Will local museum collections be valued in the future?

David Jubb, Issue 119/03, 01.03.2019
We need to let communities have more agency
Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) is in its infancy as a museum. We became custodian of the Wandsworth collection in 2016 and created the BAC Moving Museum, which moves around the building and the borough.

As an arts centre we are known for our producers who connect artists with communities. So we have been exploring how producers might inform our work as a museum. We think some of the most exciting museums often use producers.

In Battersea, we want everyone to share stories; to be inspired by our past to invent our future. We are inspired by the “Of/By/For All” movement which seeks to improve how organisations collaborate with their communities. In its words: “To involve people in meaningful, sustainable ways, you can’t just make programmes for them. You have to involve them in their creation. And that means becoming of and by them, too.”

But I’ve been struck by the number of gatekeepers the sector has – directors, curators and funders – who uphold a hierarchy which can sometimes keep people on the outside. This is evidenced by the fact that the standard invitation of most museums continues to be “would you like to join in with what we are already doing?” Rather than “what are you passionate about and how can we, and our collection, support your passion?”

I think we are trying to hold on to too much power. At BAC, collection care, accreditation and curatorial expertise have occasionally been held up as subtle barriers to progress; as reasons against inviting people in to have more agency. This is where the role of the producer has value – because a producer’s instinct is driven by the interests of an audience. By starting with people and discovering their desires, could we also open up a new role for our collections?

As an arts organisation, when we started working with Contact and People’s Palace Projects on The Agency, an initiative to develop entrepreneurial ideas, we asked young people what they cared about. Their ideas brought us to areas we had never considered – from natural-hair workshops for young black women to bicycle mechanic training for ex-offenders. The approach is transforming our relationship with our community. There is still a long way to go, but BAC is starting to better reflect its community.

What might the equivalent be in a museum? We are growing an idea called The Activists, which will ask people what they want to change in their community and whether the Wandsworth collection could help them make that change. Could the collection help adults with special educational needs to have a louder voice in local politics? Could it support younger and older people to come together to effect change? What might we learn about our collection by seeing it through the lens of people’s own passions?

Because if our collections are not of real value to communities now, they may not survive for future generations.

David Jubb is the outgoing artistic director and chief executive officer of Battersea Arts Centre, London

Comments

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15.03.2019, 11:49
"collection care, accreditation and curatorial expertise have occasionally been held up as subtle barriers to progress"

Then they've been used as a scapegoat - an excuse. I don't see the logic that maintaining collections care should be at the expense of community engagement, or vice versa.

Can we just stop the 'curators are stuffy gatekeepers' stereotype? Please? It's not the 70s anymore, it's divisive and unproductive. If a curator isn't working to engage broader audiences with their collections, they're not doing their job very well. Curators aren't the gate, they're the key.
Anonymous
28.03.2019, 14:09
There seem to be quite a few articles on the MA website 'bashing' the curator recently, all of which seem to portray the profession with the same outdated stereotype and lack of understanding of what curators do. Is this 'Paddington Bear' level of museological research what our directors and governance bodies are using to make decisions? That explains a lot!
21.03.2019, 23:35
Hi Tehmina, up for discussing further. My email address is davidj@bac.org.uk Do drop me a line and we could have a chat. I am in post for another four weeks.

I agree that my view on "directors, curators and funders" does not represent the whole sector. I agree there is great work happening in museums (and has been happening for decades) which engages and connects with communities in meaningful ways. The same is true in the arts sector.

But I do not think that this community-led work represents the dominant ideology for the museum sector in the UK. Or indeed the arts sector.

Where do most of the resources go? What kinds of people are most represented on the staff and boards of museums? How many museums are truly led by the passions and concerns of their local community?

I completely agree that governance and organisational habits are a key challenge - but I also think that everyone connected to museums - especially directors, curators and funders - are responsible for this challenge.

It’s interesting that both comments in response to this piece seek to defend the contemporary role of the curator. I will think more about this.

I'm certainly proposing that there needs to be a more a radical shift - to give agency to audiences and visitors - to help us to change the way our museums operate - including governance and organisation habits - to rethink the purpose and function of our organisations.

This programme has helped us rethink our purpose as an organisation - something I wish we had done 15 years ago when I first started in post. https://www.bac.org.uk/content_category/3381/young_people__learning/the_agency_1525
21.03.2019, 12:26
I would love to have a chat with David Jubb about his comment. There is a world of curation within and without museums where his view of gatekeeping, for example, just doesn’t hold true. The idea of audience or community-led work with collections is not new and if you look back at museum history you would see this. That isn’t to say there isn’t a problem with power and the precendence of hierarchy and mislaid protocol in our organisations. But this is a governance and organisational habit problem rather than a territorial issue when it comes to collections. I would be pleased to discuss further as you raise some important points.
01.04.2019, 17:34
I just wanted to clarify that this is a comment piece that originally appeared in Museums Journal, and is one of many opinions from across the sector that is shared in MJ and on the website. It's really important that we have a diversity of views and debate on these issues, and obviously these opinion pieces don't speak on behalf of the MA.

I also want to challenge the idea that the MA is 'curator-bashing'. We have actively sought to support future collections work by carrying out sector-wide research over the past year. As a result of this research, we have recently launched the Empowering Collections report which will be a core part of our future advocacy for museum collections and those that work with them.

28.03.2019, 19:10
It is so disappointing to read more curator bashing from the Museums Association. Many of us work really hard to keep small museums going, often wearing more than one hat, trying our hardest to strike the balance between caring for collections and engaging as wide an audience as possible, all on a shoe-string budget. I do not recognise this archaic negative vision of ivory towers and fusty gatekeepers that have appeared in recent articles (other than the lazy stereotypes in virtually every movie about a museum ever!).