A few weeks ago, I had to queue for half an hour (in the rain) to get into the quirky, small but labyrinthine John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field, London. I was hardly surprised; attendance at British museums seems to be at an all-time high. Recently, the British Museum announced its highest annual visitor figures ever, and many galleries and museums are often bustling. The British government’s latest Taking Part survey, which collects figures for the public of government-subsidised cultural and sporting facilities, found that museum and gallery attendance nationally was at its highest since the survey began in 2005, at a time when museum attendance seemed to be in decline. Three of the world’s top five most-visited museums are based in England, and nearly 40million people visit our national museums and galleries each year.
When the UK Museums Association asked the consultancy BritainThinks to find out what people want from museums, the answer was clear: care and preservation of heritage. The report found: ‘There is strong feeling that museums should concern themselves with what they are good at first and foremost. This stems from the idea that taking on additional purposes may undermine the essential purposes for which museums are presently revered.’ Nevertheless, the Museums Association thinks that it knows better and wants museums to take on additional purposes. Its five-year strategy, titled ‘Museums Change Lives’, calls on museum staff to make ‘a clear commitment to improving your museum’s social impact’. Where the public explicitly opposed the idea that museums should be places for public debate, the Museums Association subsequently asserted this as one of museums’ most important functions.
The Museums Association claims: ‘Every museum can play a part, however small, in improving health and wellbeing, helping to create better places, and championing a fairer and more just society. Every museum should have the ambition to change people’s lives.’ But don’t we already have lots of public services and charities responsible for doing this? Social workers, doctors and nurses, lawyers, charity workers, and even many politicians are trained and committed to these goals. What can museums really add? Evidence of museums’ positive impact on people’s lives is anecdotal and often trivial. Certainly, with the BritainThinks report, there is clear evidence that people (whose lives the Museums Association implicitly wants to change) don’t think it is appropriate for them to take on this role.
According to the BritainThinks report, museums are ‘highly trusted’ as institutions because they seem removed from immediate social and political preoccupations and conflicts. So why does the Museums Association want to drag museums into new areas of contestation about the causes of and solutions to social ills? The one thing that is unique to museums is what the public recognise and trust them to do – care for collections of valued art and artefacts of natural and human history. If museums do not want to risk losing this trust, perhaps they should listen carefully to what the public really value about them.
Wendy Earle is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.