David Anderson: society needs us more than ever

Geraldine Kendall, 14.10.2014
MA president emphasises moral responsibility of museums to communities
The Museums Association’s (MA) annual conference, which saw a record number of delegates this year and the largest ever international delegation, opened in Cardiff last week with a speech from president David Anderson that condemned Westminster-led austerity and urged museums to step up to their “moral responsibility” to make a difference in people’s lives.

Anderson, who is the director general of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, said communities were facing severe challenges because of cuts, social injustice and the increasing corporatisation of public space. “Society really needs us more than ever,” he said.

In a keynote address that celebrated the MA’s 125th anniversary, Anderson explored how the great thinkers of the past could offer today’s museums a way forward, and how their philosophies chimed with the ideals of Museums Change Lives, the MA’s vision for the impact museums can have on society.

“With Museums Change Lives we are building on roots that are deep,” said Anderson. He cited figures such as Henry Cole, the first director of the South Kensington Museum (subsequently renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum), who championed the idea of education for all and the connection between museums and learning, as well as the nineteenth century sociologist Patrick Geddes, who pioneered thinking on how the design of public spaces can influence wellbeing.

“There’s a great deal of research coming through on what museums can really do that wasn’t available to the thinkers of the past. The Kay Andrews report [published in Wales last year] gave us powerful evidence of the potential of museums to alleviate the symptoms of poverty.”

Anderson also raised concerns about how cuts were impacting museum values, describing the last 12 months as a “notorious year” that had underlined the threat facing the sector, with financially-motivated disposals such as the Northampton Borough Council’s £15.9m sale of the Egyptian statue Sekhemka setting a worrying precedent.

“We are concerned as an association that short term financial gain will lead governing bodies to start making decisions that are against the long term benefit of their communities,” he said.

Museums have an essential role in society as an alternative to market-led ideology, Anderson said. "The market can do many things but it is everywhere and nowhere. It creates utopias and dystopias. It cares for neither the past nor the future.

"People, places and communities need museums at their best as never before... We in museums have a moral responsibility and it is not one we can ever leave aside."


This story was updated to include information about conference delegates.


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18.10.2014, 09:31
Mr Anderson's points make the case of the need to re-establish connections between museums and their communities adding more value on the democratisation agenda. I am afraid that the societal and financial challenges will carry on restricting many of museums's capacities to sustain and offer their services. It it a time for citizens, local leaders, decision-makers and museum professionals to realise that the intrinsic and instrumental distinction of the impact museums can make to society is not working for the benefit of anyone. It is an urgent time for an open and trusted dialogue between museums and diverse sectors and disciplines, for more decisive changes in internal policies and practices, for new connections between institutions and people.
MA Member
16.10.2014, 13:06
A reluctance to admit that museums are in the business of cultural tourism skews all arguments. The London bias in Arts Council funding and private sponsorship is predicated on the economic reality that tourism is a major industry and the arts - incuding museums - are a flagship for UK plc especially as the nationals are free.
We have become confused ostriches, burying our heads in our hands if not the sand; failing to capitalise on revenue streams from visitors who expect to pay whilst arguing almost exclusively for the social capital as a benchmark of a museum's worth. Undeniably the social role is important; but surely it is the cultural role of museums that needs to be embraced and celebrated more strongly and more wisely. We are living in a world where the democratisation of culture is taking place. A few projects and places and organisations have responded to this phenomenon. The majority have not. Where is the sea-change? We need a deeper debate on why one is needed and what it could mean for future employment priorities.
16.10.2014, 12:39
But how do national museums in particular, sponsored to the hilt by BP, Shell, arms dealers, the banks, represent an alternative to market led ideology? Aren't they actually enabling the market to 'wash' its more negative imagery, providing valuable kudos by association with public arts and culture?

Like the so called 'government' they serve, the democratic values of national museums are being railroaded by corporate interests. Yes, we need to reclaim this public space but to do that we also need to reclaim our right to representative and democratic government and politics. What is happening in the public space of museums is also telling of what is happening to our democracy and politics.
16.10.2014, 10:12
Really? It strikes me that museums exist for the elite - they materially denote and enforce distinctions of inequality. The corporations are well and truly served while 'do gooding' efforts to 'engage' the prols with 'useful' activities to keep em busy and turn their lives around... are churned out in museum media like so much X-Factor 'its all about the personal journey' drivel!