In Defence of Collections Part 2: What Does a Museum Do?8 June 2022
What does it mean for a museum to ‘do’ something?
The primary challenge to ICOM’s revised museum definition is that it is an aspiration, rather than a description of what a museum does day-to-day (Debono 2019b; Engelsman 2019).
Sandahl (2019) convincingly argues that all definitions are an ideal rather than necessarily an institution’s reality. A museum may not always be successful in being fully ‘open to the public’ or ‘communicat[ing]’ about the heritage it holds, for example, but remain a museum, in the same way a university remains a university even if not all its students succeed in passing their coursework.
It is the desire, attempt and at least partial success in pursuing an action that makes something a thing that an institution can claim to ‘do’. Therefore, what a museum ‘does’ and what is at the heart of that is not necessarily what a museum does in practice.
A strong case could be made that ‘surviv[al]’ is at the heart of what UK museums do in practice (Halpin 2007, p.51). Selwood (2015, p.4; 2018, p.228; 2019, p.190) and Lynch (2011, p.6) show that the reality for most is chasing short-term grants to the detriment of their relationships with stakeholders, who feel museums are only committed to their participation when they lack the funding to pay employees or contractors, or evidence of community participation is a necessary requirement for some available grants. One could argue that the Museums Association present themselves as creating positive social change because this is what the government and other funders demand in return for grants. This is sometimes explicit, such as the Museums Change Lives document’s self-definition as a ‘powerful advocacy tool’, sometimes implicit (Museums Association 2013a, p.2). The Culture White Paper’s focus on measurable and practical outcomes from culture sector projects is reflected even in Empowering Collections’ language: the Museums Association (2019a, pp.6, 13) claims to promote ‘health and wellbeing’ and develop ‘skills’ with an eye to future employment; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (2016, pp.8, 9, 24) describes the government’s desire to ‘promote the contribution of the cultural sectors to improving health and wellbeing’ and see the development of clearer career pathways within them.
What I seek to explore here is not what a museum finds itself doing, but what it aims to do ideally: this is what a museum ‘does’.