Last night a museum saved my life

Rebecca Atkinson, 02.07.2013
Reactions to the MA's new campaign
The Museums Association (MA) this week launched its new report, Museums Change Lives – its vision for how all museums can support positive social change.

At an event in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, museum professionals from a wide range of different institutions gathered to discuss their own work in this area of practice, and some of the implications of the report.

Feedback from attendees was largely positive, with many people I spoke to praising the report as timely and courageous.

Others wondered what the wider response would be from the sector – it’s a bold call after all, and will no doubt reignite debate about museums as social workers, and so on.

At the time of writing, there has already been some press commentary suggesting the report overlooks the role of objects.

One thing that the report recognises is that museums are already helping to change people lives, by inspiring communities and individuals, through their wellbeing work and by helping to create better places.

Case studies in the report, which can be read in more detail in the accompanying Museums Change Lives web resource, really help bring this work to life for me, and make me reflect on my personal relationship with museums and their impact on me.

I am very privileged in that my parents regularly took me to the local museum and art gallery when I was growing up, and visits to family in London, Cambridge and York provided wider access to art, world cultures and trains. Museums didn’t change my life, but they certainly helped shape it.

Since I began working at the MA, I’ve had the opportunity to see how museums are making a difference on a much wider scale than their effect on little old me.

Writing an issue of Museum Practice on homelessness was particularly eye-opening, as I saw practical examples of how museums can provide a way back into mainstream society – and a sense of hope – through art classes, volunteering and giving people a voice in displays.

This is not about doing something instead of “traditional” museum work – conserving objects, research, unlocking history.

As the case studies in the report demonstrate, collections sit at the heart of much of this work. They don’t have to – after all, museums have other assets, such as buildings, staff and knowledge – but in most cases they do.

The question now is to what extent is museums work to make a difference embedded in the essence of what museums are, what they do and what they are for?

And is such work sustainable in the face of cuts, and is there organisation and sector-wide commitment to it?