David Anderson: society needs us more than ever

MA president emphasises moral responsibility of museums to communities
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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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."

Update
14.10.2014

This story was updated to include information about conference delegates.



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