UK Museums of the Future

The Great Gallery at the Wallace Collection. Photograph: Sarah Lee/Press.

What should our museums look like in 2020? The Guardian, 16 March 2015

Four industry experts share their views on the past, present and future of museums.

David Anderson, director general, National Museums Wales

Museums in 2020 should be radical and participative institutions at the heart of their communities. They should be working in partnership with third-sector organisations to develop formal and informal learning, health and wellbeing, skills and social change. Museums are already the most innovative public institutions in the arts and cultural sector. By 2020, they should have turned this expertise outwards, to become centres for public creativity and local enterprise.

What stands in the way of this? Our first challenge is the UK’s 19th-century model of arts funding. A brilliant series of reports by GPS Culture has exposed how the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England continue to give disproportionate amounts of money to under-performing London institutions, while creative arts organisations in the nations and regions are denied the financial support they need.

Our second challenge is the systemic failure of the media to give fair and impartial coverage of exceptional arts projects outside of London, such as Welsh art prize and organisation Artes Mundi. We, National Museums Liverpool and many others are developing new models for the sector, based on cultural participation and social justice. This is not utopia. Growing out of years of research, it demonstrably works. By 2020, all museums should be like this. But that will only happen if we have the courage to challenge the UK’s current cultural model …

Maria Balshaw, director, Whitworth Art Gallery

Museums of the future should be places where people feel at ease – to encounter things they may not know as well as things they do. They should be places to commingle and explore things in the company of strangers.

Within them, people should find the past, the future and be able to bring their own ideas and learn new ones. Museums should be enjoyable, curious, allow us to see beauty and fill us with wonder. They should be sociable spaces, which quietly undo social hierarchy and inequality.

I don’t think that museums save lives, but I do think they contribute to the living of a good one. They help to make us better educated, more tolerant, more resilient, more mentally well, with better health and a (vitally) cheerier outlook on life.

If you ask what are the greatest challenges of our time are, in Manchester or anywhere in this country, it would be intolerance between people, inequality within society, and increasing social isolation of people of all ages, especially if you are poor – exacerbated if you are elderly. The smart money is on the difference culture can and does make in tackling these issues.

If you make (more and different) people feel comfortable in a museum, they can learn something new, and accept that there are things bigger than any one of us. To quote Dea Birkett’s observation of the visitors at the opening day of the Whitworth in Manchester: “Every sort of person, doing all sorts of things. An example to every museum, everywhere.” We said we wanted the Whitworth to be a 21st-century museum, so this is what I wished for.

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