Record numbers flock to modernising museums

The main attractions: Three of the UK’s four most visited institutions are museums.

Museums are attracting record numbers of visitors by embracing new means of communication and education. But do they risk neglecting their traditional function as repositories of culture?

London’s British Museum was the first national public museum in the world. Two-and-a-half centuries later, it is the UK’s most popular visitor attraction, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

Eight of the top ten UK visitor attractions are museums. Along with art galleries, they experienced a 6.5% increase in visitors last year, and Tate Modern saw a record number of visitors.

But while museums are drawing more and more visitors, not all of them are happy with what they find. In recent months there has been a chorus of gripes about the trend towards taking selfies in museums. Selfie sticks are being banned in museums and galleries around the world, including the UK’s National Gallery. An art critic from The Times says they cause ‘appalling crowding around a painting’.

This issue is symptomatic of a wider, longstanding debate about museums’ identities. Some see museums as sacred institutions which are becoming increasingly populist, sacrificing traditional values and curatorial discernment in favour of appealing to the masses. Others believe museums have a duty to entertain as well as inform. A New York Times art critic accuses them of doing both: ‘museums don’t know whether they are more like universities or Disneyland, and lurch from one to the other’.

Attempts to reach a younger and wider audience have, on the whole, been successful. But there are pitfalls to this approach. Visits to the Brooklyn Museum dropped by 23% in 2009 after it put on a series of populist exhibitions on themes like Star Wars and hip-hop. One writer says it now has ‘an abundance of wall texts written for a grade-school reading level, computer touch screens and — adding aural injury to visual insult — background music’.

But a recent report by BritainThinks found that visitors see museums as shaping our future as well as our past, and as having an ‘active role in sharing new knowledge’, rather than being a passive building that just ‘stores objects’. Attitudes towards museums have improved, the study concludes, because museums have ‘shed their image of stuffiness’ to become more ‘entertaining and interactive’.

Out-of-Tate

Museums can educate as well as appeal to a wider audience, some argue. Nostalgia for what museums were like in the past shouldn’t hinder their futures. We learn in different ways now, and have more learning opportunities available to us. Museums must keep up.

If all curators simply see themselves as glorified entertainers, others say, we will cease to appreciate historical artefacts for their own sake. There are plenty of places to go to be entertained, but remnants of the past are sacred, and so are the institutions that preserve them.

You Decide

  1. Do museums have more of a duty to educate or entertain?
  2. Can an interactive computer simulation teach you more than an ancient historical relic?

Activities

  1. What makes a good museum? Discuss the question as a class and vote for a favourite.
  2. Come up with an idea for a museum and write a brief plan explaining what it would teach people and how.

Some People Say...

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

Thomas Jefferson

What do you think?

Q & A

Museums are just full of fossils and dust, aren’t they?
Far from it. Museums do have displays of ‘old’ artefacts — which can actually be very interesting if you bother to discover their meaning — but they have much more than that. Museums can teach us about our recent past too. They are important for many reasons. They’re good for the economy by attracting tourists, and have much more cultural importance than a storehouse of randomly assorted relics.
So what will the future look like for museums?
Who knows? Many predict they will become increasingly digital, more interactive, and more collaborative. There has also been debate around opening times: museums aren’t open late enough to compete with cinemas and galleries, and some say that should change.

Word Watch

National public
National museums are funded by government, and offer free entry to their permanent collections.The Department for Culture, Media and Sport provides funding for the British Museum, sponsoring them at ‘arm’s length’, meaning it isn’t involved in daily business operations.
Record
The museum’s success has been partly attributed to its Matisse exhibition in 2014. It explored the final stages in the career of painter Henri Matisse, displaying his work and giving insight into one of the world’s most famous artists.
Trend
Museum selfies have really taken off of late. Not only is there a blog dedicated to them, there is also now a Museum Selfie Day. This annual event encourages museum visitors to take photos of themselves in front of items and upload them to Twitter.
Populist
There is a longstanding accusation that museums are becoming more populist and even ‘dumbing down’. This means they are appealing to a wider audience, which critics say diminishes their reputation.
Successful
Museums’ popularity has increased as they have become more interactive and embraced technology.