Museums 2020 elicits strong views on the future of museums

Geraldine Kendall, 10.10.2012
Key themes emerge at half-way point of UK-wide roadshow
The Museums Association’s Museums 2020 roadshow has reached its half-way point and already a number of key themes are beginning to emerge from the discussions.

Workshops have been held across the UK in recent weeks as part of the MA’s Museums 2020 campaign to debate the future of museums and the kind of impacts they can have.

Many participants say they have found it helpful to think about the impact of museums. One said the key thing they got from the workshop was "the new language being used - wellbeing, participation, social justice - and what those things imply in terms of cultural change".

For another it was a revelation that "we need to engage with our users at a whole new level and empower them".

Participants have been largely comfortable with the idea of increasing participation in a museum's work and decision-making. One said: "Opening up, inviting in, will enrich what expert professionals can offer."

The greatest differences of opinion came in the polarised debate on audiences versus collections. Museums 2020 argues that increasing beneficial impacts through collections is at the core of museum work.

But while some participants agreed, others spoke of the need to "expand and remain relevant without losing what makes museums museums".

Some were "concerned by the lack of thought and mention given to the importance of collections" and argued for the intrinsic value of museums.

On the other side of the debate, participants expressed concerns about "excessive defensiveness" and observed that "museums are ambivalent about change and the future".

Some participants suggested that Museums 2020 should pay more attention to the economic and tourism impact of museums and the growing impact of digital work. Many would like Museums 2020 to do more to explore the role and use of collections.

Most participants said that, while attendance numbers are likely to continue to be the key performance measure, they would like additional ways of describing success that give a better idea of the range and quality of their work.

Finally, some people said museums are becoming even more risk averse. But most people agreed that to increase impact, creative approaches are needed - which means taking more risks.

Join in the Museums 2020 debate online or book a place on one of the remaining workshops to have your say.

Workshops are free to attend and open to all MA individual, insitutional and corporate members.


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Tim Desmond
MA Member
Chief Executive , Galleries of Justice Museum
24.10.2012, 16:33
In 2008 I guided our board of trustees to change the name of our charity from the Museum of Law Trust to become the Egalitarian Trust, with a mission ‘to manage and sustain our sites of national interest so that they act as a historical resource, from which the public can learn about the law and its role in contributing to a fair and equal society’.

This illustrates why I think museums should play a role within Human Rights, Equality and Social Justice.

As well as the social purpose of our charity in 2008 I also felt that museums weren’t recognised as agents of social change, and therefore I needed to reposition the organisation beyond the limitations of the sector it existed within.

4 years later I’m still not sure if museums are widely recognised as having a social purpose and it’s clear that the Arts Council with their 10 year strategic goals still live within the vision of 'great art for everyone'.

Whilst this sets the vision for the excellence of collections the vital issue is what museums do with them, a commodity you cannot measure through designation or visitor numbers.

Looking at the 2020 discussion paper there is a real accent on the responsibility museums have to use their collections as medium through which society can question how it acts.

In an era where we are losing faith in our politicians, the media and religion it is vital that museums enable their visitors to learn from the past to help make sense of the present.

The famous quote by George Santayana says it all: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

2020 should engage with the Arts Council and government to show museums are leading the way within the Arts, by setting a social agenda which can enrich the lives of our citizens and act as a lifelong learning tool.

Through the Egalitarian Trust and its learning division the National centre for Citizenship and the Law we have created partnerships from outside the sector working with commercial businesses to make ourselves more sustainable and Law courts to increase our capacity to deliver our mission.

What is interesting is that we are talking both our collection and expertise outside the Galleries of Justice Museum and this illustrates how museums in the future will not be necessarily confined to their buildings.

The world is changing and I have over the last three years seen my education syndicate concept being taken up in different guises from the Arts Council initiative which involves nationals working with regional museums on education projects, to trusts being formed across cultural organisations in cities such as Coventry.

My simple view was that economies of scale would play their part in bringing organisations together to achieve excellent services. My concern is that it is essential that this is done for a social purpose as well as a financial one. By ensuring this Museums 2020 can create a republic of museums which will make the impact on society the MA is asking for.