Culture Wars: Opening up the past
Timothy Mason, director of the Museums & Galleries Commission, responds to the charge that museums are imitating theme parks
We possess in this country a rich tapestry of museum provision which is the envy of many and a magnet for visitors. Where else might one find our heady combination of great national museums and galleries, outstanding specialist collections (of trams, boots and shoes, or brewing, to name but a few), some wonderful university museums (like the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge or the idiosyncratic Pitt Rivers in Oxford), museums in fine country houses like Harewood and Duff House, museums about emigration, the horrors of slavery, museums of law, nursing and medicine, social history, transport....Theme parks - where?
The tapestry is at times a little threadbare where demand and resources are ill-balanced. Despite the recent bonuses of the lottery, almost all museums find themselves short of resources. All depend heavily upon the dedication of their staff, paid or volunteer, whose knowledge and enthusiasm connects the museum's collections to its public.
It is on the interpretation of a museum's collection that the protagonists of the hollow debate about museums-as-theme-parks have settled. Have museums overstepped the mark (a mark presumably established by those who argue they have) in reaching out to inform visitors, in all their variety, about the objects in the museum's care?
Over the past two decades there has been a radical change in the way in which museums present their collections to their public. Of course there has been the introduction of contemporary styles of presentation to enrich the context of the object; yes, there is an increased use of information technology (IT) to explain and describe; and undoubtedly many museums are better places to visit - to be both educated and entertained. But this has been an opening up rather than a 'dumbing down'. Museum staff have often succeeded in placing their museums at the very centre of the community.
Museums are now situated in what a leading cultural strategist recently described as the 'heart of civic society', and can provide ideal 'neutral territory', a safe haven for the consideration of ideas. They have increased access to their collections and to their work. They have opened their stores and conservation studios to the public and used IT to encourage wider access to their collections. They have formed links with sectors of the community who do not traditionally use museums, and developed projects for disadvantaged groups. They have expanded their publication programmes and developed their education activities in lively and imaginative ways. Museums now have a real place in the curriculum. Imaginative museum education officers working closely with individual teachers have shown that museums are about geography, history, mathematics and science, about weighing and measuring, nutrition, ecology, the environment, politics and languages.
The collections which form the basis of our museums and galleries bring with them responsibilities. Objects not only represent our past in the present; they demand a responsibility to conserve them for the future. This has required those who work in and for museums to play a skilful hand which balances their public community face with behind-the-scenes work, scholarship, research, conservation, documentation, and safe and responsible storage - elements upon which a museum depends but which all too often attract little publicity or recognition.
The public side of this work has meant that museums are among the UK's most popular forms of leisure activity. With more than 80 million visits made to museums and galleries each year, by 35 percent of the population, only cinema attracts a significantly larger proportion of the population on a regular basis. Opera, concerts, sporting events, even theme parks, languish in the percentages below.
So museums are comparable to theme parks? No more so than they are comparable to opera or sporting events - except than in terms of attracting a public, they are doing a remarkable job. Try some for yourself soon: I challenge you not to be surprised, stimulated - and to come out better informed than when you went in.
Visitors to Museums & Galleries in the UK, MORI/MGC 1999. Available from MGC Publications on (0171) 233 4200 priced £15 plus £1.25 p&p
Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999