The concept of soft power has been around for some time, and many museums have embraced the idea that they can have a positive influence on the world stage through their international work. Museums, which are perceived as being at arm’s length from the government, are seen as ideal institutions to communicate a positive impression of UK culture, history and values.
But this is not as straightforward as it first seems. One of the problems is that, as people increasingly question the power structures that exist within museums themselves, issues arise over the accountability of those wielding soft power and who actually benefits from it. What is the ultimate goal? To improve society? But on whose terms?
A second problem is that while it is a laudable aim to communicate values such as tolerance and inclusivity, such messages are increasingly being undermined by the actions of museums themselves.
Again, museums are being asked some difficult questions over the way they operate, particularly larger institutions, whether it is their relationship with sponsors, their environmental impact, how they are dealing with the legacy of their colonial pasts or how they treat their staff and the partners they work with.
Many of these issues were exposed by the resignation of British Museum trustee Ahdaf Soueif, who said the institution needed to take a clear ethical position on issues such as the climate crisis, inequality, colonialism, democracy, citizenship and human rights.
Soueif, a keynote speaker at this year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton, wrote in a blog: “The British Museum is not a good thing in and of itself. It is good only to the extent that its influence in the world is for the good.”
As Soueif points out, the British Museum does a lot of fantastic work and its staff excel in areas such as research, curation and learning, while it also supports the wider sector through initiatives such as its international training programme. But the issue is how the museum operates as a whole.
There is no doubt that there are opportunities for wielding soft power – and that it does have the potential to be a force for good. But maybe museums need to think about reassessing their own values before they take to the global stage.
Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal