TAITMAIL Can museums survive to ‘serve society’?
Museums used to be fondly classified as “cabinets of curiosity”, more tendentiously “the memory of our communities”, even “the story of our cultures”. In the 80s, when the word “museum” was anachronistic anathema, they were known as “heritage centres”.
In his dictionary Dr Johnson has: “Museum: A repository of learned curiosities”.
One national museum director once jokingly described them to me as “galleries for dead art”, but if he could see the animation that museums have been creating in the last few years through the need to appeal as much as to curate, he would swallow his casual deprecation.
According to Visit England before the pandemic visitor numbers were steadily rising at around 2% a year which translates to totals of between 80m and 100m, and those visitors were largely British, with foreign tourism figures actually on the way down. The latest DCMS statistics show UK museum visitor numbers this year falling by a third on 2019.
But a definition of what a museum is has been agonising the venerable International Council of Museums (ICOM) for years as it has striven to “shape the museum of the future”. Three years ago almost to the day the body representing 20,000 museums sat in solemn conclave in Kyoto to debate a redefinition - so crucial was the issue seen that some thought failure to resolve it might mean the end of ICOM after 70 years.
To replace the 1970s formula the former director of the Museum of Copenhagen, Jette Sandahl, devised a new 100-word definition that had museums as “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the past and the future”; “addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people”. They should be “participatory and transparent” and work “in active partnership with and for diverse communities”, not forgetting that they should be “aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing”.
Planetary wellbeing? Well, a Sorbonne professor said Sandahl’s breathy delineation was nothing more than an expression of fashionable values, ICOM France’s chair said it was an ideological manifesto, and various national councils deplored the political content. It’s worth pointing out that all this was before the phrase “culture wars” was hanging on the lips of every conservative politician. Even making allowances for having to come up with something comprehensible in dozens of languages, it was all rather depressing balderdash which never got to a vote. Instead a standing committee for museum definition was set up.
And on August 24 the committee actually produced what its chairman admitted to The Art Newspaper was a compromise but nevertheless a “very progressive statement” that Unesco will adopt as a measure of which museums it will recognise as such.
Here it is:
“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”
Compromise it may be but this time they have come up with something that generally makes sense. This is undeniably what they should be and do, and let the anti-wokes rant till they are, as you might say, blue. Incidentally, the government is not relenting in its culture war, and yesterday No 10 announced the cynical appointment of a 23-year-old right-wing campaigner against the National Trust’s perceived wokeness to be a trustee of the V&A to, for sure, the discomfort of the director, the former Labour MP Tristram Hunt.
But museums know that this latest definition, aimed at new institutions ambitious to be regarded formally as heritage custodians, describes what they already do despite the likely disapproval of some government ministers. There are less esoteric matters on directors’ minds at the moment.
There had been generous thoughts that, as families in the community struggle to keep their homes’ temperatures liveable in as this winter’s domestic heating bills rise by a predicted 80%, museums could be a warm refuge with a sideline in education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing. But many of them may be forced to close for the winter, unable to pay power bills more than four times what they are paying now.
DCMS is characteristically missing the point this week in encouraging museums to sign up for a VAT rebate to support free admission which will be seen as the government feebly waving a stick at the ravening ogre confronting the sector, but for the Museums Association (MA) the cosy potential of its membership is irrelevant unless there is some meaningful government intervention.
The MA has set out the main impacts of the cost of living crisis on museums.
Workers in the sector are notoriously underpaid and double-digit inflation and pay increases below inflation will see real terms income dropping at the fastest rate for decades with “hugely negative effects on both physical and mental wellbeing”.
Museums will not only have the same energy problems as other public institutions but because they are often in heritage buildings the cost implications are multiplied.
Visitors’ will be less able to spend - the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions shows that cost of living has now overtaken Covid as the main reason for not going to a museum – just as museums were starting to rebuild their audiences post-pandemic,
“These are scary times” the estates manager of the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust told the Museums Journal as the trust confronts an increase of nearly 400%.
The question as to what museums are may have been answered to Unesco’s satisfaction, but for many right now the real issue is more existential than that.