The decline of Britain’s Public Museums

[cross-posted from with apologies to those unused to the tumblr format. Click the first link to see the original post.]


Some of you might remember the blog entry/rant I had in response to an infuriating article in the Independant by Alexander Hamilton. Feel free to refresh you memory with the links above, as the rant continued in the comments section:

“Your Majesty” replied to the 1st paragraph of the blog…

“What museums should be” seems to be one of those subjects that everyone has an opinion about, and frequently the answer appears to be “empty except for me and my fellow high brow educated people.” and it frustrates me.

Museumsandstuff puts forward the most important – that museums are ‘guardians of “our” heritage’ and in many case “our” means all of us. There’s just no point in conserving an object unless you intend to use and learn from it; none at all. National museums are there for the benefit of the entire population of a country; loval museums for a community. University museums are to be used to teach with. It’s only privately-owned museums that can define their purpose as they like, and in most cases, that purpose combines conservation with education.

As always, money is brought up and sneered at, because museums “shouldn’t” be commercial enterprises; well, guess what? They’re not. There isn’t a museum in the world (hyperbole, I know, shush) that can properly define itself as a ‘for profit’ organisation – even small private museums generally make enough to turn over, because guess what? Funding is tight and operating a museum costs. Cut down a museum to what it “should” be doing (“guarding our heritage” – let’s assume for a second that education is a dirty word and collections shouldn’t be sullied with it) and you still need to provide conservation materials, maintain a suitable environment, continually archive the collection (I’d like to see a museum whose collections database is completely up to date. I’m put it in a museum), and pay for the mskilled manhours to constantly check and preserve the collection. Oh, and I suppose someone to oversee access, if you insist on education.

All worthy endeavours, and I don’t mean to belittle the sterling work curators and conservators do; I think they’re brilliant. But you know where the funding comes from to do that? Access. Some museums can only get that income through entrance fess/gift shop profits, which is fine. Others have funding from local or national government, or from an attached institution, but that funding is nearly always dependent on the number of people gaining access. Go ask any public facing member of staff in any museum and they’ll give you at least one example of how they’re expected to give numbers. Visitors are counted. Tickets sales are totaled. Every activity is justified by who got what out of it. And you know what? That white middle class middle aged man who just admires the aesthetic of an option? He counts as 1. The black woman reading the caption allowed to her loud but fascinated son while his less interested sister sleeps in the buggy? They count as 3. And they’re part of the same ‘we’ that the museum is preserving heritage for.

Sure, you could turn your nose up at ‘doing it for the money’, or complain that the government should be pouring lots of money into museums with no thought about where its going or who’s benefitting form it (and I’ll be among the first to admit that the world of museums and outside them could do with less red tape), but who the hell are any of us to define what and how museums ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ be enjoyed?

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One Response to The decline of Britain’s Public Museums

  1. That Independent article annoys me in another way as well. It simply doesn’t describe my experiences in any of the museums I’ve visited in the last year or so – the Manchester Museum, the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, the Media Museum in Bradford…

    But of course *those* museums don’t count. They’re in the North, and the Media Museum probably isn’t even a real museum, because it’s got no statues in it at all…

    Museums in London get a huge number of tourists visiting them, many of whom contribute nothing in the way of taxation towards the museum’s upkeep. It makes perfect sense then to try to get every penny they can from those people.

    And frankly, anyone in London complaining about any aspect of their museums should just shut up. Compared to anywhere else in the country – or most parts of the world – they’re in heaven. The British Museum has enough stuff in it to keep someone interested for weeks, and the Natural History museum is astonishing (though the latter was so crowded the one time I visited as to make it almost impossible to move).

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