When visiting museums as a child I was always fascinated by the exotic stories from far away countries or the extraordinary ideas coming from the creative minds of the featured artists. When I grew up, that fascination transformed into wanting to find out where those stories and ideas came from, and especially who had decided that they should be in a museum and why. As a result, I studied museums as part of my MA in Cultural and Creative Industries in King’s CMCI Department, and am currently continuing to look at them in my PhD too. My focus is on an approach that seems to be gaining increasing support across the museum sector, a new focus that would change how we view museums quite radically.
The classic ‘universal survey museum’ model, in which colonial trophy objects are often presented as neutral and objective displays of history, does not seem to survive the scrutiny of today’s museum audiences anymore. Instead we require museums to acknowledge that they are not neutral – that they are influenced by the views of its curators and the backgrounds they come from, by the pushes and pulls of funders and policy-makers, by the visions of directors, and by the stories that audiences themselves connect to the objects.
What is in a museum says a lot about what that museum (and the people running it) find important. Having few women artists in your collections is a political statement, whether intentional or not, and so is displaying objects that were looted from former colonies, or letting a white, British curator curate a show about indigenous art. In an era characterised by huge progress in conversations around feminism, decolonisation and diversity, museums do have to look at the statements they make and choose what they want to stand for.
The move towards daring to be more political doesn’t stop with issues of representation only. Over the last few years, museums in the UK have stepped forward as activists around lots of other important matters too. The Happy Museum Project promotes sustainability, and so does the more recent Culture Declares Emergency partnership, which a host of major museums support. The Manchester Museum is aiming to become a ‘caring’ museum, in which health and wellbeing projects are given much priority. The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art has recently taken on the Fine Arts courses of Teesside University, to reimagine what art education might look like, and King’s My Primary School is at the Museum project did the same to incorporate art in education at primary schools. Finally, the Calouste Gulbenkian research project called The Civic Role of Arts Organisations looks at how museums and other cultural organisations take a stronger political role in society, and I have even argued in a recent magazine article that museums are taking up responsibilities where democracy leaves gaps.
It seems to me that many museums are playing with how they might find new relevance in society and how they can serve its audiences and local communities best. Nina Simon’s ‘participatory museum’ model, which challenges museums to take on some of the tasks of community centres, might have been an early influence for many organisations, and almost ten years after her book appeared a move towards putting audiences more at the centre of what museums do is definitely visible in the sector.
One way to acknowledge museums’ subjectivity, find new relevance and also put audiences at the heart can be through ‘co-creation’. This is a form of working where museums and audiences curate, programme, design, produce, and generally create projects together. It is a collaborative approach in which both groups equally lead and own projects and share the authority to make decisions. While co-creation currently is a buzzword concept that many museums are looking to engage with, it is also very hard to do it well. It can be quite a challenge to avoid letting a plan for a collaborative project become a tokenistic partnership that does not actually share any real power, especially for museums that are new at this kind of work.
However, some museums in the UK are doing co-creation really well. Derby Museums are co-producing their entire new Museum of Making with the local community, taking the time to build elaborate and genuine relationships with their community. The Manchester Museum will be opening a co-created South Asia Gallery soon, following the National Maritime Museum’s recently opened and co-curated Endeavour Galleries. Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool are going into their fourth year of Tate Exchange projects, through which they open up the floor to over 60 community associates annually to put up their own stories and installations in the gallery space.
I think there lies a future for museums in this move towards more open and socially-engaged programming, but I am equally concerned that many of these co-creation projects could end up being one-off projects without much of a legacy or the power to create real change. That is why my research looks at how co-creation might challenge some of the traditional working practices within museums. In other words, how might giving away some of the museum’s power and authority to community groups lead to new ideas and new strategies that could help museums to be most relevant?
Stella’s PhD project is part of a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between King’s College London and Tate. Her fieldwork will include observations at three case study museums in the UK and abroad. Before starting her PhD in October 2018, Stella worked for the British Museum, V&A, Imperial War Museum and the Cultural Institute at King’s College London.