What makes a good museum?

Article Reflection – What makes a good museum?

Recently, one of my Twitter colleagues, @stoleasheep, sent me an article: What makes a good museum?  It was good to read an article suggested by someone else, rather than one I had looked for myself.  The article caused me to reflect on my beliefs about what makes a good museum, but also my experiences with museums in both a personal and professional capacity.

What makes a good museum? is written by Lord Chris Smith, Chair of the 2012 Art Fund Prize and discusses his (and his colleagues) shift in views about how visitors engage with museums and how museums can best serve their visitors.  What initially struck me is that my personal experience of museums clearly differed from Smiths.

I have never been a ‘good’ traditional Art Museum or Gallery visitor – one who spends a considerable time contemplating individual works and appreciating great artistic value.  I used to feel like I was a ‘bad’ visitor, I wanted to appreciate the art, but couldn’t do it in the way they I thought was expected of me.  I didn’t feel I had enough specialist knowledge in order to be admitted.  Fortunately, I had since came to believe that my way of visiting is just as valid, and so therefore everyone else’s should be too.

Since working in museums I have enjoyed discovering the varied and exciting range of interpretation, broad access, participation and digital innovation.  I see best practice in museums as creating a broad range of experiences, engagement and participatory opportunities that encourage visitors to connect to cultural heritage within their own modes of understanding.  I do not believe that museums and galleries exist to teach people the ‘right’ way to engage with their collection.  I feel that, to suggest that there is right and wrong way to take ideas from a collection, is rather pretentious and old fashioned.  It certainly is not a good way to encourage new and younger audiences into a museum.

In his article, Chris Smith talks about coming to the understanding that not all visitors possess a specific cultural knowledge or appreciation of the content of the exhibition.  He previously assumed a reasonable level of prior knowledge amongst visitors.  He talks about moving away from looking for simply an ‘expected’ audience to embracing new ways to engage the audience in collection items they may know nothing about and not value very highly.  He talked about enticing and inspiring visitors, and about the value of storytelling.

Having spent my museum career working with children I immediately thought ‘of course that’s what we need to do’.  I also thought ‘what would be the purpose of a museum that exists only to serve those who already know about it’s content’.  But after consideration it reminded me that I am of the younger generation working in this sector and I came in with a completely different experience of museums and galleries.  It also made me appreciate how far museums and galleries have come in the past few decades.  It was not so long ago that only certain ‘types’ entered these imposing institutions.  I’m certainly glad to be working in this contemporary era.

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