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Behind the scenes at the 21st century museum

Behind the scenes at the 21st century museum

Over the course of the last six weeks, the online course ‘Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum’, as organised and delivered by the University of Leicester, National Museums Liverpool, and Future Learn, has explored the concept of the 21st century Museum.  The course raised many questions and considerations as to what a 21st century museum is, how it is experienced, engages with wider audiences and what kind of roles it plays in society. The notion of ‘looking behind the scenes’ explored the ideas, projects and people at the centre of each museum’s stories and aims. The focus on the personal, collective and social aspirations of museums highlighted the relationships between objects, collections, and people and as to what the future holds for museums.

Museums are moving away from the traditional aesthetic, investing in modernisation and attracting new audiences.

To start, the course asked the participants to consider, through various articles, videos, and definitions, what a museum actually is and how it can be defined. The definitions focused upon formed part of a discussion about what the ‘museum’ is for the individual and society. These two main definitions:   “A building in which objects of interest or importance are stored and displayed.”( Oxford English Dictionary 2012) and “A museum is 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 environments for purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”(The International Council of Museums 2007) considered both the architectural and social aspects of a museum and how the museum has evolved in the 21st century. The first week of the course considered both definitions in the ways in which a museum is physically constructed and how it is constructed as a social and educational space.  The architectural design and layout of the museum was seen in the Museum of Liverpool case study; the design of the museum was shown to be of importance to foster a comfortable and social experience, with the atrium providing a space for the city’s social or arts events, and to fit in with the city’s surroundings and existing architecture. The layout for the museum was shown to be of importance as the visitor routes link to notions of history and narrative through which to take the visitor on a journey. This example led to the question of what should be taken into consideration and what constitutes a ‘good’ museum, particularly the responses and discussion that supported the ICOM’s definition of a museum. The feedback noted the importance of the interconnectedness between the museum’s collections, communication, interpretation, the importance of social engagement and involvement with past and contemporary debates and of individual stories and shared experiences.

From the participants comments and articles, the 21st century museum is defined by its importance to society, the different ways and spaces in which you encounter a museum and how a museum might engage with the community through promoting lifelong learning, breaking down boundaries and raising awareness of social issues. As the course progressed, topics included exploring engaging people with museums, looking at who visits museums, and considering whether children should be allowed in museums through a news article from an incident at the Tate Modern in which a child climbed onto an artwork and through the promotion of family friendly museums and activities, as seen through the case study of ‘Big Art for Little Artists’ initiative at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery. It also considered what prevents people from visiting, including barriers to access and how they can be overcome. These barriers to access such as physical, sensory, intellectual and emotional or cultural aspects and the removal of these barriers to access were both listed and examined through examples. For example, in considering cultural barriers to access museums would need to reflect upon how collections, displays or events reflect the interests and life experiences of their target audiences and overcoming this barrier would involve proactive collecting, special exhibits and events or appropriate interpretation. The course, in the third and fourth weeks, went on to consider how museums deal with emotions and issues of social justice and human rights. These included studies of the exhibition ‘Alive in the face of death’, which featured images from photographer Rankin who set out to explore and challenge perceptions of death. The way that the Walker gallery sought to engage its audience and visitors to the exhibition was different again, as they were encouraged to write notes about their feelings to place upon a designated wall of emotions. In considering a museum’s engagement with both emotions and social issues, the course asked its participants to explore the ethics of display and what the museum should consider when displaying materials that visitors are likely to respond to in an emotional way. It was then considered how museums can contribute to equality and issues around social justice and human rights; how museums have explored race, racism and migration through the case studies at The International Slavery museum and the 100 stories of Migration exhibition and how museums have sought (or should seek) to represent transgender identity and disability. It showed how museums have worked with Networks for social justice and human rights, such as Social Justice Alliance for Museums and the Federation of International Human Rights Museums in order to represent and tackle these issues both nationally and internationally.

The final weeks of the course explored how museums can potentially support Health and Wellbeing and ‘museums and me’, exploring a museum’s two biggest assets: objects and people and the ways in which the individual might become more involved with museums. In looking at Health and wellbeing, the course materials regarded the challenges that are currently being faced and the specific contribution that museums can make, particularly how museums can help address and destigmatize illnesses such as HIV. These contributions are shown to be implemented through the

‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, which consists of five actions: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give, providing a framework that helps to better understand the issues and the ways in which museums can contribute to society and the individual. The wellbeing framework is also supported by the case study of ‘Live Today, Think Tomorrow’, a stop smoking campaign in Nottingham which involves working with young people and with museums. Each action is supposed to contribute to wellbeing in a positive way and to positive mental wellbeing.  Museums are described as ‘repositories of memory’ and in being described in this way, may be supportive to people living with health conditions such as dementia and as seen, again, through a case study from National Museum of Liverpool’s ‘House of Memory’ project. This project has been designed to provide dementia awareness knowledge and understanding of how information about a person’s history and life experience can be a valuable tool for positive communication. As seen in this study, the museum uses both technology and objects from its collection to encourage conversation and reminiscence of everyday life or events. The interaction with objects was a theme featured in the last week of the course, particularly our relationship to objects, the meaning that they have and that we give to them. The object on display and interpreted has to be considered through what it constitutes, how it is made, used or kept and how it links to its owner. The case study mentioned, highlights the biography of objects, the meanings and values ascribed to them and the changes to these meanings as well as socially and historically determined contexts.

Overall, the course provided a thoughtful insight into museum studies, wider knowledge of the issues facing museums today and the relationships forged between museums and society. From the materials and comments, the idea of the 21st century museum centres around the building as a social space, focused on its visitors and local community to provide a space available to everyone by working with audiences for wider appeal. It is also a space that the collective and individual participants’ comments stress as being important to lifelong learning and a place to encompass changes in technology, communication and global resources.
Hannah Comer is a Culture Syndicates CIC associate having just completed her English Literature MA at the University of Nottingham.
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