‘new museum are(nt) rubbish’

It’s been really interesting, over the past few years, visiting newly redeveloped museums. And even more interesting reading the various reviews.

Lets face it, we all like a good moan. And even more, we like to try and knock down something thats new or different – we all think that we could do better. But it almost seems to be an assumption among many people that if something is new that it must inherently be worse. Cue cries of ‘they’ve ruined it!’

Criticism can be a particular problem in areas that are often very insular or based around long-held traditions, such as military museums. Often regimental museums, for example, are the preserve of a small number of retired senior officers – tribal elders – who get a position on the museum committee once they reach a certain rank, and have spent most of their lives in the military. It is understandable that people who have existed within a military environment stick with what they know. But, as the military shrinks, so will the number of potential visitors if the scope of the museum is limited. And with government funding contracting, it is a case of adapt or die. Aside from funding, surely military museums also have a role in promoting the role of the military within society, and increasing awareness, advocacy and support for the armed forces covenant?

Visitors can become very attached to a particular museum, display or object in terms of the when they first saw it, and struggle to accept that anything else could possibly be better. We like what we know and know what we like, after all. The removal of the blitz experience from the Imperial War Museum was greeted with much criticism, yet the same display was much criticised when it was first installed.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that many enthusiasts and specialists fail to understand or accept that a museum – or any other institution for that matter – does not exist just for them. Ownership is on thing, but suffocating is quite another. I cannot help but feel that a lot of specialists resent anyone else playing with their train set. I struggle to understand that – if you really are an enthusiast about a subject, you should be glad about the thought of it being shared with more people, and new people getting the opportunity to enjoy it as much as you have.

I think that part of the problem is that museums, on the whole, are not very good at why the have made the changes that they have. The museum jam-packed full of objects for a small number of enthusiasts to gaze at lovingly has got very little in terms of impact or effect to argue for it. Some museums that have been criticised for supposedly putting less objects back on display were actually re-displaying more objects than were there before. But, interestingly, they did not communicate this.

Resilience matters. A museum that atracts more people – especially from outside its core audience – will inevitably make more money. Therefore its very existence is assured, and it can look to continue developing. But a museum that preaches only to the converted will not only be in a precarious position financially, but its impact will be miniscule. Specialist and enthusiast audiences will almost always be small.

And, put simply, the goalposts have moved since the old days. And rightly so. With the advent of Heritage Lottery funding came a responsibility to think about the very people who were funding heritage through their lottery playing. And with greater scrutiny of public finances, taxpayers are more demanding of – and deserve – an awareness of what their hard earned taxes are being spent on. Museums just do not exist any more for their own gratification or for their core audiences.

Another aspect of modern museums is that the visitor experience is given much more emphasis now. Some of the ‘holy grail’ museums that are invoked with misty eyes were dark and dingy jumble sale-alikes, difficult to navigate, inaccesible, had poor cafes and just weren’t much fun to look round. And I say that as an enthusiast and a specialist. Quite rightly, visitors want their spare time to be spent in ennjoyment, not migraines.

Nobody ever tries to wreck a museum. For a start, if you want to wreck a museum you’re really working in the wrong job, and secondly most curators really don’t posess that kind of malevolent power. But most curators are passionate about showing their collections to as many people as possible, and to people who may not normally think about coming to their museum. If that is a bad thing, then you really should think about why.

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