Let’s not be so timorous

Sharon Heal, 16.09.2014
Whether it’s Yes or No, museums should engage with the debate
It felt fortuitous to be heading to Scotland just days before the referendum this week.

The airport in London seemed to be full of young journos who were a combination of giddy about being sent on assignment and cynical about the debate that is taking place. I was determined to see what the real picture was in Scotland and it didn’t take long to find out.

On the bus into Glasgow I played spot the poster - but soon had to give up because there were so many Yes posters and hardly any No Thanks. In fact the only No I saw was in the undecided/deeply conflicted household that had both Yes and No in the window.

But of course winning the poster war doesn’t mean that it will be Yes on the day.

My first stop off the bus was Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum - one of my all-time favourites. It was lovely to see it so full on a grey Monday lunchtime - it’s always claimed to be of the people and for the people and it seemed genuinely to be so.

But apart from some heated discussions about the referendum that were going on around me in the café I couldn’t find any evidence that this museum was engaging with the debate. Which is odd considering it has not been afraid of sticking its neck out on controversial subjects in the past - domestic violence, racism, sectarianism, gay rights and censorship, to name a few.

Of course it’s difficult for publicly funded bodies and those that work in them to be seen to be taking sides - but fostering debate is not taking sides. I see no reason why museums shouldn’t be providing a forum in which the discussion can take place.

I was in Glasgow to speak to MA students at the university about Museums Change Lives, the Museums Association’s vision for the impact that museums can have in society.

One of the themes of Museums Change Lives is that museums can make themselves more relevant by engaging in the issues and debates that are taking place in contemporary society.

The referendum seems like the perfect opportunity to do that but when I asked students if they felt that museums in Scotland were doing that the answer was a resounding no.

I’m sure many museums are collecting the evidence of the referendum from both sides of the divide. But standing on the sidelines and creating an exhibition once it’s all over is not enough. It’s the taking part that counts.


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Nat Edwards
MA Member
Assistant Director (South), National Trust for Scotland
18.09.2014, 16:45
Well said Sharon - but in defence of the sector, some museums in Scotland have been a wee bit less tim'rous. Stirling Smith has organised and is hosting referendum-related discussions and events and at the NTS, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has had a series of projects tackling issues of independence as well as organising and hosting debates - I even chaired a Yes/No debate in the usually more sedate environment of Pollok House. At NMS an informal referendum discussion group has been established by staff.. Where museums haven't engaged, In my experience it has been governing bodies who have tended to have less of an appetite rather than the museums themselves - an whatever happens tomorrow morning, theses governing bodies are going to need to grow a pair and join in with a civic and cultural society that will look different - no matter what the result
Rachel Cockett
MA Member
Director of Development, Birmingham Museums Trust
16.09.2014, 18:21
Just spotted:
Historic Scotland has appealed to campaigners on both sides of the Scottish referendum to resist placing eye-catching messages of support on heritage sites
MA Member
16.09.2014, 16:09
I hardly think that stating support for either the Yes or no campaign, which are political issues, can be compared with the Kelvingrove tackling social issues as listed above. One is the duty of an art gallery, the other is not. At a time when the country is split pretty much 50/50 in this debate, showing allegiance to either side would be inappropriate and could alienate visitors.

As for saying that museums should be providing a forum for debate to take place, does the second debate between Darling/Salmond (shown live on the BBC on 25th August) which took place in Kelvingrove's main hall, with 200 people in the audience, not count?
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
16.09.2014, 16:49
But Sharon isn't saying that museums should state support for one side or the other in this debate; she's saying that they could be fostering debate. And I agree. Who says tackling social issues is the "duty of an art gallery" while fostering debate isn't? Where does that rule appear?