Notes on Socially Engaged Practice in Museums and Galleries

In the 21st century, leading museums, galleries and heritage practice began to make use of socially engaged approaches. This course will examine the role of museums and practitioners in shaping society’s understandings of contemporary issues, upholding antiracist and anti-oppression values of inclusivity and accessibility, and ensuring that museums benefit their communities. Choosing to study Socially Engaged Practice in Museums and Galleries will give you access to leading research and practice on the impact that museums and galleries can have on advocating for social justice and human rights, and how they might better explore and address the contemporary issues that face our societies.University of Leicester

This page contains my musings, thoughts and reflections on museums and galleries in response to the above quote and prompts provided throughout the MA Socially Engaged Practice in Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester (signified in italics). Please note that some of these blogs will contain ideas from others, and I will try my upmost to ensure that these are adequately referenced.

3 November 2022

One of the key tenets of Birmingham’s Manifesto was to ‘work with an awareness of the history of museum space’. Why have museums and galleries evolved as they are? What are they for? And perhaps more pertinently, who have they been designed to serve? Museums are on the rise. There are now more than 95,000 worldwide according to UNESCO, compared to just 22,000 in 1975 (UNESCO, 2021). The number of museums in China has exploded in recent years, as part of a key governmental strategy towards museum building. Museums of all sizes and kinds can be found in cities, rural spaces, and our cultural landscapes worldwide. Considering this variety and complexity, it is hard to generalise their histories and why they came to be. Undoubtedly then, there are no simple answers to unpacking the museum as a space. Consider your local context, for a few moments. What kinds of museums and galleries do you have around you in your area? Why are they there? Who visits them?

My local context has been shifting a lot of late – moving between the UK and Germany. In south London – the place I grew up – my abiding memory is that of the Horniman Museum. It was founded in an imperialist context, as with the bulk of anthropological and ethnographic museums, and today serves a highly diverse audience located in the Forest Hill area. As our local museum, I recall regular visits that would focus on the tropical aquarium and taxidermied animals in the Natural History Gallery, most notably the Canadian Walrus. I would go as part of school groups and with family, and undoubtedly it was a space for learning about the world beyond the UK – a valuable resource no doubt, but one that I have been more wary to critically appraise in recent years. How did the objects on show come to be within a South London institution? Is there a way to tell stories of the world that don’t rely on the squander of artefacts? Can a diverse population like those in Forest Hill relate personally to the stories told in the museum, or do the hierarchies of the space create a barrier? I believe that the Horniman Museum is a crucial space that aided my learning and interest in the sector. However, at what cost was that to communities who could no longer associate themselves with cultures and heritages that had been taken from them?

The museum and gallery as a cultural institution has a particular heritage that has stemmed from a way of understanding and representing the world that evolved with European Enlightenment thinking. Many major collections and museums in the West evolved alongside the development of Enlightenment ideals in Europe, and a political and economic system that served the development of national identities and legitimising of European colonialism. Violent, racialising ideas – namely a hierarchical way of viewing people (and their knowledge and ways of life) as superior (White Europeans) or inferior (non-white) – were embedded into colonial systems of power. These ideas shaped museum systems of collections classification and display, and indeed still affect the way that many museums look and feel today. How might these histories still be visible, felt, or experienced in the museum today?

Buildings hold power, and many of our largest galleries and museums are housed in vast Victorian and Edwardian buildings that some find hostile or intimidating (see also, universities).