Who is the museum for? Is it for scholars or students, for historians or curators, for out-station visitors or those living in the city? And casting the net a little wider who should run a museum? Is it the domain of a historian, a curator, an educator, a marketer or a designer?
Just some of many questions around people and inclusion that kept arising at the two-day conference on Strategic Transformations: Museums in 21st Century held in Kolkata. The conference coincided with the bicentennary celebrations of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. Representatives of UK museums who took part in the discussions shared their perspectives on people and their role in museums, and museums and their connection with people.
For museums to transform it was essential for them to involve a range of professionals and not just curators, said Mark Taylor, Museums Association Director. “It is individuals from a range of professions, from accountants to PR to education, retail and marketing. And even the curators have to adapt, have to develop a greater range of competencies over and above simply academic knowledge of the collections.” His talk on Transforming people to transform museums can be downloaded here.
To attract a range of people to museums it was important for them to connect with people, highlight and discuss issues that were relevant to them. “Museums can highlight contemporary issues and trace their history. At the V&A we have even developed a rapid response collection, which allows us to raise debates on contemporary issues,” said Martin Roth, at a panel discussion. The strategy is to collect objects as soon as they become newsworthy, to reflect the way global events influence society.
Technology was also responsible for transforming museums, making them more accessible to people, even those outside their walls. Carolyn Royston, digital head of the Imperial War Museums spoke at length about attracting audiences online. “Many visit us online and then come into our museums. We’ve seen a massive change in online activity in the last five years, and we are now open 24×7 through our online presence. People interact with us commenting on our online collections, contributing comments.”
A museum is no longer a collection of artefacts and objects lined up for display. Collections now have to be curated to speak to people, be relevant to contexts local and global, and allow people to form a close connection with what they experience. And museums in the 21st century seem to be gearing up to that challenge — to be of the people, by the people and for the people.