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What are museums really for?

23 September 2019

Museums seem to promise permanence – the preservation of heritage for the longer term – but have been forever in flux and in contention. Those who work in the sector today are mindful of relentless controversy about everything from restitution to sponsorship. Museums appear bedevilled by crises of legitimacy, even as they are arguably more successful today than ever before. They attract unprecedented numbers of visitors, are publicly prominent, and major new developments proliferate. Yet over their long histories museums’ purposes and identities as institutions have been often questioned. Over the last few months, in the lead-up to the Kyoto conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which took place in September, the definition of a museum has been intensively debated. The current definition, agreed in 2007, states: ‘A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.’ A proposed alternative would have claimed that museums are ‘democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue […] guarantee[ing] equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people […] aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.’ Following something of a backlash against the ‘ideological’ tone of the new definition, a decision was deferred.

One place to look for statements of museum purpose is in the discussions that routinely take place, across the United Kingdom and in most other countries, as budgets are reviewed and renegotiated. In the offices of museum directors, city councillors, government officials, funding agencies and other stakeholders, arguments are made about why art, history and science museums matter, and should receive support. In Britain, this advocacy is increasingly urgent, given year-on-year reductions, most corrosively affecting the institutions funded by cash-strapped local authorities. The case for funding has long involved claims that museums bring broader educational and social benefits. But it is nevertheless striking that over the last decade, what museums contribute to society has been described in increasingly expansive terms.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997, famously exemplified the argument that a new cultural institution designed by a celebrity architect might in itself be transformative, attracting tourists, driving urban regeneration and regional economic growth. The same approach has inspired projects in hundreds of cities worldwide, notwithstanding mounting ambivalence about tourist crowds, unregulated accommodation and the propensity of gentrification to create new inequalities. For funding agencies such as the Arts Council England, ‘place-making’ became central as a rationale for cultural investment. Towns and regions that had suffered deprivation should become better places to inhabit as well as to visit: museums therefore needed to diversify audiences, and not only increase numbers but engage ‘hard to reach’ communities,  attracting those who had not previously visited them. The challenge has had wide-ranging implications for curatorial work and programming: museums have needed to be seen as inviting, inclusive and ‘relevant’.

While most museum professionals would hope that the institutions they work in are progressive in these terms, the agenda has sometimes been expressed reductively. In 2013, the Museums Association in the UK produced a major policy statement, ‘Museums Change Lives’, which emphasised social ‘impact’. On the positive side, there has been growing recognition of the importance of volunteering and other forms of public participation for skills development across communities, and of the distinctive effectiveness museums seem to have, in supporting groups such as young carers and those suffering from dementia. No one aware of the difference such projects make can be unmoved or uninspired by the potential of museums to support people in the most difficult of circumstances. But the arguments for societal benefit have been too instrumental. The museum has become a driver toward goals external to it; to put it crudely, it is supposed to help solve the world’s problems.

In the context of recent and current political polarisation, inequality and representation are subject to renewed, intense scrutiny. Alongside universities, cultural institutions of all kinds are being challenged: the composition of collections, the stories exhibitions tell, and the diversity or lack of diversity of museum staff have been foci for sustained critique. Some institutions have responded defensively, but it is notable that elsewhere activists have pushed an open door: building on a longer tradition of inclusive, social history curating, museums have sought to diversify accessions policies, and represent diasporic and minority artists and hidden or marginalised histories. It is perhaps the prominence of the issues in arts journals and mainstream media, rather than the effort to work inclusively, that is novel.

While ethnographic museums have long been the poor cousins of prestigious art institutions, they were in fact the first to embrace inclusive and collaborative practices. They recognised responsibilities to engage with the descendants of people who had made the artefacts from which collections were made. Consultative practice developed in fits and starts and the concept of the museum as a space of cross-cultural engagement and encounter became fundamental, and was subsequently embraced by the whole museum sector, from history and science to art institutions: it is now widely affirmed that the museum should be a meeting place, a realm of diversity and dialogue. Some accuse institutions of merely co-opting individuals in ways that fail to ameliorate enduring inequalities, but practice has not stood still. In ethnographic museums, increasingly rebranded as institutions of world art and culture, there has been a continuing evolution from liaison on specific projects towards wider and deeper forms of co-production, not just focused on the creation of displays, but now present at the core of the wider range of museum activities – from acquisitions through conservation and collections management to outreach and social media.

So it is neither surprising that there should be a sense of urgency about redefining the museum nor that the project should prove contentious. The proposed wording foregrounded democratisation, critical dialogue, social justice and planetary wellbeing. It proposes that museums ‘guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people’, although rights and access are shaped by the constitution of societies, some acutely unequal, authoritarian, or engaged in the promotion of overt discrimination. The definition expressed values and aspirations; it was a statement not of what museums are but of what some would like them to be.

The claim that museums ‘change lives’ represents the enormously positive potential that they have to strengthen communities, make places better, and do things of many kinds for people. The push to make museums more open, diverse and accountable can similarly only strengthen institutions. But the understanding of societal benefit and engagement needs to respond to what museums actually are. At their heart are collections. Those collections are vast and diverse: they embrace the natural world, human history, world art and contemporary creativity. They are often astonishingly rich, eclectic, complex in their formation and history, usually not ‘representative’ in any strict sense, sometimes poorly understood, yet revelatory and inspiring for many people in many ways. Definitions of museums that do not put collections at their centre are likely to misidentify the particular constitution of the extraordinarily important, yet peculiar, institutions that museums are. We all we know a museum when we see one. If the kind that springs to mind is the grand metropolitan institution, museum-goers are well aware of the heterogeneity of old and new collections, of the many small institutions, some volunteer-run, in villages and out-of-the-way places as well as those in capital cities. And we also take for granted the diversity of museums, expecting something different from art, science and history collections, that goes beyond the genres of what is displayed. It would seem odd, were a local history museum not manifestly shaped by the people of the locality. If all museums are ideally spaces that enable participation, that evidently means something particular in a local setting: a community expects to play a role in the representation of its story. What participation means with respect to the Louvre or the Tate is very different.

For nearly 15 years, I’ve had the privilege and the responsibility of leading a university museum. Since the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge is an ethnographic museum (albeit one also with major archaeological holdings), it has been subject to the same questioning as similar institutions around the world. In one way or another, those of us who work at MAA have to consider what the museum is, what it is good for, and what it does nearly every day. We are aware that the collections are extraordinarily significant. They reflect human history across the inhabited world, world cultures over recent centuries, and the ‘difficult histories’ of colonial expansion, conflict and science. They also reflect vital efforts to document culture and heritage. The values and the potentialities that collections have today are very different from those that motivated their formation.

Like any other professional, I could offer museum definitions, but the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is too mobile to define usefully. At times we have prioritised becoming a genuinely public museum for audiences in Cambridge and in our region. At other times – as an institution of a research university – we have worked particularly to strengthen scholarship and our collaborations with academics and students, nationally and internationally. What has been enduring, distinctive, and deeply rewarding, has been our engagement with community members, elders, scholars, curators, artists and others from the extraordinary range of places represented by the historic collections, which indeed do include colonial loot, but in which very extensive and richly documented collections made by fieldworkers also loom large. (Such collections were in general not only acquired ‘legitimately’, but often with the active support of locals who, for their own reasons, bought into the idea of their culture being represented in a British university.) Whereas once visits from indigenous groups were rare events, they have become business as usual, and there are weeks when we host individual scholars and groups from Asian, Pacific and African nations in quick succession.

We are used to seeing a museum as a building, a precinct, an institution and a collection. Museums are indeed spaces of particular kinds, but these kinds of international visits, exhibition loans and research projects suggest that, even more fundamentally, museums are networks. They are made up of relationships, as well as of physical sites and stuff. We are well aware that the relationships that made museums were in some cases fraught and difficult: world history has involved much violence and appropriation and it is inevitable that that is represented in world history collections. But the opportunity now is to make more positive relationships out of the extraordinary resources that, as a result of those histories, museums care for. The challenge is not to define, but to do.

From the October 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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