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Going along with the ride: Museums in the 21st century

21st century museums are exciting places to visit. Exhibition opening nights resemble something more akin to an Oscars after party than a tea and sandwich get together of professors in tweed coats. It seems that museums would like to remind their audiences that they have come a long way from the era of glass cases and “do not touch” signs that were once a visitor’s staple diet. Instead, they are; “hip”, “groovy” and “with it” when it comes to community needs. Since their reformation in the late eighties under the veil of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, museums globally have steadily traded their role as a developer of broad historic narratives for a version of “everybody wins a prize”. But does the 21st century need for museums to demonstrate that they are consumer focused create a better understanding of history?

Natural History Museum 1876 by Alfred Waterhouse
Natural History Museum 1876 by Alfred Waterhouse

The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were an important time for museums. It was an era in which public funding as a core component of museum life was still yet to draw to a close. There was little need to appeal to the public then. Museum canteens universally sold the same ham and cheese sandwich, accompanied by the same carton of milk, all dutifully served on the same laminated wooden tray. And who can forget the shopping? It didn’t bother many institutions that selling a postcard depicting a Zebra from London zoo in 1938 was a bizarre retail choice if your institution had no connection to; London, a zoo, 1938 or the Zebra. Walking into a museum was akin to visiting an atheist’s cathedral. The domain of the 40-60 year old able bodied man with a good grasp of; English, Science, Math, History and Shakespeare’s lesser known sonnets. Equal second in the visitor stakes were school children on forced excursion, and the elderly remembering what it was like to be on a forced excursion. Museum accessibility once consisted of an open door and turning the lights on. Baby change rooms, wheel chair ramps and host of other features that today would be considered basic human rights were for some in museum circles less plausible than a recreation of Cro Magnon man. Your local institution may have boasted a steady supply of; T Rex Bones, a rough draft of the Magna Carta written in crayon, and several Charlie Chaplin moustaches but for many, museums were still a little austere.

Changes to museum structure since the 1980’s have seen a development in administrative culture. Improved inventory management has ensured that artifacts once used as directors hat stands are now available for public display. Greater understanding of the diversity of the public has ensured that many museum collections are now organised to ensure improved physical accessibility. Whilst, these changes have had a positive impact in broadening the appeal of museums, institutions are now assertively developing their “customer focus”. The pretense of “relating to the community” has seen a rise in “Blockbuster” exhibitions across all disciplines. Marketed and produced like media events, these works are full of key hooks to draw in the public. Audiences are guided by clear narratives supporting the acknowledged status quo. History is increasingly presented as something that can be digested and summarised neatly in a 40 minute “experience”. Museums were once places of discovery. Displays filled with jargon and technical terms that required the audience to think. This was a different kind of viewer participation. 

Museums are one of the last bastions of cultural authority.  Unlike governments or the postal service, most people still believe what they say. Today, we are encouraged to go along for the ride. Audience engagement is the key mantra of this era. The notion is frequently being read as creating spaces that are palatable or political correct. History is unfortunately often unpalatable and seldom politically correct. It is an accumulated version of many truths presented as a story. This is its joy. Because it is open to interpretation, history is open to everybody. If you can construct a reasonable narrative from an array of sources, your view of history is as good as anybody else’s. I would suggest that it is this openness that has stirred the imagination of more than one child over the years and inspired them to take up history studies full time.

Pompeii liveBut for all my angst, the public is flocking to the “new” museum. Contemporary museums are facing issues that old style institutions could only dream about. The “Blockbuster” with all of its glitter and dazzle has introduced fresh phenomenon into the museum vocabulary.  Exhibition fatigue and queue rage are recent afflictions for museums more accustomed to halls of silence and attendants angry because someone touched a mammoth skeleton. It seems that amongst all the “wow”, the museum experience is falling in on itself. It is catch twenty two situation. Museums rightly need to be responsive to the physical accessibility of the public and support a range of demographic needs. It is no longer acceptable to say to the community “we’ve opened our doors, good luck”.  However, without realising it museums since the 1980’s have steadily taken an obvious route to become “accessible”. Bigger and better exhibitions may capture marketer’s imaginations and provide good visitor statistics, but do they help to change museum demographics long term? In the end are the same pensioners, school groups, and 40-60 year old men visiting when the big ticket events leave town? Conversely, museums need to change their objectives from being the provider of engagement and instead offer fresh encouragement to their audiences to develop their own opinions and thoughts on the past. Old school knowledge whilst occasionally dusty and moth ridden is still a good bet in approaching history as opposed to focus and marketing groups. At least that way it leaves it up to individual discretion if you wish to try a bed pan once used by Henry the eighth or not.

© The History Vault

About John Burns

John Burns is an English and History graduate from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. He is currently completing a diploma in Arts Administration and has written for Artlink Magazine on Yoko Ono. He has recently launched a new blog JOHNBURNSNOW found at www.johnburnsnow.wordpress.com. If you would like to offer him advice, money or a job johnburns887@gmail.com will also work.

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