Museums should be more proactive on the big issues

Geraldine Kendall, 27.06.2012
More contributors add their voices to the Museums 2020 campaign
The latest contributors to the Museums Association’s Museums 2020 debate show a consensus that museums should be more proactive in addressing civic and environmental issues and campaigning for human rights and social equality.

The debate is part of the MA’s ongoing campaign to establish a bold vision of the kinds of impacts museums can have in future.

Tony Butler, director of the Museum of East Anglian Life, believes the museum sector must start addressing “bigger-than-self” issues such as climate change, resource scarcity and social injustice, and can play a role in creating a “kinder, gentler, but no less interesting world”.

Moving in this direction could also help museums to become more “socially entrepreneurial”, adds Butler, broadening their income streams by exploiting the “economic impact of socially engaged work”.

He adds: “I think there will a trend for museums to behave more like arts companies… In a less structured funding landscape, organisations will find their niche in selling or providing specialist services based on their unique physical, social and intellectual assets.”

Richard Sandell, professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, agrees with Butler that museums should “strengthen their position in the social and cultural life of their communities”.

He writes: “Museums are not apolitical – they should be proactive in defending the principle of access for all; the decisions they make in all areas of activity should reflect an awareness of their potential to contribute to more vibrant and dynamic, equitable and fair societies.”

Caroline Bressey, director of the Equiano Centre at University College London, echoes this sentiment, writing: “In societies where claims of inclusion and equality are said to be important goals, if museums are unable to welcome, let alone serve broader audiences, why have them at all?”

Bressey also argues that UK museums should return all objects taken from former colonies and “contemplate what the empty spaces left behind mean for us and our western identities”.

She continues: “After such repatriation, many regional and local history museums in Britain would remain full of materials of the extraordinary and the everyday that could speak to many audiences in very different ways.”

Independent museum consultant Sara Selwood says the recession will remain central to museums’ development, forcing the sector to adapt to new, more collaborative ways of working and consider how effectively they are delivering their mission – this may be an “uncomfortable prospect” for some, she says.

But there is no sense in changing for the sake of it, adds Selwood: “Not everything has to ‘go’; not everything needs to be ‘innovative’. Why ditch tried, tested and successful models that work? This isn't incompatible with the need for constructive, creative thinking.”

Do you have any thoughts on the future of museums? The MA is inviting everyone working in the museum sector to add their views to our open discussion board, Your 2020 Vision, ahead of the launch of a consultation document on the future of museums next month.

Click here for more on the Museums 2020 campaign