How museums can stay relevant and drive transformation

Creating better connected institutions
Communities Cultural Democracy
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Mark O’Neill
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My first thought when Glenn Hooper asked me to co-edit a book on how museums connect with communities was whether the world needed another museum book. But he is persuasive, I am suggestible and, three years later, Connecting Museums is out.

I feel that museums realise only a fraction of their potential. Despite huge improvements in accessibility, visitors are overwhelmingly drawn from society’s best-educated sectors. The public museum was invented by Victorian pioneers with vaunting ambitions for “educating the masses” – who flocked to museums until, within a generation, they were disabused of any notion that they were welcome.

Today, the strongest predictor of visiting a museum is level of education. In Scotland, the 20% of best-off people are twice as likely to visit a museum as the 20% worst off. But those with a degree or professional qualification are 4.6 times more likely to visit than those with no qualifications; art gallery ratios are even more dramatic.

St Fagans National Museum of History: a case study of Amgueddfa Cymru explores what happens when a museum becomes part of its community’s ecosystem

So, have museums and art galleries abandoned their role as institutions of public education? Are they now just relentlessly serving the already educated? To address this, I believed we needed a theory of everything for museums, but my co-editor persuaded me that recent research exploring democratising approaches would be more useful, in the words of Helen Graham, a professor at the University of Leeds’ School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, in making museums once again an “important experiment, a great participatory inquiry”.

Our contributors reveal how, even after years of disinvestment, museums find new ways to be relevant. They include wellbeing services, for which there is now compelling, population-level evidence of impact.

Two studies explore how Manchester and Glasgow are responding strategically to this evidence, building on their founding traditions. The meanings of “community” are explored in chapters concerning the role of heritage consultants in a town shattered by deindustrialisation, and by a curator who steps outside his professional identity to become an “active part of a community”.

Case studies of driving transformation, in Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), Bede’s World and a mining museum in Ireland, explore what happens if museums shift from aloofness to being part of their community’s ecosystem.

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And there are plenty of warning voices. Digital access is often seen as either a problem or a panacea, while the recent fashion for “empathy” through digital immersion is questioned, suggesting that without links to an understanding of the underlying causes of injustice, there is a risk of validating complacency. Many authors say that a key issue for museums contributing to democratisation is their commitment to representing consensus. Despite issues with resources and the burdens of collections care, a museum is only as good as its analysis of society.

We hope these studies will contribute to the growth of more rounded and self-questioning museums.

Mark O’Neill worked with Glasgow’s museums for more than 25 years, playing a key role in developing the city’s cultural offer

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