Simon Stephens, Issue 118/06, p4, 01.06.2018
Making sure we stay relevant to audiences
How museums, galleries and heritage sites make collections relevant to modern audiences is a fascinating and vital topic. It goes without saying that even historic collections need some contemporary relevance to be of interest to visitors. And venues all over the UK are proving that they can unearth some fantastic stories in their collections when they start looking for them.

The National Trust is a good example of this. In England and Wales, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality last year provided the impetus for cultural organisations to explore and publicly present queer histories.

There were exhibitions, art installations and other activities at many trust properties. These included the story of William John Bankes, the owner of Kingston Lacy manor and estate in Dorset, who had to flee from England in 1841 and spend the rest of his life overseas following a conviction for homosexuality.

Despite some challenging reactions from the press, visitors and volunteers, the trust has seen a largely positive response to telling more diverse stories. It has been such a success that it is going to look at other subjects in future years, including radicalism in the landscape, working-class histories and colonialism.

The other side of the coin to interpreting historic collections is contemporary collecting – acquiring objects that say something about how we live today. How this can be done effectively has been a subject of ongoing debate in the sector. We have an article about acquiring natural history items in this issue.

From time to time, new approaches are tried, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Rapid Response Collecting. Each acquisition made is meant to raise different questions about globalisation, popular culture, political and social change, demographics, technology, regulation or the law. New items are immediately put on display at the museum.

Whether it relates to interpreting historic items or new acquisitions, it is vital that museums use their collections to provide visitors with experiences that are meaningful and engaging. Doing this will ensure that museums remain relevant to people as places where they can understand more about their own lives and those of others.