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In Defence of Collections Part 1: An Introduction to the Collections Debate

8 June 2022

Concerns relating to the colonial motivations and attitudes behind museum collections have caused many industry professionals, especially those based in the West, to question whether collections are, and if they should be, at the heart of museums in recent years. This six-part blog series on the role of collections in British museums is based on an essay I wrote for the first-year module ‘Museums Collections Management’. I have included the references I use across each blog post in the comments section of each post. Please feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments.

 

Debates around how museum professionals should respond to their collections’ colonial legacies have grown and become increasingly contentious in recent years. Concerns that collecting is imperialist and that the content of narratives surrounding collections relating to minority cultures must be carefully managed have been integrated into discussions relating to the function of museums, which sees division over whether the museum should prioritise holding collections or operate as an interpretation-focussed ‘democrati[c]’ ‘forum’ (Brown 2019; Debono 2019b; Engelsman 2019; Green 2007, p.413; Museums Association 2019b, p.3; Simpson, 2001, p.43; Witcomb 2007, p.154).

Brown (2019) laments that the debate has trodden these same lines for ‘the past twenty years’. This is a vast underestimation: both sides are, as they have been since at least the mid-nineteenth century, motivated by a vision of museums as public education centres (Hein 1998, p.5). The term ‘access’ is frequently used instead of ‘education’, a term that has become associated with indoctrination, but surveys suggest the British public come to museums expecting and wanting to learn. The primary aim of bringing people into museums remains to educate, and if not to educate these new visitors, then to educate regular museumgoers about their cultures.

Using the 2013 Museums Association report, Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society’s results alongside case studies, I will argue that, in the UK at least, because public education is at the heart of everything museums aim to do, that collections remain at the heart of everything the museum does.

Collections are the root of all the possible narratives that could be derived from them and remain the closest thing to living history, in all its complexities and contradictions. The public are interested in seeing objects for this reason, not to check items off a ‘to do list’ (Debono, 2019). Decisions to change the labels rather than repatriate many colonial collections suggest that they are not inherently colonial, as does the communities’ eagerness to see themselves represented within them. It stands in direct opposition to decolonialisation’s principles to only allow free access to collections to academics and researchers. If museums are to be truly democratic, collections must continue to be central to what they do.

In Defence of Collections Part 2: What Does a Museum Do?


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