In Defence of Collections Part 3: Access, Education, and Public Appeal- One in the Same?8 June 2022
The public education provided by museums has been the primary concern of museology of the last three decades, and therefore remains the ideal outcome of museum engagement, despite being branded patronising and ‘Victorian’ by some (Ashley 2007, p.489). It has motivated both proposed changes to their practice and the backlash against them.
Hooper-Greenhill’s (1994, pp.2, 6, 33, 140), Hein’s (1998, p.165) and Ambrose and Paine’s (2018, p.33) recommendations that museums appeal to ‘all the senses’ and become more interactive and entertaining was driven not only by a need to compete with the burgeoning leisure industry, but because contemporary education theory suggested that allowing audiences to engage with collections in as many different ways as possible would increase the chance that people with a range of different learning styles would learn something new. Comfort is advocated, not in the sense of visitors avoiding disturbing and upsetting historical and social facts, but physical comfort, so that they can focus on learning. Equally, the response was driven by concerns that the truth and learning were taking a backseat in favour of entertainment and stimulation that was sensory rather than intellectual, and that ‘quiet contemplation’, which, by confronting visitors with an alien past, expands capacities to understand differing ways of living and being in the world, was being forgotten (Appleton 2007, pp.122, 124; Buckley 2005, p.43; Griffiths 2006, p.223; Hein 2016, p.130; Kavanagh 2000, pp.174-175).
Today’s debates around visitor diversity and decolonising museum collections are the same. Hosting cake decoration at the V&A, an activity not strictly related to their collections, was controversial, but designed to attract black British working-class women, commonly underrepresented amongst visitors, to the museum. This was not to forcibly or subliminally impress a set of ‘normative’ values on them through exposure to the museum environment, as museums have been accused of doing in the past, but encourage them to contribute to black representation in collections and exhibits in order to better inform other visitors about such cultures, which they ultimately did (Nightingale 2006, p.86; Selwood 2018, p.227).
Perceptions that museums are not education-focussed originate from differing understandings of the term. The sample group interviewed in Public perceptions of – and attitudes to – the purposes of museums in society, regarded ‘education’ as for children: adults ‘learn’ and use ‘sources of information’ (Museums Association 2013b, p.4). This would also explain curators’ often disrespectful attitude towards education departments (Woollard 2006, p.214). The sample group’s wariness of being ‘lectured to’ and belief that museums should be ‘neutral’ suggests that ‘education’ is also associated with indoctrination (Museums Association 2013b, pp.4, 6). For this reason, the term ‘access’ is frequently used in place of ‘education’. However, ‘access’ lacks ‘education’’s sense of purpose. The term needs rehabilitation to mean something that equips people to come up with their own solutions to ‘contemporary issues’ (Museums Association 2019a, p.6).
Current debates on diversity and decolonisation focus on doing just this. Ashby’s (2020) concern about the attribution of the ‘discovery’ of species to European biologists rather than their indigenous assistants comes from a desire to tell the ‘whole story’ behind collections, as do ICOM members’ calls to define museums as ‘polyphonic’ and democratising’. Objects reflecting historic prejudices have been included in exhibitions to present the past honestly and so that discrimination today can be recognised and acted on, but not without anxieties that their display might promote the stereotypes they present (Simpson 2001, p.43; Witcomb 2007, p.154). Woldeyes’ (2020) argument for the repatriation of Ethiopian manuscripts revolves around the fact that their educational value to their originating community outweighs their educational value to British citizens. Museums remain focussed on education.
Recent audience consultations suggest that this kind of education overlaps with visitors’ desires and expectations while in a museum. Dierking and Falk (2000, p.2) identified learning as their primary goal, the Museums Association public consultation that ‘creating knowledge, for and about society’ was the third most essential purpose of a museum behind ‘care and preservation of heritage’ and ‘holding collections and mounting displays’ (2013b, p.4). Tooby (2006, p.141) shows that audiences have specific ‘learning goals’ they anticipate achieving from museum trips. Multiple sources suggest that the public value museums specifically for being reliable sources of information, deeming other sources such as public news outlets and the internet untrustworthy or ‘biased’ by comparison (Ambrose and Paine 2018, p.157; Heywood 2009; Museums Association 2013a, p.10).