Jon Alexander is the director of the New Citizenship Project

Looking to a golden age for museums

Jon Alexander, Issue 115/12, p14, 01.12.2015
Curators must become facilitators of conversations
At the Museums Association conference, Tony Butler, the executive director of Derby Museums, opened our session with this question: “We always talk about the future, and we always discuss the same things – so is 2015 really any different from 2005?”

My answer is that 2015 is very different because until now there has only been a vague sense that something better must be possible.

Today, the picture of the society we could build together is forming. For some time it has been clear that we are not on the right path, and only now can we see the fork in the road.

At the New Citizenship Project, we call this moment in time the citizen shift – the moment when the dominant story of the individual in society changes from consumer to citizen.

We see these as moral ideas: as consumers, the right thing for us to do was to choose the best option from those offered; as citizens, we reclaim our moral and creative agency, and step up to a role in shaping what the choices are – not just making the choice.

We see this playing out across the world and in every sector. The increasing importance of cities has combined with digital advances to create the conditions, offering a scale suitable for change to emerge and the technology to shape it.

This is allowing change to reach the mainstream, from the complementary currency movement to participatory as opposed to representative means of government.

Even the world of business is changing. For example, in the US a new legal structure called a “benefit corporation” came into law in Maryland in 2010, and has now been authorised by 30 states.

Benefit corporations must explicitly state a social or environmental purpose that they exist to maximise, and in service of which they make their profit. If even businesses are abandoning self-interest, you can be sure the world is changing. This means a new golden age for museums.

The end of your peripheral consumer era role as little more than highbrow visitor attractions, and a new role at the core of society.

The opportunity is this: as citizens, we need to create and curate our identities in ways that go beyond what we buy (as we did as consumers), and reach into who we are, where we are from, what we value and what we create.

The concept of the museum – the place of the muse, the home of inspiration – is perfectly suited to meet this need. Museums could become what shopping malls have been – the cultural heart of places.

But this must be a move forward to enablement, not back to paternalism. Collections will be important, but they must be seen as means, notends.Curatorsmust become facilitators of conversations, not just experts on objects. Museum spaces must be structured for creation, not just consumption.

In short, the dictionary definition of the museum as a place where objects are stored and exhibited must be thrown out. They must become platforms for people to create culture together.

Many of you are on this already. What Tony Butler and the team are doing in Derby is a fine example.

Miguel Amadeo, a curator at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, shared the platform with us, and introduced us to the concept of arte util (“useful art”), which is at the heart of the gallery’s work.

We are working on both sides of the Atlantic, with Tate and with the Baltimore Museum of Art, to explore what this means for them.

If you are on this journey already, take confidence from the wider context I offer, and push ahead. If you are not, get moving.