In museums they trust - Museums Association

In museums they trust

Public survey finds collections, display and education are priorities
With recent high-profile scandals in the government and media, the British public seems to have increasingly little faith in the country’s cornerstone institutions.

But there is at least one exception – museums are some of the most trusted organisations in the UK, according to a new survey commissioned by the Museums Association (MA).

The research forms part of the MA’s Museums 2020 project to create a strategic vision for the impact museums can have on individuals, communities and society. It was funded by Arts Council England, Museums Galleries Scotland and Cymal: Museums Libraries Archives Wales, and carried out by consumer survey company BritainThinks.

Plenty of information already exists on what visitors, as consumers, like and dislike about museums. But the MA wanted to ask people, as citizens, to share their perspective on the purpose of museums and their value to society.

This meant reaching out to those who almost never visit museums, as well as those who go frequently.

The methodology used by the research team sought to take the survey’s participants on a “journey” to ensure that they had a more informed perspective to offer at the end of the process.

Six all-day workshops, each with between 12 and 18 participants, were held across England, Scotland and Wales in institutions of various types, from Glasgow’s Riverside Museum to the Museum of East Anglian Life.

At the start of the day, participants were asked to give their spontaneous perceptions on the purpose and role of museums.

The team then conducted a series of group activities geared at stimulating discussion about the wider roles of museums – those that might not be immediately recognisable to the general public.

These included exercises such as a pub quiz on types of museums, their visitor numbers and how they are funded; and a brainstorming session that required people to write an obituary describing what would be lost if all museums closed.

Consistency of views

What surprised the research team, says Justine Lukas of BritainThinks, was the consistency of views across all of the workshops. Even people that didn’t visit frequently showed a strong emotional attachment to museums, and most trusted them highly as guardians of factual information and free from bias.

There was also widespread feeling that museums are under threat from budget cuts, as well as concerns about apathy, lack of attendance and technological advances.

Participants were asked to group the work carried out by museums into four categories: essential purposes; priority purposes; low-priority purposes; and purposes they challenged (see box).

The results for essential purposes were unsurprising; holding collections and creating knowledge. Education was consistently listed as a priority purpose, and accessibility also rated as vital to a museum’s services.

“Fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have seen those views,” says Lukas, reflecting the fact that advances in the sector’s thinking have trickled down to the public.

That change of attitude is significant when considering what the workshop participants ranked as low-priority purposes. These included many of the key impacts cited by professionals in the Museums 2020 campaign, such as fostering a sense of community or helping the vulnerable.

Many workshop participants were dubious about those activities, fearing that, in taking them on, museums would spread themselves too thinly and undermine their core purposes.

There was a belief that other state bodies were more suited to those roles, and people were surprised to learn how much outreach work museums already carry out.

Scepticism was strongest when people were asked to consider the part museums could play in promoting more abstract values such as social justice and human rights – areas in which the sector’s thinking is rapidly moving forward.

Apolitical stance

Museums are highly admired because of their apolitical stance, the research found, and there was a strong sense that if they started “telling people what to think” or became spaces for controversial debate, this might damage their integrity.

Attempting to shape values, even in a transparent way, could be seen by the public as betraying a museum’s essential purpose of conveying factual information.

But head of policy at the Museums Association, Maurice Davies, says: “The sector is always going to be ahead of public perception.”

Lukas agrees, saying people are often averse to change, so such reticence should be “taken with a pinch of salt”.

What the survey has shown, she adds, is that if museums are to expand their brief over the next decade, it will require careful positioning to ensure the public remains onside.

What the public think about museums

Essential purposes

  • Care and preservation of heritage
  • Holding collections and mounting displays
  • Creating knowledge for and about society

Priority purposes

  • Promoting economic growth through tourism, investment and regeneration
  • Facilitating individual development through education, stimulation and building skills
  • Promoting happiness and wellbeing

Low-priority purposes

  • Fostering a sense of community
  • Helping the vulnerable
  • Protecting the natural environment

Purposes challenged by the public

  • Providing a forum for debate
  • Promoting social justice and human rights

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