Communicating through Collections

In August 2011, for 3 days, London was overtaken by a series of spontaneous riots. As disaffected children and young people took to the streets, looting shops and damaging property, the television news sent pictures of burning buildings and angry mobs around the world.

In the aftermath of the riots, people of all ages and faiths came together in angry condemnation of the senselessness of the riots and with a renewed spirit of unity and community. When things like this happen, society needs to understand them, to learn from them and ultimately learn how to avoid them in the future.

But understanding something like the London riots means addressing a set of layered issues. There are social, economic and political dimensions to be considered. Questions of unemployment, consumerism and the relationship between citizen and state abound.

In the months following the riots, the Museum of London announced that it was considering expanding its collecting policy to include artefacts, placards and other material relating to the events of August 2011. In a series of debates hosted by the Museums Association, museum speakers addressed the complexity of documenting and interpreting an event in which people lost their lives, and which involved overt conflict between the rioters and the police. Many felt that it would be better to let some time elapse between the events and their interpretation, to allow perspectives to mature.

Museums can be places of debate and dialogue – they have a profoundly important role to play in helping people understand and address the causes of events such as this.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as, “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

While this definition serves as a useful description of what a museum does, it says very little about what a museum means to the society it serves. Whether they focus on art or architecture, science or technology, all museums are united by a common purpose to inform the future development of society by enabling it to reflect on its past.

Museums weave objects, knowledge and experience together to create narratives which help people understand the world around them. It is sometimes tempting to think of this process as objective and apolitical, focusing on the inherent quality of things themselves. But collecting, documentation, interpretation and digitisation are all highly subjective activities, defined by personal and national perspectives.

In our role as documentarists of both the good and the bad of society, museums must be unafraid. We must challenge orthodoxy, confront prejudice, shine the light of knowledge on propaganda and oppression. In so doing, we are creating an important social contract – the public will entrust their nations treasures to our care, in return for which we must be responsible custodians and storytellers.

At the same time, we must entertain. There is a careful balance to be struck between the didactic, campaigning museum and the provision of rich, aesthetic experiences which improve the quality of life, give people respite from their daily work and help them think about the world from a fresh perspective.

We must guard against passivity – our role is not simply for people to come and enjoy our galleries and exhibitions. We must use every appropriate tool and technique to reach out to audiences, to make ourselves relevant to them and to educate them about the world around them. Not that this exchange is purely one-way – museums around the world are working in partnership with their users to shed new light and bring new perspectives to their collections.

And finally, we have a duty to protect. A nation’s heritage is of vital importance to its self-confidence, its national identity and the pride of its people. It can help unite cultures, faiths and tribes, teaching people about each other and promoting tolerance and understanding. These treasures need to be managed, cared for and kept safe in an environment which balances control and sustainability and minimises the effects of decay.

The most successful museums are those which achieve all of these aims under the same roof, and this is the key to the unique role that museums and collections can play in a healthy, prosperous and confident society.

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