Who do we think we are? - Museums Association

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Who do we think we are?

Gordon Brown's fixation with Britishness prompted discussions by the British Library and the British Museum on an exhibition of modern Britain. Now Brown is prime minister, could a museum of modern Britain become a reality? We asked six cultural practitioners about their vision for such a venue
Museums Association
Alec Coles is the director of Tyne & Wear Museums

A museum of modern Britain will have to justify its name: it will be about Britain - not England, not London; it will be modern in content and design; and it will be a museum - but not as we know it. It could be celebratory: London 2012; Scottish prime ministers; and Welsh voices (Katherine Jenkins, the Manic Street Preachers).

It could be sombre: global warming, flooding, teenage pregnancies, binge drinking, obesity (will visitors be careful not to slip on the reconstruction vomit as they may be unable to haul themselves up again?). Ironically, it could be everything that the Millennium Dome aspired to, but was not.

It will represent all the people of Britain; and being about modern Britain, it will be unencumbered by the gross imbalance and skewed representation of historic collections.

It might include some icons: a Pendolino train (a few going spare, I believe), stem cell research wizardry, a shoe-bomber's shoe, Alan Shearer's explosive right boot, Grayson Perry's pots and frocks…

But if it is brave, it will let us, the British people, craft it. It will acknowledge not only our diversity, but the diverse ways we express ourselves - and not only, or always, through our material culture. It will illuminate similarities and differences in our cultural origins, and also in our futures.

The MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook generation is busy constructing e.records of its lives, and while these might be embellished, is this not their new reality? Real lives laid bare and shared in real time. Digitally, actually or conceptually the museum will allow us to capture and express our own stories, and to create and explore our own individual experiences.

As we enter, actually or virtually, the museum of modern Britain, we will continue to create and change it. Our identities will be established, revealed, and melded - and as we leave it, things will never be the same again.

David Anderson is the director of learning and interpretation at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When Neil Postman addressed the International Council of Museums triennial conference in The Hague in 1989, he asked his audience to imagine they were in Germany in 1933 and had no reason to fear for their lives. What kind of museum would they create? The one that most Germans wanted, or the one their society needed? Ours is a different society in a different age, but the question remains valid.

In 1998 I was a judge for the Irish Museum of the Year Award. Down County Museum particularly impressed me for its vision and purpose. In 1798, County Down had been an epicentre of the national rebellion by both Protestants and Catholics against the English and their Irish supporters. The museum's exhibition and associated programmes engaged its community in a debate - uncomfortable for some - about this event. It was a truth well timed. But why did no museum in England (to the best of my knowledge) stage an exhibition on the bicentenary? Was it not a significant episode in British, as well as Irish, history?

Britain's story is, to an exceptional degree, an international one. What has been the relationship of Britain with, say, China or the Middle East over the past two centuries? Who are the peoples who have migrated here, why did they come and what have they contributed to British society? On this our national museums, mostly founded in an Imperial age, are largely silent.

Today we live in a post-industrial economy. Without a museum to present - and question - the development of modern Britain from a social, civic and internationalist perspective, we are in a sense a people without a history, a consciousness, or a voice. In a globalised world, this is a void we can no longer afford.

Tim Desmond is the chief executive of the NCCL Galleries of Justice in Nottingham

When I lived in Ireland in the early 1990s there would frequently come a point, usually late in the evening in some bar, when I would be targeted as a representative of Britain and asked to explain my 800 years of oppression over the Irish. It always made me think that to the English, history really doesn't have an impact on how we see ourselves as citizens and how we conduct ourselves.

So, why create a museum of modern Britain? Back in the pub in Dublin, I always used to respond that you couldn't write off a race of people that included the Beatles, Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc. Museums should guide us to learn about our past (the good and the bad) and to challenge our shared future.

I would choose Buckingham Palace to become my museum of modern Britain. With its associations with the Victorians and Queen Victoria, who had such an influence on how modern Britain is shaped, I think its central location and extensive grounds are the perfect location.

Another worthwhile consideration is that it would avoid the cost and time spent commissioning award-winning London-based architect Lord Foster of 'Gherkin' (Swiss Re Tower) fame. Themed exhibitions would include: war and conflict, art, music, industry, empire, architecture, immigration, politics, law and order, sex and marriage, and fashion.

The content of the museum would be devised through an extensive process of public consultation to give it a national identity as well as recording what the British think it is to be British. Education would be at the heart of the museum with the accent on exploring citizenship and giving participants the opportunity to create a fluid constitution for Britain supporting all its inhabitants.

Each year the museum would appoint a guest outreach director who would champion a national education programme with related touring exhibitions throughout the British Isles. Of course I would put myself forward as the first director of this new museum, but someone needs to talk to the Queen about moving arrangements, etc.

Jem Fraser is the Royal Museum project director at National Museums Scotland

What stories would be told in a museum of modern Britain? I feel British - my father died for Britain in the second world war. For 250 years British values built an empire with all the good and bad aspects that involves, helping to save Europe from the Nazis. But that was then, how about now? What is Britishness about today?

A museum of modern Britain would first have to decide on a set of values - what values do the peoples of Britain want to preserve, discard and adopt? A cue for another great debate? Nevertheless, it's an important one.

Once the values are identified, the stories would follow - stories that would powerfully exhibit these values and provide a focus for all people to explore their identities, foster mutual understanding and think about their behaviour towards others. These stories would have to acknowledge and explore the darker aspects, as well as the inspirational histories, of the population of these islands.

What and where would such a museum be? What should be in it? Modern society is participative and people engage actively in many ways that exhibit their identities, beliefs and values. These include media phone-ins, charity pop concerts, wearing coloured ribbons, fashion and music. In order to keep alive its relevance and interest as well as its purpose and values, the museum of modern Britain could not be housed in one location.

The museum could include a series of exhibitions and events, building on existing collections, creating new ones and commissioning the most creative groups to produce new displays in different venues throughout Britain, either actually or digitally. The National Theatre of Scotland, a commissioning agency without a building, provides one such model.

The museum of modern Britain would be a new brand and could exhibit internationally as well as nationally, building a new Britishness that would be recognised and respected globally. The hallmarks could be honesty, respect, courage, compassion, innovation and insight. Establishing such a museum would, indeed, be a challenge.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the director of research strategy and the head of migration, equalities and citizenship at the thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research

A museum of modern Britain could reflect and respond to the diversity of contemporary Britain. A new national museum that presented a fresh and dynamic survey of who we are would be a powerful statement that our cultural institutions recognise and celebrate contemporary diversity.

Such a museum would also help move beyond tired representations of 'host/minority' communities and instead interrogate the various and changing identities making up British society. It could provide a powerful place for debates about identity and help educators teach the citizenship curriculum.

One of the areas that needs particular attention is migration. Migration is as central to the history of Britain as it is to the histories of countries such as Australia and the United States. But while those countries have well-developed museums that reflect and respond to the phenomenon, the coverage of migration within UK museums has often been partial, temporary or small scale.

To do justice to representing what Britain is we need a major institution linking the stories of recent immigrants to all British citizens. It should present not just the distinctiveness of particular groups but the migration-driven, shared, hybrid culture in which all British residents participate.

We also need an initiative that highlights the links that every British family has to other parts of the world. A museum of Britain to celebrate the history and experience of diversity in modern Britain would be an invaluable addition to our rich cultural landscape.

Wim van der Weiden is the chairman of the European Museum Forum Judging Committee. He has been involved in planning a new museum that will tell the history of the Dutch people

About eight years ago there were investigations among the Dutch people, including politicians, to see what they knew about Dutch history. The results were astonishing. Only one politician could answer ten simple questions correctly. It was decided that the knowledge of Dutch history needed to be improved and from that decision the idea of the national museum of Dutch history was born.

In June this year the decision was taken in parliament that the National History Museum would be built in Arnhem next to the Open Air Museum (which is also known as the National Heritage Museum). There was great concern that this would be a nationalistic museum. It was decided that parliamentarians should have no input on content, and that any such decisions would be made by museum professionals.

In our research, immigrants to Holland said they wanted to know more about the history but that they must not be obliged to learn about it. Museums should not be an identity factory.

In Holland we start with the British definition of a museum - knowledge for the citizens. But this should be knowledge without trying to convert people. It is important that the museum should also display both positive and negative pages of history.

With this museum the aim is to target groups who never visit a museum - approximately 60 per cent of the population. To initiate people's attention we would start with modern times. For instance, the founder of the Dutch State was murdered and a parallel could be drawn with the political murders of recent times.

I believe that visitors who would not normally visit a museum must be given the chance to identify themselves and understand a little bit more about why the world is how it is.

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