A passionate essay in the UK Times rails against the emerging emphasis on access and public palatability among museums, claiming that it distracts and destroys the true purpose of the institutions. According to novelist/journalist James Delingpole, that true purpose is this:
They exist today, just as they did 250 years ago, for the preservation, collection, display and study of precious objects. If in the process they also manage to create some kind of beneficial social change be it bolstering its visitors’ education, self esteem or sense of community, then all to the good, but these are no more than side effects, not a museum’s raison d’etre.
He suggests that bending that purpose toward popular appeal distorts the organization rather than improving it.
The flaws in this access-for-all argument, are nicely exposed by Josie Appleton in her paper for the Institute Of Ideas – ”Museums For The People?” By endlessly trying to second-guess the needs of their audiences, she argues, museums are failing in their primary function of preserving, displaying, studying and where possible collecting the treasures of civilisation and nature.
Resources that might have gone into the maintenance of collections are instead being diverted to fashionable ”access” projects; curators are now so busy interacting with the public that they barely have time left for study; and the harder they try to make themselves more user-friendly and socially relevant, the less they fulfil their purpose as wholly distinctive institutions which provide a refuge from the mundane cares and concerns of ordinary life.
Along the way, Delingpole challenges the trend of hanging artwork lower to accommodate children and the disabled (”thus are politically correct considerations given a higher priority than scholarly or aesthetic ones”), as well as the effort to increase the diversity of staff and leadership (”Does anyone really think when they enter a museum: ‘Goodness me. All the curators and staff here look hideously white’?”).
Which leads me to this eloquent retort to Mr. Delingpole: ”tough noogies.” Considerations of access, accessibility, relevance, and equity are part of the museum’s job, just as are collection, preservation, display, and study. The most effective institutions are masters of ”uncompromising compromise,” committed to providing both access and excellence, even when the two seem at cross purposes.
The answer isn’t to retrench into some centuries-old conception of the museum, but to stretch forward to a 22nd-century vision of one. Those institutions that internally focused on their collections and their scholarship a century ago misunderstood their purpose, just as those that over-emphasize their external focus misunderstand it now. This doesn’t mean museums should live in the middle of the road, but that they should embrace the entire thoroughfare. It’s horribly complex and difficult to do so, but such are all necessary and noble things.