The age of the social museum?

Author Comment
Natalie's picture


Third Sector Foresight

According to this viewpoint by JRF, museums are experiencing their biggest cultural shift in 150 years. Since my last news post which highlighted four potential scenarios for museums in the future and explored how museums were changing in response to challenges from technology and shifting ideas about authority and hierarchy, I’ve been thinking about some of different ways in which museums are changing. As museums encompass particularly traditional ideas of culture, heritage and history, the rapidly changing external environment and the drivers operating within it are more likely to have a considerable impact. And with museums making up a significant sub sector of civil society (about an eighth of civil society to be more exact), I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the changes affecting museums in this forum. Those of you working in museums might want to add your thoughts about how you think museums are changing and how you think they are likely to change further in the future, or I’m sure most people have been to a museum at some point in their life so can add their thoughts from another perspective.

The viewpoint explores whether we have moved into the age of the social museum or the “post-museum” and considers whether museums are now the powerful force in social and urban regeneration they have promised to be. It contains some detailed case studies of current initiatives, looks at how far museums now go beyond the display and interpretation of collections; their potential role in regeneration; and whether they can create a space where social issues can be examined in a way the public finds accessible. The case studies show that some of the scenarios I linked to before might not be as far away as people might first think.

Some of the key points in the viewpoint are worth a mention and a good example of how some of the main drivers affecting all VCOs can interlink and have an impact on different subsectors:

  • Museums are playing a key part in social change, addressing a range of social issues such as crime prevention, this reflects the changes we have seen in the opening up of different spaces to tackle social change, generate social cohesion and as such play a valuable role in the workings of civil society.
  • As a free meeting place, museums increasingly provide a friendly meeting place for young people to meet off the street. Are the days when independent meeting places were limited to the community centre gone? These shifts are not that far removed from the world of the forum scenario.
  • Curators are coming from a range of different backgrounds, reflecting the trend for multiple careers as well as the widening of career opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds.
  • Curators are increasingly aware of their role in making sense of history, and are aware that any curatorial choices they make need to respond to other voices within the community. This reflects the increasingly diverse make up of UK society as well as the rising expectations and assertiveness" of citizens.
  • Museums are also increasing becoming central spaces of mutual understanding where cultural identity can be developed, driven by either museum professionals or communities. Such identities may reflect recent social change or previously unacknowledged histories.

However, the view point also highlights some challenges for museums in the modern world:

  • Convincing other agencies of museums’ role in tackling social change;
  • Reflecting the speed of social change which may require adapting complex organisational structure;
  • Acknowledging concerns about traditional curatorial remits;
  • Exploring legitimate ideas that some still feel are too sensitive for social history;
  • Addressing the physical accessibility of older museums.

It is interesting that these challenges which arise from changes in the world around us are pretty much affecting all VCOs, not just museums, albeit in different ways.

  • What challenges do you think are facing museums?
  • Do you have any examples of how they are increasingly reflecting our changing society?
Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Getting involved
“Museums only fully develop their potential for action when they are actually involved in the major problems of contemporary society”.

Words written by Czech museologist Jan Jelink in 1975, but that still hold true today. As brought out by Natalie in her comment here and her news post, there is growing dialogue around the role of museums in the society of the future.

Here I want to bring to your attention one embodiment of these institutions that I have not seen elsewhere: the climate futures museum. It is one scenario suggested by Roman Krznaric as a way of tackling what he sees as apathy over climate change action. In Krznaric’s essay Empathy and Climate Change he looks at the need to essentially bring the impacts of climate change closer to home, to make it personal and relevant. There is much of interest in his essay but his new visualisation of museums was one aspect which I thought was particularly pertinent for the voluntary and community sector (VCS).

Krznaric’s thinking in this area overlaps with the content of a conference held by LCACE: how can creative industries, such as museums, effect social change? Krznaric thinks museums can have a vital role to play in kickstarting societal changes to mitigate global warming. His suggestions are broad brushstrokes (which he admits, saying “creative minds would be needed to design [the] experience”) but essentially his view of the Climate Futures Museum is one that embraces new technology and moves away from the ‘static building with some stuff in it’ concept which Natalie reports in her blog. It echoes Andrew Curry’s ‘the imaginarium’, a ‘transformer’. Roman’s vision draws together a dynamic future for the museum with an innovative suggestion for driving action on climate change – chances to transform society and its future.

*Will museums, or indeed other social centres, choose this potential future and therefore ‘choose to be civic leaders and contribute to strengthening a democratic dialogue’?

I am interested to research further the barriers which might exist in preventing Third Age participants visiting museums and galleries, not only physical but primarily psychological. I am particularly keen on developing new events specifically to engage Third Age audiences and assist in socio-cultural inclusion issues. I will post my own insights in due course but would be delighted to read other comments and experiences from those working in museums and galleries, particularly with regard to innovative ways to remove these barriers.

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Hi Caro

That does sound really interesting. Maybe for those of us out there that don't use this terminology daily - could you outline what you mean by Third Age Participants? You may find the University of the Third Age have some useful information or Sandwell Third Age arts.

I look forward to reading your thoughts!

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