Slouching Towards Progress

‘If a museum sees itself… as a responsive agency, meeting its community’s immediate needs… then continuous input from the potential audience is essential.’ (1)

‘Instead of being there for the objects, museums should be there for people. Let us therefore try to analyse people’s needs, both as individuals and members of a group. Naturally, we shall seek to define present, real needs, even potential needs, and not what we think people need.’ (2)

‘The museum, as an object bank, as a university which dispenses knowledge through objects, will become a public meeting-place and a particularly propitious place for the creation of new cultural forms, new social relations, and new solutions to the most down-to-earth problems of individuals and social groups.’ (3)

All of these quotes are from the latest issue of Museum International and I agree with them wholeheartedly. It’s exciting to think that museums are becoming more socially engaged and that out-dated thinking will soon become a thing of the past. Perhaps change is coming faster than I thought? Sadly no. The first comment was made in 1971, the last two comments are from 1976.

On first reading, I found the age of these quotes so disheartening. When I picture ‘the passing of the baton’ from one generation of museum practitioners to the next, I like to imagine the 4 x 100m Olympic Relay final. Each generation dashes a glimmering 100 metres of sweat, graft and toil, powering towards the future, and then passes their momentum and energy on to the next generation, before collapsing to the flash of camera bulbs and glory. Instead, with those quotes still rattling around my head, I picture a progress relay that resembles a very long queue for a Sunday evening rail replacement bus service. It’s raining, and we’re cold, tired and miles from home. Our contribution is to take the baton, shift an inch, then pass it on. Snore. Are we really achieving anything when this is the rate of progress?

On further reflection, however, I think there is hope and we are making a difference. An enormous amount has changed in museum practice since those comments were made, and I believe this has come about as a result of external pressures (eg. changing funding models and growing audience expectations) as well as internal advocacy and programming, often led by Learning departments, with the support of visionary directors. Audiences today expect and demand high-quality and varied user experiences, with a premium placed on socialising with friends and family. Forgo the inclusion of a cafe or a family offer at your peril. To illustrate just how much has changed, I also enjoyed this comment in Museum International, dating back to 1963: ‘Museums are tiring places and rest areas, preferably where smoking is permitted, are essential.’ (4) So the pace may be gradual, even glacial, but if we step back far enough and take the long view, positive change is happening.

I realise that the very concept of progress lost all credibility when Post-Modernism rocked up in the 1970s with its ‘well, it depends’ view of the world.  One woman’s idea of improvement will always be another woman’s idea of backsliding. One woman’s socially-inclusive, participatory museum will always be another woman’s child-infested, barbarian-overrun hellhole. But surely it’s human nature to want things to be better as time passes? Surely breaking down barriers to the arts and creating museums that are more relevant to more people is a good thing? Would we not function better as a society if more people felt entitled to, and had access to, the arts, and found a voice through creative expression? Some would say yes, others would think I’ve loaded the dice and am only seeking self-serving answers.

Perhaps it might be worth looking at progress from a slightly different angle; if the long view is too slow, there is always the ‘here and now’ to improve, starting with how we think about our own programmes. I’m still sifting through the interviews I conducted while in the US, and certain themes are consistently rising to the top. An attribute that many of my interviewees share is an enormous appetite for innovation. There is no resting on laurels with this lot. They put a huge amount of energy into programming that will surprise and inspire existing audiences, and make authentic connections with new audiences. On top of this, tightly refined learning and social outcomes are set for each strand, and, in a shocking move, they then test and evaluate those outcomes against visitor feedback. If the programme isn’t doing what they want it to, it’s either adapted or cut. Not rocket science, but just like healthy eating and exercise, we all know what we should be doing, but that’s not the same as actually doing it. The US museum educators I met are ruthless with their programmes, pruning back and reshaping often to ensure they are keeping in step with their audiences. Standing still in this environment is more akin to moving backwards.

So I think that’s probably enough metaphors for one blogpost. Do please get in touch with any interesting examples of progressive practice that you’d like to share.

NOTE: All of the quotes are from Museum International: Key Ideas in Museums and Heritage (1949-2004), No. 261-264, 2015. Page numbers refer to this issue. Dates refer to original publication; all articles appeared in earlier issues of Museum International.

  1. Museums, Systems and Computers, by Duncan F Cameron, (1971, Vol.23, No.1) pp.39-44.
  2. The Modern Museum: Requirements and Problems of a New Approach, (1976, Vol.28, No.3) by Hugues de Varine-Bohan, pp.76-87.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Function of Natural History Museums, by J.W. Evans, (1963, Vol.16, No.4) pp.35-38.

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