The inclusive museum: the view from abroad

Yasmin Khan, Issue 113/06, p18, 01.06.2013
It turns out that the UK public’s understanding of museums is not what we expected.

BritainThink’s public attitude research commissioned by the Museums Association reveals people mostly want museums to care, preserve and exhibit our heritage but are not bursting for museums to be places for debate or to promote social justice and human rights.

The findings reveal the public has a different set of expectations to the aspirations of some museum professionals. The results could have been different if museums had an established reputation for being genuinely more inclusive. Perhaps we ought to take stock of what’s happening in museums beyond the UK?

I recently participated in the Inclusive Museum, an international conference bringing together hundreds of delegates dedicated to the inclusive museum ethos.

The quality of its discussions indicates progress and innovation are in hand when it comes to visitors embracing social justice in museums.

I learnt of many audience-centred projects, most memorably a town museum in Denmark that hosted a homeless person in residence for three months (at his request) and a light-therapy exhibit in Finland powered by energy donated by the local community.

Karsten Ohrt, director of Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, said: “Museums are no longer masters of knowledge, but servants of knowledge.”

I agree, but the vision of museums as servants rather than masters is one that needs to fully materialise if this is how we want the public to see us.

Amar Galla, the driving force behind the Inclusive Museum Institute, said that museums can be reflexive spaces for “rethinking their meanings, missions and civic locations”. Whatever our rhetoric, it must tally with the physical reality.

The museum is the embodiment of our ideas and ideals that are constantly subject to change. BritainThink’s findings should not dishearten us, though I am grateful for the wake-up call. Perhaps the results are unsettling because the truth hurts; the public simply reflect back their perception of museums based on their own experience.

Who is to blame if the majority of research participants express lack of confidence that museums could play a more civic role in society? Why should they believe us if our track record says otherwise?

During a discussion on gender I realised that we still have yet to properly address the representation of gender in museum displays and how they intersect with race and class. What messages do these misrepresentations convey, whether inadvertent or a hangover inherited from the past?

We also need to examine why women, who form the bulk of museum’s workforce, are still not better represented at a leadership and governance level? Social justice needs to flourish from inside the museum if we expect such values to permeate to visitors.

“Museums can be at their best when they act as safe places for unsafe ideas,” said Rick West, president of The Autry, Los Angeles (the venue for next year’s conference). So we must continue to try new approaches, take risks and challenge the conventions of the institutional model from the inside.

A key take-home message was the need to become more active about “in-reach” – engaging with our colleagues and peers in the sector as well as strengthening existing relationships within our reach before embarking on outreach activities.

I would argue that we are ahead of the curve and can see our own potential in a way that has yet to be clearly articulated to bring the public onside. What matters more is where we go from here.

Yasmin Khan is an independent cultural adviser

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