I was lucky enough to attend one day of the Museums Association’s conference. It was remarkably environmentally conscious: name badges were not contained in plastics, only tapped water was on offer, all food was vegetarian, the programme was accessed solely online, and there were no wasteful goodie bags. The content was stimulating, even inspiring too.
The day started with a breakfast at which leading museum figures from across the United Kingdom’s four nations addressed ‘The case for museums’. The message I took away was that we must be less apologetic and more pro-active with internal and external stakeholders about the value of museums to economic strength and thus the reasons to invest in them. The cases made included that they are beneficial to education, health and wellbeing; they are the rock of many communities; they are good for tourism; and that they could even take the place of retail to draw people to town centres.
The plenary session that followed, chaired by Sharon Heal, the Museums Association’s Director, took the theme ‘What is a museum?’ It, following on from the theme of ‘The case for museums’, made me wonder if the museum community were suffering from a loss of confidence but the speakers were quite wonderful.
I was especially struck by the contribution of Errol Francis, the CEO of Culture&, an independent arts and education charity which aims to open up who makes and enjoys arts and heritage through work-based training and public programmes. I was not surprised to hear his viewpoint that the dominant western museum model, with their cabinets of curiosities collected by powerful men and hierarchies of civilisations, provides a colonial viewpoint. But I was astounded to hear him question the need for museums to collect anything at all, putting the emphasis rather on exchange and dialogue. He suggested a form of cultural exchange based on what he termed dispersal, preferring the term dispersal to disposal, as a more sharing and participatory word. He emphasised the need for museums to appeal to all the senses and not prioritise looking.
Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, made the point that although to some people museums are welcoming and safe places, to others they are alienating. Having recently worked on the new ’Being Human’ gallery at the Welcome Collection, he cited a disabled person as having found its predecessor, ‘Medicine Now’, ‘red hot and full of hate’. He stressed that equal access for disabled people is a fundamental right. He agreed that museums are places to air different views but that they are also places for stating what is not up for debate. Referring to the recent experience of Naga Munchetty, he said it was important to hold on to non-negotiable issues. He also said that often the most important work done in museums was in spite rather than because of the collections.
Jett Sandahl, founder of the Women’s Museum of Denmark and the Museum of World Culture, Sweden, and currently a member of the European Museum Forum’s board of trustees, placed people and planet at the heart of her model, which involved the bringing together of research and ideas with physical examples. She described this as ‘the both/and’ rather than the ‘either/or’ approach. This was for me, as a traditional curator, a much more comfortable standpoint but the other speakers have opened up a radically new approach. I would love to know how they would tackle our subject, design in plastics.
Susan Lambert, Chief Curator