The useful museum

Maurice Davies, 31.07.2012
Can museums both engage people and improve their lives?
I’ve noticed that, increasingly, museum directors want their museum to be useful.

They want to go beyond being a place where visitors enjoy and learn from displays of collections. They want to make a helpful contribution to the immediate community or to wider society.

So, a university museum might be finding new ways to support teaching and research - and to help the university make better links with people living nearby.

University museums have always done those things to a degree - but the useful university museum is doing it far more deliberately than ever before, aiming to make a serious contribution to teaching and research. The Ashmolean, for instance, has recently raised £700,000 for its new University Engagement Programme.

A small local authority museum might work closely with a different local authority department to help tackle anti-social behaviour, support young parents or improve employability.

Again, museums have always done these things, but many are now doing it with a new sense of seriousness. It’s not just outreach or audience development, but a hard commitment to help make a difference and play a (small) part in tackling a community’s problems.

The Museums 2020 discussion paper has a simple message: every museum can do more to improve people's lives and play a part in meeting society's needs. It sets a challenge to each museum "to move on from a generalised sense that it provides public benefit by merely existing, to identifying how it can best make a defined and explicit contribution".

There's sometimes a suspicion that museums take on this "useful" work as a way of accessing new sources of funding. But museums that succeed in being useful do it because they believe it.

To their core they have a sense of social responsibility. Staff in those museums recognise that they are responsible for a wonderful public asset and believe it is their duty to use it to make people's lives a little better.

If, on the other hand, the work is done to cynically chase funding, or to tick policy-makers boxes, it won't be sustained and the supposed beneficiaries will have a nagging sense that they are being exploited.

A few years ago this type of work was sometimes dismissed as "instrumental". Because it aimed to have a beneficial impact it was seen as somehow lesser than "intrinsic" work, the simple uncluttered appreciation of the wonders of the collection.

I enjoy appreciating a collection as much as the next person, but good museums do both things: they have displays that engage people and also work hard to improve people's lives.


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MA Member
08.08.2012, 22:59
Let's hope the museum workers of the future don't become the 21st century counterparts of the colonialists of Victorian Britain and feel it their duty to 'help' everyone else to better themselves in a rather unwelcome return of the 'white man's burden'. Perhaps we should listen to our users and potential users - it is amazing how little their views are taken into consideration.

Brendan Carr
MA Member
Community Engagement Curator, Reading Museum Service
04.08.2012, 01:12
As you are clearly aware Maurice, the University sector has a massive responsibilty towards their amazing collections. The Ashmolean and Reading's Museum of English Rural Life are trail blazers in this regards. There may be some barriers because, through no fault of their own, really brainy people can sometimes struggle to communicate the fantastic potential objects have for unlocking truth and having fun. Do I have to fill a forms out to contribute to the 2020 survey? Only I've got some ideas, but it may need to involve me getting paid some money to spend any time on it; in order to buy a new carpet for my house; now that I am just beginning to establish my reputation as a curator/art historian in residence. Not only are museum directors working towards a more useful future @breninfrance