Toward the end of 2020, the Museums Association published the result of their two-year consultation on museum learning and engagement, A Manifesto for Museum Learning and Engagement. At the time it felt like the right intervention, published just before museums were hit by new tier restrictions and eventual shutting altogether. I’ve spent some time with it and reflected on what it has to say and I thought I’d share my hot take.
Published against the backdrop of a global health emergency, a climate crisis and a society where deep racial and social inequalities have been exposed, the MA’s Manfiesto aims to be a
a framework for all museums, whatever their history scale, funding or model of governance, to reflect on their purpose and develop their practice.
The Manifesto has some serious credentials with one of the co-authors being David Anderson, he who laid the foundations for museum learning with his report A Common Wealth in the late 1990s and has overseen a significant shift in practice at Amgeudffa Cymru-National Museums Wales (see the fantastic Who Decides? exhibition and the Making History redevelopment of St. Fagans National Museum of History). Divided into eight sections, covering cultural rights, social justice, activism, collections, community participation, research, partnerships and workforce, the Manifesto outlines the role museums could play in society as it begins the process of renewal.
People at the heart of museums
With significant existential challenges lying ahead in the 2020s for museums, this Manifesto feels like a timely intervention for the sector. Just as A Common Wealth outlined how museums can be relevant to society through the education and social inclusion agenda of the Labour government (1997–2010), this document illustrates how museums can potentially be central to the rebuilding of society.
It’s less of a Manifesto in the traditional sense and more a call to action. It’s main message and belief is that museums should have people at their core, which was beginning to become well-established practice right across the sector before the COVID-19 emergency hit. However, with the health, social and environmental crises we’re facing as we begin a new decade this call to action has much more urgency.
Assessing your practice
The eight points of the Manifesto have associated descriptors and case studies. When thinking about the learning practitioners and museum professionals who this is targeted at, the use of case studies will be valuable in raising the profile of innovative practice. The Manifesto, however, does fall short for me in not providing a framework to support practitioners in the self-assessment of their work. Something like the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement EDGE tool or the recently published Equity Compass from the STEM Participation and Social Justice Research team at UCL would be a valuable way to prompt and structure reflection.
What I feel would also be useful to support the step-change in practice that is required to realise the ambition of the Manifesto would be a skills self-assessment toolkit. Something like this would enable practitioners to either surface and understand how their existing skills and expertise could be applied in new practices or to identify gaps that need to be filled with training and professional development. Whilst the case studies are useful to inspire people, it’s the detail of the skills people used to develop and deliver the work that would be most valuable for the workforce.
I’ve long had a bit of an issue with the phrase ‘Museum Activism’, it’s a practice that has often jarred with me for lots of reasons. So bear with me while I indulge in a bit of thinking out loud to unpack some of those issues. (If a rant is not what you came here for then head over to this Twitter account for some cute animal distraction.)
Firstly, since it emerged as a term it’s often been self-proclaimed activists promoting themselves often with little reference to the public groups they’ve worked with and then I saw this phrase that resonated with me on the socials:
there are two “i”s in activist and maybe that’s why it’s all about ego nowadays
Harsh, but I’m afraid it’s true. Museum activism has often promoted the ‘activism’ and causes that are of interest to individuals rather than how communities have been supported. This has often led to the term becoming associated with a few hand-picked favourites that shout the loudest and it’s been at the detriment to the change museums can help achieve. The focus should be squarely on museums as enablers and supporters of community groups, working with them to facilitate social change that is meaningful and relevant to them. Museums shouldn’t instigate activism in my opinion, for it to be authentic and reflective of community needs, museums should work with community groups to understand how they can open up their spaces, collections and resources to become a community asset that supports people to bring about the change they want.
Secondly, ‘activist’ practice has often been conflated with equitable practice, where museums work with communities to identify and address the cultural inequalities they are experiencing. It’s not being ‘activist’ to change your exclusionary practice in the slightest, it’s core to our work to ensure everyone the right to access their cultural assets.
Finally, museums are public spaces in which we all should feel ownership. ‘Public spaces’ such as museums, the BBC, national parks, libraries and much else, are open, independent and enriching environments and are there to support people to make judgements about the great issues of the day and enrich their own and their families’ lives. V&A Director Tristram Hunt generated much anger by suggesting that museums shouldn’t be in the business of being a political force and rightly highlighted in an article for Art Newspaper that
in an era of absolutist, righteous identity politics, these places for pluralism are more important than ever.
It’s here where I wholeheartedly agree, for museums to be overtly political you risk undermining the core values of them as public spaces. Museums should be a place for the exchange of ideas, a place to listen, be heard and be challenged. People already feel excluded from museums, to work and operate in a way that deliberately seeks to exclude people who may not share your world view risks museums becoming no more than an actual echo chamber. Museums are more important than ever in helping address the social and environmental challenges we face as a society. In a post-truth age, these are at risk of becoming emotive reactionary issues and the reality is museums have a duty to be shared spaces for civic exchange of ‘unsafe’ ideas. But that by no means does this mean they have to be comfortable or ignore controversy.
It was really heartening to see the section under Museum Activism reflect an approach that was about putting communities and the issues that are important to them at the heart of this, rather than activist museums or activist museum professionals.
My hot take on the Museum Association’s Manifesto for Museum Learning and Engagement — timely call to action for museums everywhere but could do more to support museum practitioners to develop their practice to bring about step-change required to deliver its ambitions.