Last month's MA conference took Museums 2020 as one of its themes

MA shares its 2020 vision

Geraldine Kendall, Issue 112/12, p17, 01.12.2012
Consultation about the impact museums can have on people's lives generates debate
For the past few months, the Museums Association (MA) has been in dialogue with museum, gallery and heritage professionals as part of Museums 2020, its campaign to create a strategic vision of the kind of impacts that the sector can have on people’s lives over the next decade.

The UK-wide roadshow of discussion workshops, which culminated in the Museums 2020 theme at last month’s MA conference in Edinburgh, stimulated some lively debate. The consultation has attracted support from many areas, with one respondent hailing it as “bold and inspirational”.

There are many examples of museums that are already having an impact on local communities and individuals and several organisations, such as Museums and Galleries Scotland, have said they would like to work with the MA to develop the vision.

But the debate has also raised some differences on the purpose of museums. At the heart of the debate, says the MA’s head of policy, Maurice Davies, is the question of whether museums should have an intrinsic or instrumental value – that is, whether their value to society is already woven into the everyday work that they do or whether they should be proactively trying to make a greater difference to communities and society.

Museums 2020 wants to boost museums’ focus on the latter. The draft consultation document, published in July, talks about the impact museums can have on the wellbeing of individuals, communities, society and the environment, and says they should embed this approach at their core, making activities such as co-production and participation and more central to their work.

Key to that philosophy is the view that collections are not just valuable for their own sake – museums should see them as a means to achieving a wider societal impact, rather than simply storing, preserving and displaying objects as an end in itself.

Social workers

This idea has been controversial, garnering a wide response when Davies blogged about it on the MA website earlier this year.  One contributor put it bluntly: “I never signed up to be a social worker.” Another wrote that Museums 2020 was not doing enough to advocate the value of collections (and of future collecting) to areas with less public-facing benefit, such as scientific research.

Tim Ewin, curator of the Natural History Museum’s earth sciences department, believes the Museums 2020 document lacks balance and its focus on improving social justice reflects only a “small part of what museums do”.

He thinks the campaign should highlight both intrinsic and instrumental impact.“I’d like to see the value of authoritative knowledge put in there as something that’s an impact. It’s one of the unique selling points of museums,” he added.

The role of collections isn’t the only complex issue facing the Museums 2020 panel. Several questions crop up a number of times in the 70-plus written responses from individuals and organisations such as the University Museums Group, Heritage Lottery Fund and Museums Galleries Scotland.

Overlooking diversity

Respondents have queried whether the final version of Museums 2020 should offer a “one size fits all” range of impacts that all museums should seek to achieve; or should recognise the diversity of the sector and the varied communities that museums serve and the limited resources of smaller organisations.

Other respondents felt the document didn’t take into account the impact of cuts on museum activity. There were also calls for greater clarity on how impact should be measured and how museums and galleries can move on from the traditional use of visitor figures as a performance indicator.

Because of its focus on local communities, Museums 2020 has been criticised for failing to acknowledge the impact museums have on the wider tourist economy.

Nat Edwards, coordinator of the Museums 2020 conference theme, said that one of the key issues raised in conference sessions was what is it that makes museums unique and differentiates them from other artistic, cultural or educational offers.

The MA board now faces the task of bringing this thinking together into a vision that speaks for the sector as a whole. Board members are considering whether to work in partnership with other bodies on the final version of the document.

The MA is also looking at whether Museums 2020 will evolve into a practical programme that would enable museums to implement some of its key recommendations.

Further research is being conducted into public attitudes to museums and galleries, with the aim of making the campaign as outward-looking as possible.

Davies said he was keen to address all of the issues and differing opinions brought to light during the discussions. But he added that he also wanted to avoid the danger of making Museums 2020 too broad or too bland to have much of an impact itself.

Museums 2020: key questions

How can Museums 2020 better explore the role and use of collections?

Is it possible to better articulate the distinctive benefits that museums in particular can bring?

Is there a wider range of impacts that every museum should try to achieve for audiences and communities?

What measures would give a better idea of the range, quality and impact of museum work?