Went to the Welsh Museums Federation meeting yesterday at the Cardiff Story. The conference was all about resilience in these difficult times. It was a bit depressing to hear about the problems so many colleagues have in keeping their museums afloat while councils, etc. make cuts. But, it was heartening to hear ideas about what to do.
One of the big problems could be that the great and the good in charge of museums just don’t realise what they are cutting. So, I thought, a quick post on what museums do for us, apart from of course being amazing treasure houses of artefacts made available for all.
Of course it’s really important that in museums you get to encounter the real object, not just a picture in a book. The real, authentic object can bring subjects to life, it can make you feel closer to the past, or to some admired personality. Even, for bad events. Ask people who have been to Ground Zero if they felt the same looking at the thing in a book compared to actually standing there. More banally, also sometimes when you see something for real it looks so much more different than in a book. I was really surprised how small the Mona Lisa really is when I visited the Louvre many years ago.
And museums collect things. Lots of local museums do contemporary collecting so that future generations will actually know what we hoped, feared and loved. That’s important, surely? Yes we could write it down but objects sort of condense messages. A biro pen for example tells you about technology, it can tell you about consumerism (is it made cheaply for a mass market or is it a special, added-value sort of thing). It might have a logo on it which gives ideas of marketing. You might wonder who owned it, who made it. In the future pens might be obsolete as we tend to communicate more and more digitally. So, the actual number of these things around might tell about changing technologies. You get the picture, an object is in museological terms- multi-vocal (it can give lots of messages)
What else do museums do? Well museums bring in vast amount of money in tourism, so they add value to the area in which they are situated. People go to museums, of course on rainy days, and Wales has a lot of them, but also for cheap family days out. In the UK as a whole, museums are the number one tourist attraction, and tourism is the 5th largest industry.
Museums are places which the whole family can enjoy together. Most museums these days have activities etc. for young and old. And, often they are free!
Museums help combat social exclusion, they allow cultural participation for all, thus combat excluding effects of poverty. The Baroness Andrew’s report had several examples where museums actually do this.
Museums are places that are not just for the young, not just for the old, not just for particularly abilities, but for everyone. Everyone can get something out of an encounter with an amazing object (which of course museums have in plenty). You don’t have to be clever, or old, or young to appreciate beauty or be blown away by how weird/old/funny, etc. a museum object might be.
Museums are places for fun and for learning, and I don’t mean boring learning of lists of facts (though you could do that in a museum if that’s what floats your boat). When you go into a museum you can choose what to see, how long to look at it, and also what to ignore.
Museums contribute to a sense of identity and can give people pride in what that do and where they live. They can show what’s great and interesting about an area.
I'm sure lots of people have lots more ideas and examples of how great our museums are and what they do? And, they do all this and more on a shoestring. Let's hope they are around a good deal longer.