Museums need to increase their social relevance

Lots of museums are using their collections to connect with big challenges
Christian Baars
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Museums have long had their finger on the pulse of social change, but are they still socially relevant? It is no coincidence that the initial transformation from private collections to public museums happened during a time of crucial social change: the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries and dramatic scientific advances, urbanisation and the development of new working patterns, which afforded time for leisure and education. The purpose of providing public access to, in essence, private collections was to “save the men from the gin palaces” and instil the idea of culture and education for all.

In recent years, museums have changed again, making collections more accessible than ever. Digital technologies, behind-the-scenes tours of collection stores and community projects make museums and their collections more relevant to today’s society. The public wants greater interaction with cultural objects, and museums up and down the country are offering improved access, with interactive and hands-on displays.

Are these recent developments in the museum sector tools for a greater purpose? The Museums Association (MA) has maintained for some time that museums should be more actively engaged with social issues. In Wales, the Baroness Andrews report into culture and poverty found that museums are not just about participation, but are active agents of social change. And David Fleming, the president of the MA, has made the point that museums can no longer be neutral places, as even neutrality “is the covert adoption of a position”.

With growing concern about the state of the planet, the sector now takes a stand on environmental issues. Lots of museums are building a clearer purpose for themselves by using their collections to connect with big challenges, such as the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Biodiversity Convention and carbon dioxide reduction targets.

Not everybody in the sector is convinced that this is the future, something that was clear when the issue was debated at the MA’s 2014 conference in Cardiff. Katy Archer, the director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester outlined her hopes to inspire the campaigners of the future. Stephen Carl-Lokko, the collections development officer at the International Slavery Museum, said the institution encourages visitors to engage actively with contemporary issues, as museums do not stand apart from society and can challenge social attitudes. Julian Rosser, formerly campaigns and communications coordinator at Oxfam Cymru, said his approach includes the position that “campaigning” can be used to raise awareness, to get people to understand the issues a museum is talking about. This can be politically neutral and non-aggressive, without going after a politician’s scalp. The tactics required for this approach of engaging with and inspiring people, Rosser said, are already museums’ bread and butter.

The debate brought to light concerns about public acceptance (“would the public come to the museum as a place of debate?”), and people’s trust in museums’ neutrality combined with the concern about potential loss of public funding if museums take an openly non-neutral stance. Do collections constrain the areas a museum can campaign about? Who decides what to campaign on – and whose side to take?

The consensus was that museums must engage with social issues more actively. A post-workshop poll found most participants thought museums should get involved in some form of campaigning, with the developmental learning approach favoured.

Museums can increase their relevance by talking the language of their community. The sector appears to be ready to take this step.

Christian Baars is senior preventive conservator at Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd (National Museum Cardiff)


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