Friday, 15 July 2011

Value and Worth

It seems like ages since I wrote a post that was actually museum-related, so here's something I threw together from my answers to an activity for the Museum Studies distance-learning course I'm studying at the moment. The question was to discuss the main challenges facing museums today...

The main challenge facing museums today is obviously money: in a recession, museums are always one of the first things to be cut because they are considered non-essential services (I would beg to differ, but we all know my feelings on this), as participation is voluntray on the part of the public that the museum serves, and museums currently have no formal role in education. However, this part of their function is being increasingly emphasised these days, and there are now efforts to forge greater links between schools and museums, and to offer more formal education opportunities in the museum. This aims to give museums greater relevance in their communities, and to engage people in their collections from an early age. Which is good, but it does also mean that already cash-strapped museums are having to find the money to hire learning and education staff, and this often seems to come at the cost of collections staff (there I go again).

I may be trying to bite my tongue here to stop myself ranting on the subject (again), but it IS one of the major challenges facing museums at the moment: how do you improve education, and interpretation of collections, when you have no staff to do it? Expert collections staff are one of the most important assets of a museum, as they are the ones who present collections to the public, choose objects for display, and make them relevant. A collection with no-one to care for it loses any intrinsic value it had if it rots away to nothing in a store-room, and this is what we are allowing our collections to do. And by 'we' I mean society at large, and in particular a Government that does not seem to care that the nation's treasures are going to rack and ruin. Because museums (on the whole) are not profitable, and at the moment everything in the public sector revolves around money (or the lack of it). And you know things are getting bad money-wise when you have museums selling off parts of their collections to raise funds to improve storage for the rest of their objects, and museums that were expecting to have their budget reduced suddenly finding it cut completely, forcing them to close their doors.

I have to admit some sympathy for museum directors in the current's not a job I would want! They are under pressure to cut budgets, but also under pressure to deliver on their targets for documentation, to improve access to collection, to improve their learning programmes and links with schools, to entice in greater numbers of people, to generate an income, to make their exhibitions more relevant to the communities they serve, and to prove that they are delivering value for money. Museums are no longer simples worlds in which musty academics are king, using their collections to studiously advance the causes of science, and occasionally deigning to put together an exhibition to entertain the riffraff who keep cluttering up their museum*. They are run as businesses, carefully budgeted and managed, and they, like everything else that is publicly funded, must prove their worth as well as their value.

*If indeed they ever were this. But this is the common conception of how museums function behind the scenes.

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