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In Defence of Collections Part 4: Collections- The Key to Quality Public Education

8 June 2022

The Museums Association report’s results suggest that the only thing the British public are more interested in than learning is the collections themselves.

Jones (2018, p.15), Ambrose and Paine (2018, p.156) note the power ‘the real thing’ holds for them. Even those uninterested in participating in decision-making around the content of museum exhibitions, such as the Museum Association report’s participants, have insightful comments to make about representation within collections and are most satisfied with a museum visit when they see their lives reflected in the displayed objects (Museums Association 2013b, p.15).

Indeed, this theory has been put into practice with great success in attracting visitor minorities through museum doors. Nightingale (2006, pp.79-80) describes how 60% of visitors to 1999’s V&A exhibition The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms were Sikhs, 70% of which were first-time visitors and 30% of which had never visited a museum before; Reeve (2006b, p.54) the popularity of Croydon Clocktower, constructed from objects contributed by locals to represent the people of Croydon, and Hooper-Greenhill (1994, p.22) the success of the West Midlands ‘People’s Show’. For this reason, O’Neill (2019) and the panellists of Let’s Talk Labels reject temporary exhibitions on minority ethnic: they only temporarily appeal to minority group needs, and enforce their position as marginal figures within British culture (TORCH 2021). A lack of material representation of specific immigrant communities in the incredibly well-received Museum of London Peopling of London exhibition caused visitors from those backgrounds genuine upset and disappointment (Merriman 2007, pp.354, 356). Nightingale notes that once inside the V&A, black visitors were quick to observe the absence of displayed items relating to their culture and history: one visitor remarked, ‘I think at this museum, they should have a lot more things (my emphasis) about black people and slavery’.

This makes sense of the apparent stasis in the debate over the role of museums. Ambrose and Paine (2018, pp.32-33, 160) and Lin (2011, pp.207, 292) have identified that museums’ increasing investment in participation and interaction since the 1990s seem to have had little effect on demands for further interactivity. Demands for ‘visible storage’, to see the objects not chosen for display by curators, perhaps gives the strongest hint as to what this missing ‘quality’ is: it is not the narratives and structures put together by museum staff around objects that draw in visitors, but the objects themselves.

Debono’s (2019) fears that this enthusiasm for the material comes from a mindless desire to check items off a bucket list originates in a lack of appreciation of the public’s intelligence. Interest in collections is far from a bad thing in the context of museums’ desire to educate those without access to higher education: it is closely linked to a respect for and a desire to access factual information and advanced learning. Not only does collections’ tangibility cause them to produce ‘visceral’ and strongly ‘emotional’ responses that engage visitors, Caple (2000, p.13) describes how they are the closest things we possess to ‘the objective past’, and Hooper-Greenhill (1994, p.12) how objects can therefore be used to ‘dispel myths’ (Museums Association 2015, p.4).

Western conservation’s practice fetishistic focus on the preservation of objects’ materiality has come under criticism, but only where it prioritises tangible or tangible aspects of collections over the intangible, which ICOM stresses are equally important (Appendix 1; Engelsman 2019; Simpson 2001, p.265). Ashby (2020) and others calling for the decolonisation of museum collections argue that decolonisation means providing the public with full details about those involved in objects in museum collections’ creation and discovery and the history of their ownership left out of accession documentation due to their requirements for brevity, creating biases in the narrative that now need to be rectified. While explanations of collections through labels, especially those that could be interpreted in a racist manner, are necessary to render them accessible to non-experts, there is simply not enough space on museums’ walls to display all the information and perspectives, the combination of which constitutes the whole truth, or sufficient attention or memory capacity amongst visitors to retain all of this for every object in a given collection (Museums Association 2015, p.4). Hein (1998, p.172) and McManus (1996, pp.35, 40) have demonstrated that the average museum visitor retains just enough information from labels to be able to discuss the exhibition, and thus do most of their learning from the exhibition in external social settings. The object then, embodies these many perspectives even when it is logistically impossible for them all to be made immediately evident to the visiting public. Indeed, Cannon-Brookes (1992, p.501) highlights that objects can be used to directly challenge other objects: narratives cannot challenge each other without using evidence from such collections. It is the object that can be interacted with in the many ways necessary to be amenable to many learning styles, and that can be figured into a coherent narrative, or viewed alone as an aesthetic, contemplative object that puts the viewer in touch with a ‘dream space’ (Hein 1998; Kavanagh 2000, p.175). This allows visitors to engage in ‘self-directed’ learning (Sandahl 2019).

Nightingale (2006, p.106) points out that museums’ purpose is ideally to move people from passive consumers of information to pursuing their own research goals and thus mirror the behaviour of PhD-holding academics and professional researchers. Simpson (2001, p.226) states that academics and other professional researchers’ own desire for learning, or education has hampered attempts to repatriate British museum collections as they have justified their retention for research purposes. It seems unlikely, then, that the public’s trust in museums as a source of unbiased information and their identification of their primary role as ‘care and preservation of heritage’ and ‘holding collections and mounting displays’ are unrelated.

Collections are ultimately public possessions: museums are ‘society’s attic’, not exclusively the attic of the well-educated (Museums Association 2013b, p.15; Museums Association 2020a, p.18). If museums are to fulfil their educational purpose, what is good enough for academics and professionals must also be considered good enough for the British public.


In Defence of Collections Part 5: Collections- The Colonial Issue