Saturday, 3 March 2012

The modern museum - too aloof or not aloof enough?

I was rather incredulous when reading a comment piece in the Guardian last week. The article explained how a pair of 13 year old girls had been ejected from Salford Museum apparently for simply being teenagers. This was evidence, according to the author, of museums having an overriding desire to

'protect their precious objects and preserve their cathedral-like 
status. They are worried about how the teenagers will act within
 their highly cultured walls'.

The trouble I had when reading the piece was that it simply didn't equate to any museum I know. Now, I confess I've never been to Salford Museum, but I can't shake the feeling there may be two sides to this particular story (though if the museum genuinely doesn't allow unaccompanied under 16s in then it does seem rather ridiculous).

What struck me most was that the author obviously has a major bugbear about museums and galleries and was not content with concluding that this was an isolated bit of local authority insanity, but indicative of museums in general. Her comment that 'many museums ban mobile phones at the door' seemed an odd one.  Banned? Really? My iPhone is an extension of my arm and I constantly use it in museums to make notes and scan QR tags but have never been spoken to by staff.  The author was also obviously aggrieved that she was once told off for talking on her phone in the Tate - perhaps that experience has scarred her for life?

So is the author's prejudice correct? Are museums merely places for the elite that really don't want the public in, and especially don't welcome children unless they are 'in school uniform, all be-suited and trotting along behind a teacher'? As I said before, that's not the description of any museum I'm familiar with.

The idea of museums not being 'for' the general public is the stereotype of the 'old fashioned museum', but I'd dispute to what extent that museum ever existed in the first place. Sir Henry Miers in 1928 (see my earlier blog post) wrote about the need for museums to be accessible and engaging, and my own museum has letters and press cuttings going back to the start of the 20th Century testifying to hordes of the great unwashed enjoying themselves on museum activity days, of staff giving public talks and tours and of displays designed to be of general rather than specialist appeal.

The modern museum has often taken this to even greater lengths, to the extent that when combined with the loss of specialist curatorial staff, it can often seem as if museums cater for nobody EXCEPT children and families. I'm all for engagement, variety and interactivity in our galleries, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess to an amount of worry that academia has long departed our non-national museums. The sad fact is that while we've rightly made it possible for anybody to come into our museums, visitors wishing to gain anything other than a cursory understanding of the past may be rather disappointed.

The reality is that it's very hard for any museum to truly cater for all tastes - to provide a complex, balanced and academic narrative of a subject, yet also be fun, engaging and interactive for general visitors - all within the parameters of budgets, staffing and the available collections.

Whatever the individual museum, I think the charges of snobbery and aloofness levelled in the article is an unfair and potentially damaging one for the majority of museums doing a frankly damn fine job of educating and entertaining their communities with ever decreasing resources, and the Guardian would be better offering a more balanced opinion on the state of our cultural facilities in future.

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