04 Oct 50 years since humans first stepped on the moon
Last week, the world celebrated 50 years since humans first stepped on the moon. What a remarkable achievement- navigating the unknown to reach new frontiers and new horizons.
Back on planet earth, I felt that energy of the ‘new’ and of ‘change’ as I attended three very different museum conferences between the end of May and June. The overwhelming message that I took from these forums is that museums are navigating new frontiers and embracing the new.
I was privileged to represent ICOM at the American Alliance of Museums conference in New Orleans in late May. Out of the many excellent sessions, two moments stand out. One was a presentation from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada on their critically-acclaimed ‘Anthropocene’ exhibition which used photographs, film and augmented reality to reveal the scale and gravity of human impact on our planet. The second was a visit to an exhibition at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University which described a different type of impact. In this case, where the incarceration of women in Louisiana prisons (significantly higher than the national average) with lengthy sentences for often petty crimes, has wrenching impacts on them and their families.
From New Orleans to Cambridge in the UK where I chaired a panel on ‘How 3D can shape our experiences in museums’ at the 3D in Museums Conference. This conference was part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Creative Economy grant exploring the emerging use of 3D technology in museums. Linking digital with heritage, it brought together industry innovators with the University of Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museums.
And then- on to the MuseumNext conference in London which was ‘all about change’. A lively programme addressed the practice of change: ‘Taking Risks’, ‘Working through Change’, ‘How to be more Pirate!’ and ‘How Fast can Change Happen?’, etc.
What did I take-away from all of this? Museum change is advancing on all fronts –in exhibition delivery, in presenting unresolved social issues as the subjects of exhibitions and in embracing change-practice. The overarching rubric is that ‘change is good’.
But, in the midst of this exciting forward-motion, let’s also pause and ask our audiences how they feel about the changes that are occurring in museums. Rather soberingly, when MuseumNext asked 1000 people in the US, ‘do you believe that museums should have something to say about social issues?’ only 27.5% of respondents said Yes; 31% said No and 40.5% said Maybe. When BritainThinks (2013) undertook research for the Museums Association in the UK, they found that taking a stand on social issues was associated with being ‘political’ and undermining the valued neutrality of museums.
We need to bring the public along with us on this journey, drilling down to find out what perceptions, knowledge and attitudes the public bring to exhibitions with a social agenda and how they feel about museums embracing a social role. And- in this era when we talk a lot about co-production, let’s not forget that co-production can be about more than projects and programmes. We can engage the public in decision-making about the new directions that museums are taking and the best ways to achieve change.