Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Museum snobbery

Picture: Museums Association
The Museums Association recently commissioned a poll to find out what people want from museums. I was delighted to discover that the general public wants much the same as I want - in particular, a focus on collections rather than the silly platitudes in some mission statements. Unfortunately the imperious Museums Association believes that it knows better, and has launched a new 'vision' that, funnily enough, reflects closely the original consultation document put together by the Museums Association. 

I'm unabashedly in favour of the good kind of elitism, the kind that's based on earned authority and challenges us to rise to the highest standards (Kenneth Clark, I'm thinking of you here). I think it's perfectly reasonable to reject the findings of an opinion poll if you can make a case for giving people something better than what they think they want. But I'm appalled by the chutzpah of this document, which is all about involving audiences - but only, it seems, if you already agree with the Museums Association's 'vision'. The document talks of visitors as 'creators' of knowledge and calls for the facilitation of user-generated content, but on the evidence of this process I don't believe for a moment that they value user-generated content unless it's consistent with their prejudices. Theirs is a dishonest elitism that permits no challenge, hiding behind the spurious authority of rights talk and populism. My kind of elitism is demanding but democratic - anyone can raise a challenge provided they can establish sufficient expertise.

The 'vision' document is utter twaddle. It takes fashionable nostrums about community cohesion and social justice and asserts that museums are perfect instruments for implementing them. It talks of 'building' on museums' established expertise in interpreting objects, but as Tiffany Jenkins points out in this fine critique, in the past decade natural history curators have fallen 35% and art curators have fallen 23% (ironically the source is the Museums Association). It's simply not true that "museums use, understand and care for their collections better than ever before" (p.12). Museums aren't able to perform there core role as well as they used to, and nonsense objectives are being pursued at the expense of their actual purpose.

Parts of the document are moronic but harmless. Take this platitude: "Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet audience needs". Yep, I prefer those to the museums that offer mediocre experiences that no one wants. And museums "improve mental and physical health". Agreed, walking around a museum is better for you than sitting in front of the TV. Great point, Museums Association. Maybe 'excellent' museums will take it further and institute weekend museum racing? Who can get from the Leonardo to the cafe first? Hmm, thinking about it even the harmless bits start to worry me...

Some of the document is downright pernicious. Here's a claim that was decisively rejected in polling: "Social Justice is at the heart of the impact of museums". Social justice is a dreadful term. At one point the document claims that the 'essence' of social justice is that museums should be accessible to all, but if that's all there is to it then it was almost fully achieved in the nineteenth century. I think the point is that the term 'social justice' hints at a much bigger agenda, but it's an inherently contentious agenda. Is social justice served by equality of opportunity or of outcome? Is it served by low taxes that allow people to benefit from the fruits of their labour, or high taxes that facilitate redistribution? Is it served by permitting abortion to enable social justice for women, or prohibiting it to enable social justice for unborn children? This blog isn't the place to debate any of these contentious issues, and neither is a museum. The idea that there is some uncontested notion of social justice that should be at the heart of the impact of museums is dangerously naive, and if they think it'll help the case for government funding then they're fools.

Vacuous statements about changing lives and 'maximising social impact' are pointless at best, but in the current environment of reduced funding they are a dangerous distraction from museums doing the things that we really value - collecting, preserving and displaying objects that are culturally, historically or scientifically meaningful.

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