Last year I worked with Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell from the Museum Studies Department at the University of Leicester. We conducted a critical review of two decades of literature to find out what it could tell us about users’ experience of museums and galleries and what difference those experiences make to individuals and to society. Last week, we met up again at the Leicester University’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at to present the findings of the critical review to a lively and diverse audience of museum practitioners.
We described how users’ descriptions often focus on the cognitive processes that they employ to actively engage with encounters in museums. Though positive feelings of well-being were also abundantly evident in the literature, we found that affirming, confirming and inspiring experiences occurred alongside encounters that challenged, confronted and shocked people. And there were myriad descriptions where the main experience was one of connectedness- with place, with difference, with other cultures, with the numinous, luminous and the divine, with cultural identify and with self.
But when we came to the second part of the study- ‘what difference do these experiences make to individuals and to society?’- we found less evidence. In one of my ‘provocations’ last week, I argued that, as a sector, we tend to proceed on the basis of an untested assumption that positive experiences in museum accrue by some process of osmosis to the public realm.
It may be true that the experience in museums does have impact in the public realm-producing well-being in citizens and greater trust in communities. But, as yet, we have little more than evidence from localised case studies. In the absence of longitudinal population studies with user and non-user control groups, it is difficult to argue the case that having museums does ‘make a difference’.
I argue that we need to begin by interrogating existing national data sets (Taking Part, National Household Survey, Measuring National Well-Being) to discover what evidence does exist and what other research we need to undertake to prove our deeply held belief that museums change lives and make a positive difference in the public realm.
If museums create feelings of personal well- being and social connectedness, if active engagement is what we seek to build in our citizens, then we need to bridge the evidence gap between what happens in the museum and what impact it has beyond the walls.
The full report can be found at ac.uk/departments/museumstudies/rcmg/projects/the-cultural-value-of-engaging-with-museums-and-galleries.