Sharon Heal, Issue 114/10, p4, 01.10.2014
Tackling the big issues in museums
Last month, I was lucky enough to be in Scotland just days before the referendum.

Despite all the frantic polling and second guessing, I was determined to see what the real picture was and it didn’t take long to find out.

Everyone from the bus driver to the security guard at the University of Glasgow was keen to share their views and engage in the debate. The real picture it seems – almost regardless of the final result – was that the people of Scotland had genuinely and enthusiastically joined in a discussion about the future of their country.

But apart from some heated discussions in the cafe at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, I couldn’t find any evidence that museums were engaging with the debate.

Of course it’s difficult for publicly funded bodies and those who work in them to be seen to be taking sides, but fostering debate is not taking sides. There’s no reason why museums shouldn’t be providing a forum in which these types of discussions 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 was the perfect opportunity to do that. I’m sure many museums were 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.

Museums and the organisations that represent them will now have to take on board Scotland’s decision and its repercussions for the whole of the UK. This debate is not over and museums should grasp the opportunity to embrace it.

Sharon Heal, editor, Museums Journal