The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

5 November 2013

Transmutation #2 - Curators have only interpreted the world: the point is to change it

Sharon Heal, editor of the Museums Journal, opens with a paraphrasing of Marx - 'Curators have only interpreted the world: the point is to change it'. How do we negotiate the different desires of caring for collections, and changing the world; issues which can, but need not, be independent of each other? We need to take an active part in the debate about where museums should be, and what their role is in society.

This is by no means a new issue - the British Museum's own history is one of access and privilege. There is a long history of museums as hallowed halls in opposition to shelters for the 'unwashed masses'. I doubt I need to go through the long history of the social role of museums, from the BM and the V&A to the present day - this history is out there to be found and read.

In Making Museums Matter, Stephen Weil wrote that museums were becoming more about people than about things. The identification of this change can cause distress - any organizational change causes upset and creates enemies. But why is change perceived as a threat by some? Publishing has changed immensely in the last few years, and is still evolving, and the one thing you can say for certain is that there has been a distinct reduction in print media, and a mass movement online. For those who love print media, this is a process of letting go. This can been frightening, threatening, life-altering - and has been forced onto some organizations and individuals.Museums, too, are places which change; even if it appears otherwise.

For hundreds of years, museums have been shown as institutions which display, preserve, and interpret objects; it is no wonder that the public believe that they exist for purely this purpose. These things become essential in their own right, these are the core, and these lead to institutional stagnation, and the marginalisation and incidentalisation, of the public; who do, after all, fund museums with their taxes and entrance fees.

But it would be impossible to interpret the whole world, every piece of a museum's collection. We know there are many interpretations of even one single object; even an avocado. It is a natural, biological, cultural, linguistic object. How we chose to tell stories puts the people who tell them into a position of power. It would be easy for museums to change nothing.

Does there need to be change? Yes, and not just for reasons of public accountability. There are children in poverty all over the world. The UK has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the industrial world; and it isn't about the myths, drugs, family breakdown, a culture of worklessness. This has a disturbing impact on society, but what has it to do with us. From a human rights point of view, of course we have a responsibility to deal with it. It's the business of museums as a public service to get involved. It's the business of museums from the point of view of an equal society - all children should have access to museums and their spaces. There are those who say we are not social workers, and we can't fix all of societies ills. Whilst there is a distinct difference between those who work on the front line and museums, it is important to note that museums do have a social role - they were often initially conceived as such, born from a desire for social impact. Having a social purpose is nothing new, not a passing fad.

David Osa Amadasun, in 'Black people don't go to galleries', showed how people in poverty often feel ousted, removed from those of the middle classes with cultural capital. There are those of us who feel out of place with visiting the Opera; the privilege barrier is akin.

Marcus Weisen once said that if you open up museums to those who have previously never been, you open up the institution's potential to the benefit of all. Outreach programs, if we're being honest, says Sharon, don't reach all that many people - we need to think deeply about how we reach the audiences that we want to reach in house, in our attitudes, presentation of self and other, in our displays. We need to re-embed the social role of museums in learning and culture more broadly; in schools, colleges, adult education centres, structured arts activities, community centres. We need to become active members of these communities.

Can we re-embed cultural learning like this in the face of political opposition and cuts? It is often seen as an optional extra,the first thing to go. But museums inherently have social impact - even if they don't realize it. Museums can change lives - and they should recognize this, recognize what they already do, and take an active part in doing as much as they can, not as a a delicate cherry, the icing on the cake - but as a fundamental part of the dough.

What will it take to change museums, in order to change lives? It will take leadership - what kind of leaders do we want to be and have? We need advocates and champions. We need to know our history, and be passionate about that. We need to know the value of the work that we do - have facts to hand. We have to know what works, and what doesn't - we don't need to reinvent the wheel, because there is a lot of work out there. We need to share.

What does a socially responsible museum look like? It has social responsibility embedded in its mission, and in its managerial and staffing structure. It has to run through the organizational culture, and everything that a museum does. It has to be a part of us, fundamentally and totally; not a modification, not a prosthesis, but a crucial part of a functioning whole.

So begins our conference, with illuminating opening remarks and a passionate first keynote. It remains to be seen what differences Museum Metamorphosis itself has yet to bring to light. I'll be back with you after tea, for our first proper session - 'Coming to terms with our terms'.

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