Museums are experiencing what many believe is their biggest culture shift in 150 years. In this Viewpoint, Simon Tait asks: Have we moved into the age of the ‘social museum’?
Using detailed case studies of current initiatives, he looks at how far museums now go beyond the display and interpretation of collections; their potential role in local regeneration; and whether they can create a space where social issues can be examined in a way the public finds accessible.
- Museums are playing a part in social change, tackling a range of social issues, such as crime prevention.
- Curators feel they have a role in making sense of history – and the myths that may surround it – in modern terms. They are aware that their curatorial choices need to reflect and respond to other voices within the local community.
- Curators themselves are coming from a range of different backgrounds, often with little if any traditional curatorial training.
- If museums and galleries fulfil their new role as being a major supporter of the local economy, both tourist and citizen should benefit.
- Museums are seen as central spaces of mutual understanding and cohesion where cultural identity can be developed. This may be driven by museum professionals or communities. Such identities may reflect previously unacknowledged histories or more recent social change such as migration or post-industrialisation.
- The extent to which museums can be a focus for economic regeneration varies greatly, depending on the nature of the communities, what investment regenerating authorities are prepared to make in museums, and town planning.
- Remaining challenges include: convincing other agencies of museums’ role in tackling social change; reflecting the speed of social change, which may require adapting complex organisational structures; acknowledging concerns about traditional curatorial remits; exploring legitimate areas that some still feel too sensitive for social history; addressing the physical accessibility of older museums.