Last week I read Oliver Smith’s Telegraph piece, 21 Reasons Why I Hate Museums. It was published a few weeks ago but (perhaps luckily) I had missed it. Even though I do agree with Smith on some of the problems he identified, such as the price of temporary exhibitions, and the amount of objects not on display, I can’t understand how he can “hate” them.
I decided to write my own list of why I love museums and tackle some of the reasons he gave. I should point out that these are more related to history museums than art galleries, both of which Smith writes about in his piece.
Please do comment or tweet with any other suggestions of why you love museums.
1. Museums are open to everyone
Regardless of your class, gender, race, religion, ability or sexuality, museums are open to everyone as a cultural and educational experience. They are open to large school visits, international groups or solo visitors, as well as anyone in between.
2. Artefacts are portals to the past
This is a direct challenge to Smith’s point that “artefacts are boring”, even though he does admit that, there “are some decent museums.” Like Smith, I don’t particularly find ceramics interesting, but I wouldn’t call them boring. Artefacts can provide a really important connection to the past, especially when as visitors we can touch and interact with them. Artefacts can also show as well as invoke a whole range of emotions – see the Emotional Objects blog for just a few examples.
3. Artefacts tell multi-layered histories
Each artefact tells its own story, and contributes to far richer, wider histories. A political badge can tell the history of the march it was worn on, the person who wore it, and the political protest it was part of. It can also be used to explore the range of political, social, economic and cultural factors leading up to that protest. A Roman drinking goblet shows us how people drank and socialised, as well as encourage us to think about the influence of class and status on feasting and socialising (and, if it’s the Warren Cup, tell us a great deal about attitudes to same-sex love in both the Roman and Greek eras. Oh, and Victorian. And not forgetting attitudes in the lead up to its purchase and display by the BM.)
4. Museums can cover every topic
Smith complains that a pencil is “considered museum-worthy.” Now I’ve never been to the Pencil Museum in Cumbria, but a quick look at their website tells me they host drawing workshops for families and a range of art-based tutorials. Their winter exhibition is ‘World War 2 Secret Pencil’, “a culmination of a 12 month’s research project detailing the exploits of the management team during the Second World War and a secret agent in MI 9.” If that’s not museum-worthy I don’t know what is. Looking beyond the surface of ordinary objects and seemingly obscure museums, it’s clear they each have a story to tell – if people are willing to listen and learn.
See also the Icelandic Phallological Museum. More phalluses than you could shake a stick at, and a look at cultural attitudes to fertility, masculinity, sexuality and worship.
5. Children engage with history
Museums are an incredible way for children to learn about history, often hands on. Lots of museum displays are interactive, and range from digital quizzes to dressing up. I’ve written below about interactivity, but getting children interested and engaged with museums is a point by itself. Museums are places for adults and children alike to learn about different cultures, as well as find out about their own heritage.
Check out Kids in Museums and the amazing work they are doing in getting children and families to visit and enjoy museums. Their manifesto is an important read, and points out the significance of museums for all age ranges, from babies to teens, and on to grandparents.
6. Museum Lates
SO MUCH FUN. I’ve been to lates at the British Museum, V&A and the Science Museum. I’ve seen a stand-up comedy show on physics, had my make up done as Bowie, and swanned about exhibition rooms with a beer in hand. Oh, and entrance is free.
7. National museums are free
Yes, tax payers money goes towards some museums in the UK. This is to keep them free and accessible for everyone, not just the parents Smith mocks in his piece.
It also means they can be experienced differently. On a lunch break in London, I can pop to the National Portrait Gallery for 30mins or so, which I wouldn’t do if there were an entrance fee (even though I’m well aware my experience of museums is very London-centric). I went to California recently and only went to the Cal Academy of Sciences because my friend is a member. Otherwise my ticket would have been $29.95 (with student discount).
8. People have started taking selfies there
Yes, there was a #MuseumSelfie day and I think it was a fantastic idea. Museums are making a serious effort to keep up with the digital age, to move their collections and the experience of engaging with them forward. People take selfies, so why not encourage them to do this in a way that directly engages them with the museum experience? The result was a shared experience, in the museums and via Twitter.
9. Cafes and leisure space
Museums have cafes. Museums often have bars. Some museums have outside terraces from which you can sip wine, critically analysing the connection between a self-portrait from the sixteenth century and the selfie you have just taken in front of it. You can even sit and read a book that you just bought in the gift shop.
10. Museums are online too
You can download apps, digital trails and find out about objects before you go to a museum, enhancing your experience of physically being there. You can also see online collections for museums out of geographical reach, and some museums are online-only, giving the public access to digital images and resources they would not otherwise be able to.
As Bonnie Greer recently argued: “A digital Museum understands the concept of the ‘Internet of Everything’, in which every object – even the space itself – can interact with the visitor.” Museums then become a two-way interaction, where the visitors and the objects become part of a conversation.
11. Museums have shops
I know they can be tacky and a rip-off, and I agree with Smith on his points about the 9/11 Museum shop. But. Purchasing something from the museum shop can enhance the visit – it’s something to take home, a lasting, tangible memory. I have posters from some of my favourite exhibitions – one of Mary Robinson from the NPG’s First Actresses exhibition, and one from the V&A’s David Bowie Is… I also pick up postcards in museum shops regularly, maybe for 80p a pop. For me, the shop is part of the museum experience too.
12. You get a different experience each time
One of the great things about museums is that you can return to the same one and get a different experience each time. Most museums have a guided tour, some also have audio guides, and of course you can wander about at your own pace.
Museums host events – some brilliant, public, free events. These incredible buildings are beautiful locations for lectures, workshops and a host of other events, most of which are aimed to give you new information or a different experience of the artefacts they’ve long housed.
14. Local museums – a sense of place
Local museums provide a community with a sense of place and collective heritage, and are a great way of getting to know the history of a particular area, whether that is your home or as a tourist. The first time I went to Kingston Museum, I met a young man who had just arrived in Kingston from eastern Europe, and he had gone to register at the local library and visit the local museum to find out about his new home. I don’t think all of the freshers arriving in Kingston this week will do the same, but local museums provide a space to learn and become part of a community.
15. They’re interactive
Screens break and tablets stop working, yes, but museums are on the path to being truly interactive. Digital interactive activities can give a greater wealth of knowledge – there is so little room for curators to describe items that an interactive screen gives them far more space for context and detail.
Also, interactive displays needn’t be digital! Many museums don’t have the budget for digital displays and rely on tried and tested methods of getting people to engage with museum displays. Explorer packs for children encourage them to ask questions and learn from displays (though I must note a friend and I found out the hard way that you really have to be under 8 to get one in the Natural History Museum). Questions are often posed in exhibition descriptions too, which encourage people to ask and answer questions themselves – again, interacting. Museums are not cabinets of curiosities, there for viewing and nothing else, but places where visitors ask and answer questions, as well as consider new ideas, whether this is through digital activities, following a trail or wearing historical costumes.
16. Museums for tourism
Museums are hugely important for tourism in the UK, and contribute significantly to a tourist’s experience of visiting here. As the Museums Association notes, museums are “a great British success story”, that “play a crucial role in the success of UK tourism.” You can read more about museums as an important part of tourism, and other reasons to love museums, with full details and statistics, on the MA site here.
17. Museums share
Not all museums can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on one artefact, so travelling exhibitions and even travelling artefacts are really important. For example, the British Museum’s Warren Cup has travelled around the country on loan to different museums. Not only would most museums not be able to fork out the huge 1.8 million that BM paid for it, but, many museums are unlikely to have such objects so visually and explicitly depicting same-sex love.
Especially when so much of the culture and heritage industry can be London-centric, it’s really important that museums who have the resources and artefacts to share across the country do so.
18. Museums engage with other forms of public history
A History of the World in 100 Objects was a collaborative project between the BBC and the British Museum in 2010. It aimed to showcase the history of the world through objects in the British Museum, and holds a database of many other objects from other museums and individual contributors. The BBC also broadcast a series of radio shows about the objects, giving them further context and details of their significance. Museums and their objects regularly appear in television and radio broadcasts too, with expert curators providing detailed information on relevant historical contexts or details of individual objects.
19. Museums look to the future
Museums not only present the past to an audience today, but look forward to the way they will work in the future. For example, the Museums Association has produced Museums 2020, which looks at the future impact of museums. The British Museum is currently running Museum of the Future, for which they have held public events, aiming to discuss and develop plans for how the museum should be working now and in the future. As part of this project, Minecraft will be developing a replica of the British Museum and its collection, bringing its content to a whole new audience. Museums are well aware that they can sometimes appear stuffy or backwards, but they really are reaching to the future and looking to their visitors to feed back on how they should work differently.
20. Social Justice
This one’s particularly important for me. Museums can go to great lengths to make sure marginalised voices and histories are heard and integrated into our national histories. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s moving forward and museums are making an effort to tell histories that aren’t only of educated, white, heterosexual men. This is important for telling our national story, as well as local, marginalised, and personal stories that have been ‘hidden’ throughout history.
Museums are also making dedicated efforts to reach and engage with community groups today to ensure that everyone can enjoy them. For example, the Museums Association is currently working on a project to engage dementia-friendly communities, and the Geffrye Museum have handling sessions for blind and partially sighted visitors.
21. Museums bring history to life
A cliche, but one based on truth. Museums and the objects they contain bring history into people’s lives in a tangible, interactive and exciting way.
An edited version of this post was published in The Telegraph (04/10/2014). You can read the online version here.