What is the role of a museum in the 21st Century?

Asia’s first museum was founded in India 200 years ago, but what is the role of the museum today?

‘International Conference and Intensive Seminar on Strategic Transformations: Museums In the 21st Century’ (10 to 14 February) was organised by the National Council of Science Museums in collaboration with Indian Museum, Kolkata, in association with British Council. Museum professionals from around the world had flown in to discuss the global trends and practices in museums.

A running theme in the discussions was the key role of a museum to foster mutual understanding and collaboration in our rapidly changing world. Museums have always been able to contribute to society by enabling visitors to understand society and culture, but as our world is moving faster than ever, museums are increasingly important spaces to foster cohesion and understanding.

The emergence of the ‘Community Museum’ is an interesting global development. There is a shift towards different attitudes to authority and ownership, which is nudged by the rise of social media and visitors’ expectations of greater participation and interaction. Community museums are run for and by the community. They curate objects, stories, and art that are most important to the local community. They tell the stories of the area and the museums have to be creative to meet the needs of the community. These types of museums can have an especially important role to play in areas with high levels of immigration or social exclusion. They are vibrant, social places where people can meet each other, express themselves and contribute to a larger cause together.

The role of a museum as a space for social cohesion and understanding is of course something to be applauded, but how does this happen in places such as post-conflict areas or countries as diverse as India?

Is this the right role for a museum? What do you think should be a role of a museum in our world today?

Post by: Emer Coyle, British Council India

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2 thoughts on “What is the role of a museum in the 21st Century?

  1. Gretchen Jennings

    Hello, as someone who has taught museology in the National Council of Science Museums MS course in Kolkota on 4 different occasions since 2009, I do think that museums in India can do more to connect to their communities and address important social issues. I think the NCSM museums, especially some of the smaller regional centers, are doing a great job of connecting to their communities over issues of public health, water conservation, teacher workshops, and do forth. The students whom I have taught over the years are very open to this kind of visitor and community engagement. I’d also like to mention that the Museum of Mankind in Bhopal, which I had an opportunity to visit in January, is an interesting example of a community and visitor-oriented museums. I was so sorry my opportunity to teach in Kolkata didn’t coincide with the conference, which I tried to follow as much as possible on social media. Gretchen Jennings

    1. Emer Coyle

      Hello Gretchen,
      Agreed – museums are very well placed to connect communities with social issues and there is huge opportunity to create a lot of impact. It is great to hear of the work done by the NCSM museums.
      Sorry to hear that you could not attend, hopefully there will be more events like this in the future.



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