One of the interesting debates we have had in our office recently focused on the purpose of local museums. Should such museums be judged on their social, cultural, or economic impact, and how do we safeguard their future?
According to the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) there are over 1,200 independent museums in the UK, providing employment for nearly 6,000 people and 100,000 volunteers, attracting 9 million visitors annually and generating £930 million for the economy. All statistic illustrates each benefit but which is the most significant purpose? And should such benefits be judged on a local or wider scale?
Outwardly, a great deal depends on the museum’s location. The need for cultural hubs in tourist areas certainly supports the existence of local museums. A continual refresh of customers also enhances a museum’s chance of economic survival, for such museums often live on the margins of financial justification. But should tourism footfall define success or should local museums concentrate on benefitting their own community before all else? Should a museum be judged on its ability to promote its area’s culture and history regionally, or focus inwardly to stem the deterioration in social cohesion in its own locale? The answer is yes and yes. Certainly the warmth and positivity shown by the visiting public to the humblest local museum demonstrates the desire, and need, to understand our heritage in the wider context that can only be good to our national cohesion. But there is also no doubt that local museums offer a focus for local pride and, by helping to illuminate its historical transition, cements a community’s relationship between its cultural present and past.
However, the ready supply of new visitors and robust health of some museums in heritage honey spots cannot paper over the cracks of marginalisation felt by many others no matter how strong their ties to the local community.
What of these less visited museums – those that survive on a footfall of a only a thousand or so visitors a year? Do they not also supply an enriching experience and an historical back story through which to better understand a place? Does the fact that they do not attract many visitors diminish the value of an area’s heritage or the need for a museum? Of course not – yet if they close because they are not financially viable the history they display begins to disappear from our consciousness and we are all the poorer for it. Whilst Heritage Lottery Fund money has been a lifeline for numerous museums across the country, the effort to engage with the process over what can be a number of years is beyond the ability of many smaller institutions. We must find another way to safeguard these outlets of culture and history.
To start helping smaller museums survive we need to invest time, expertise and creativity to deliver better experiences. There is absolutely no justification in doing things as they have always been done. Gone are the days of learning by rote. Today’s education is delivered through multi-sensory experiences and different learning styles, and museums need to embrace the same to remain relevant. Media is cheaper now than it has ever been so there is no better time to refresh displays to match modern visitor expectations. This is not about total change. Graphic panels and cases of objects will remain the mainstay of museums but they need to be integrated into a carefully developed matrix of other experiences. Museums must follow popular culture to deliver their history. In a nutshell, information needs to be given in a large number of small packages, rather than a small number of large ones.
Generally, local museums overdo the amount of information on show. There is a misunderstanding of how hard it is to assimilate information in live, dynamic environments. Museums are no longer the bastions of experts or academics where lesser mortals are tolerated. There is no reversal of any intellectual apartheid but because information is so readily available online you no longer need to go to specialist institutions to find specialist knowledge. Collections will always be available for those who want to research specifics but front of house interpretation must be attainable. There is a need to accept that ‘Less is More’: Less information will promote more understanding and more positive visitor experiences. This does not require costly high-end delivery. Today, tactile exhibits, kinaesthetic displays, sight, sound, and interactives can all be designed to match viable price tags. In how information is delivered, therefore, the mantra must be ‘More is More’. And it is incumbent on museum designers such as us to develop the overall exhibition to enthrals visitors on their journey of discovery.
Many local museums hold very similar collections, ranging from agricultural and industrial objects to domestic and household ephemera. Not many objects will spring from antiquity. Most will herald from later historical eras. A handful of artefacts will be more local in nature reflecting the colour and uniqueness of their surroundings but these will account for only a small percentage of the whole. This being the case do ubiquitous objects attract visitors? They obviously do, if visitor numbers are anything to go by. If it were not the case, countless institutions would close. It is the power of an object to link us to people of the past, to create the cultural connect with our ancestors, which makes a museum trip a truly visceral experience. People may enter a museum to find out about the past but it is the objects that drawn you into it. This is, and always will be the case.
Local museums are as important to our society as they have always been. But to remain relevant and to safeguard their future there is a need to start conversing with design companies who champion low cost, high impact change. With such change comes the chance to increase cultural significance, social benefit and improved economic viability. And to reinvigorate a sense of place, community, and pride.
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