A New Year’s Resolution for Museums
For me, the start of a new year always brings with it an enormous feeling of optimism.
I tell myself,“This is the year that I’ll get it right, I’ll eat less bad food, I’ll read more books, and I’ll finally stop putting off that work thing I want to do.”
And as colleagues return to work in museums around the world, many will be contemplating the year ahead and what kind of impact they can have in the next twelve months.
That is one of the great things about working in museums, knowing that the work that you do has a positive impact on your community, and can be transformative to those who walk through the doors.
So what would be an appropriate New Year’s resolution for museums as we enter 2019?
Looking back on the past twelve months, I think one thing that museums need to consider is the company that they keep.
In 2018, a handful of museums hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons as they welcomed weapons manufacturers, questionable regimes, and oil companies to their galleries.
In July, the Design Museum in London hosted a private function for the arms manufacturer Leonardo, which led to a wave of protests from artists featured in the museum’s exhibition ‘Hope to Nope.’ Which traced the intersection of design and politics over the past decade.
More than forty artists demanded that their work was removed from the exhibition in protest at Leonardo holding an event at the museum.
In October, the Natural History Museum in London hit the headlines for similar reasons when they held an event for the Saudi Embassy while revelations about the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi were on the front pages.
This led to protests outside the museum, and a series of unflattering articles about the Natural History Museum.
In response the museum issued a statement that said “Enabling commercial events to take place outside of public opening hours in our iconic spaces brings the museum an important source of external funding, which allows us to maintain our position as a world-class scientific research centre and visitor attraction. We hold a wide variety of commercial events and it is made clear to any host that doing so is not an endorsement of their product, service or views.”
Next door the Science Museum was one of many cultural institutions critised for accepting support from the oil giants.
The broadcaster Chris Packham and former Nasa scientist James Hansen were among 30 signatories of a complaint to the Science Museum, arguing taking money from fossil fuel companies undermined its scientific credibility.
Hansen said of the complaint, “I’m supporting this because until fossil fuel companies support a rising carbon fee that means they will genuinely pay for the damage they are wreaking, museums of science have a duty not to promote their brands.”
In response Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, said: “While I acknowledge the passion of campaigners who would rather we turned our backs on a variety of legitimate business sectors, I strongly believe we are making the right decisions to secure the long-term future of the museum for the public good, a stance agreed by the board of trustees.”
I think the word legitimate is critical here. Whether it is weapons manufacturers, questionable regimes or oil companies, they all see museums as prestigious institutions that can bring legitimacy to their activities.
Meanwhile, these the headlines that accepting money from these parties damage the reputation of our cultural institutions by showing a wiliness to accept money without question.
But change is possible.
In response to the protests at the Design Museum the organisation suspended working with arms, fossil fuel or tobacco companies while they review their fundraising policies and commercial activities.
If change can happen here, then it is surely possible to make other museums think again about who they are willing to accept money from.
I know that for most people working in museums the idea of these commercial arrangements is abhorrent.
So let us look for ways to influence those with the power to make change happen and move towards a sector where external sponsorship and commercial activities are not done at the expense of our integrity.
How have you managed to make change happen in your museum? Share your experience in the comments below.