Museums for Society: Towards Cultural Democracy

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Alte National Galerie, Berlin. Photo, Jenny Siung, 2014


Last week I attended the Irish Museums Association Annual Conference 26-27 February 2016. The conference looked at museums civic institutions with an important role to play in the social, cultural and educational life of society. They hold, interpret and exhibit their collections – the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity – on behalf of the public. They should therefore be ideally placed to help define and enhance a sense of citizenship and belonging, but are they living up to their potential? Do our audiences really feel ownership of “their” museums? Is a democratic museum possible?

Speakers from both Ireland, the UK, Northern Ireland, Germany and Denmark addressed key issues that concern primarily Irish museums today: access, participation of audiences as well as leadership in museums.

Digital engagement popped up a few times in some of the presentations, however the main thrust of the debate was how museums need to let go of its lion’s share regarding key holders of knowledge.  Nazia Ali of Birmingham Museums described active curating, i.e. a model that requires curators to have a wider skill-set other than pure research and exhibitions.  Curators not only carry out these tasks but shift their focus to stakeholders as well as take heed to current statistics, current affairs and trends both inside and outside the museum, i.e. they take a more holistic approach when curating for their audiences.

Dr Jette Sandahl, museum advisor and former director of the Museum of Copenhagen cited a number of examples of museums in Turkey, Poland, Sweden and Denmark with specific reference to their participatory approach with local audiences. Digital technology features strongly in the Museum of Copenhagen. Copenhagers can contribute to the museum collection; The Wall is an interactive screen and features images that reflect the city of Copenhagen; selected by local audiences for the museum on a 4 multi-touch plasma screen.

As Sandahl emphasised the importance of inter-disciplinarian approaches as a skill for museum staff; someone from the outside who does not work within the axiom of traditional museum disciplines is the ideal person to have on museum teams – this is something I wrote about in my last blog post and it was enlightening to hear it being reiterated again.

Leadership in Irish museums faces a number of obstacles; lack of support from within, funding cuts from government, lack of understanding or appreciation of culture, arts and heritage; global economic instability – the list goes on.

And yet other museum leaders such as Tony Butler from Derby Museums Trust hit the nail on the head. The Happy Museum project creates a sustainable museum; involves multiple stake holders; offers a place for encounters and gives back to visitors by encouraging co-creation. This refers to Heather Nielsen’s description of participatory practice in Denver Art Museum and my first blog post Creative Learning in Museums. The Happy Museum project comprises of 22 museums partners in England and Wales, promotes active citizenship and fosters well-being in both visitors and museum staff. It sounds like a very straight-forward approach – so why is this not being embraced by other museums?

Other examples of good practice include: Alan Kirwan’s Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) histories locked in museum closets?; Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe’s Object-based learning to support language acquisition for new arrivals and referred to the ESOL programme in the British Museum.  Themes range from Citizenship, Word in Islamic Art, The Origins in Writing to What makes us human? 40,000 years of human artistic endeavour.  This is a timely programme and offers migrants the opportunity to improve English language skills with the help of museum objects.

Edith Andrees spoke about migration in museums in Germany citing examples of how local museums are more open in their approaches to collaborating and engaging local migrant communities.

The panel session gathered Lar Joye of the National Museum of Ireland, Fiona Kearney of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery Cork; Dr Malachi O’Doherty, writer and broadcaster, Eithne Verling, Galway City Museum and Trevor White, Little Museum of Dublin. They each spoke about current challenges their museums face as well as the efforts made to engage with local audiences. What struck me, however, is the lack of collaboration between museums in knowledge and skill-sharing; upskilling of staff when faced with difficulties such as finances; the ‘silo’ effect is still very apparent in Ireland. Or perhaps exchange and sharing does exist – it was just not highlighted enough in the discourse.

For me there were still a lot of questions still unanswered: what happens to all of this information now that we have shared it in the open? Will local Irish museums take on leadership and ideas shared in their programmes, train staff and review programmes and exhibitions? Or will we wait another year to find out little has happened due to the lack of finances?

More importantly, in parallel with Ireland’s most recent general election whereby people exercised their right to vote, Irish museums need to pay heed to their audiences and promote active citizenship. Otherwise Irish museums could face the same fate as some politicians last week; the power of the vote.  We could see the demise  of our audiences if museums do not step up to the plate and provide access and participation for their visitors.

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