and emotions, not to give the right answer."

There was also discussion about the merits of engaging people more deeply in museum work – for example by helping decide what to collect. Other points covered the challenges of measuring and evaluating many aspects of museum work.

Have a read yourself – and more importantly hurry, hurry, hurry and respond to the Museums 2020 consultation.

Officially the consultation closes on 31 October but as we’re all so busy with MA conference (which has a Museums 2020 theme, too) your comment will still count if it’s a few days late!