Museums be the change

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Ask a Curator’ day on Twitter, which began in 2010, is really taking off. It’s a great opportunity for museums to connect with each other and with the international public around key questions. I asked ‘If museums can change the world, in difficult times, what change are you most inspired to make through your work?’

It was a popular question, and I was happy to receive a lot of replies and retweets. These were the replies:

“I hope to broaden the visitor’s appreciation of cultures & times through material culture.” Indianapolis Museum of Arts

“To help understand differences & appreciate shared humanity. Regardless of the type of collection, all museums help us share.” The Frick Pittsburgh

“Inspiring real discussions on important topics – bring back honest debate” @cynthialburg

“Like to think museums can increase public understanding of and appreciation for science.” @trinaeroberts

“Art can reflect the real, the political but can also be a relief from our everyday reality” Marie-France

“Museums can help people see the world from a different perspective.” @Silviaff20

“To present the cultural diversity of all nations.” @Olympicmuseum

“Let people see art as a part of their every-day life, as a tool for better living” @palazzomadamato

“To help people explore how they can become the change that they wish to see in the world.” William Booth Museum (@WmBoothMuseum)

“Always provide a source of inspiration and enjoyment – bring objects to people!” @SherborneMuseum

“Good question! inspire our public to be more involved both in museums and in society in general” Pinacoteca Agnelli (@PinAgnelli)

“To provide impartial and neutral spaces for dialogues. Not always 100% successful, but we try!” Migration Museum

“Single most important change? To achieve and respect human rights for all humans equally” 19, Princelet Street (historic synagogue)

“To open people’s eyes, to inspire them and to create a dialogue that maintains through times.” History Museum Basel (@HistMuseumBs)

“That’s a deep one! Discovering art and history can foster understanding of the world and the people in it.” @Rijksmuseum

“Art has an intrinsic value that will last in times of change” @essl_museum

Some ‘non-museums’ also replied:

“Change around democracy; knowing there’s hope to survive the slings and arrow of people made history” (Will Pearson, @sacculi)

Stephen Pritchard (@etiennelefleur) challenged my question and asked if museums can change the world. He thought, “Perhaps, if museums supporting change in the heart of communities, take their work out of their buildings?”

There was an unmistakable sense of passion and optimism that museums could shift perspectives and encourage humanistic values. I was struck that there were no references to ecological values. A few emphasise neutrality and escape, rather than activism. Also, there was no reference to the nature of the current “difficult times” that I alluded to in my question. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly radical combination. Where neutrality is emphasised, this is with the ideal that it allows museums to be a more effective forum for difference to come together.

It occurred to me that it would be an interesting exercise to gather more responsive views from curators and other museum staff – a neat statement of their personal mission – and then to lay these down alongside the official mission statements of a number of museums. I wonder what the difference would be?

I also wondered, how long will museums be able to express missions that are about changing people’s values, when their continued public funding might depend on them keeping their heads below a political parapet. For example, the People’s History Museum in Manchester believes that it has lost Government funding because it took a pacifist stance in an exhibition about the First World War. It’s not clear how they know that their stance led to cuts, ut it is well known that many museum staff believe they must keep a low profile on issues of social injustice, despite strong feelings, because they are concerned to maintain good relations with funders.

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