I enjoyed MuseumNext in Barcelona. I didn’t get a chance to talk to nearly enough people, including people I know on Twitter who I still didn’t encounter in real life. I was there with family, so found the lure of being a cultural punter too great, so I also missed a lot of sessions. Because I can’t comment across the whole conference, I want to pick up on a particular theme which emerged in the session I was speaking in, alongside Koven Smith. This was that old recurring theme of Us vs Curators = radical vs conservative = digital engagement vs collections authority. Jasper Visser and Koven got into a teeny little friendly spat over it, so I interjected to say what they and we needed was some ‘constructive depolarisation’ and that we needed to make common cause with curators.
Now, on reflection, I would say this:
We should stop trying to define and critique ‘curators’ as distinct from those of us from learning, engagement, marketing and digital areas of work. We are all curators (even those of us who don’t work in museums) because we’re all stewards and interpreters of cultural commons (including natural heritage). What we should do is call out and critique behaviours that are damaging to the cultural commons and to any museum’s mission. Each of us will have a different position on what we feel is most damaging or most benign. For myself, I’m bothered by the following behaviours:
- Spending too many millions of $/£ on iconic collections, hoping to attract more visitors to see them, while neglecting more demotic and contemporary collections.
- Spending too many millions of £/$ on iconic buildings and exhibitions, hoping to attract more visitors, while neglecting how people engage and make meaning of collections.
- Establishing and continuing work traditions that bear little connection with the true meaning of stewardship, which is to care for things that don’t belong to you.
- Paying little attention to the changing and unstable meanings of collections over time (and between different communities). In particular, not recognising that NOW is a time of extraordinary upheaval, requiring a much greater focus on contextualisation and meaning-making.
- Resisting efforts to increase and measure the social and educational impacts of museum work.
- Believing that when money directly gained from ecocide or violence is given to a museum, it is washed clean.
- Concealment, covertness and corruption.
What’s the alternative, or what do I think is next for museums?
Here’s a model for how museums can become more effective as world changers, by seeking to be more symbiotic with their users:
or on this link