[Press and Public Relations] End in Sight for 'Elitist and Exclusive' Museums?

June 2001

No. 72


Museums and galleries should tackle social issues like crime, intolerance and poor health

Museums should act as catalysts for change within their communities by responding to issues of social exclusion – an idea seen as alien and abhorrent by some, states a new report from the University of Leicester.

Museum functions like collecting, preserving and displaying should not be undertaken for their own sake – but as a means to a number of social ends, the report published this week (publication date JULY 4) states.

Including Museums: perspectives on museums, galleries and social inclusion is a 132-page book written and edited by Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell from the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, and funded by Resource, the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries. It states:

“Museums can inspire, educate, inform; they can promote creativity, broaden horizons and expose people to new ways of looking at the world, all of which have a relevance to discussions about the museum’s contribution to social inclusion.

“They also have the potential to deliver social outcomes less commonly assigned to museums – they can enhance individuals’ self-esteem, challenge stereotypes and tackle intolerance.

“Some of them can utilise their social impact to play a direct role in combating some of the problems that disadvantage many diverse communities and individuals described by some as ‘socially excluded’ –poor health, crime, low educational attainment and unemployment.”

Richard Sandell said: “The book reflects the authors’ belief that museums have both the potential to impact upon issues around social inequality and indeed a responsibility to do so.

“The subject is very topical at present especially following the UK government’s policy guidance on museums’ and galleries’ role in relation to social inclusion in 2000. However, the book advances the debate about fundamental questions around the museum’s social purpose and value – questions which are gaining increasing attention internationally.”

The study contains the views of 20 other individuals not only from the museum and gallery sector but also representatives from health and welfare agencies and communities that have participated in museum initiatives.

The authors argue that while research suggests there are many ways museums and galleries can contribute meaningfully towards social inclusion – these are not always understood or accepted both within and outside the sector.

“The very idea that museums and galleries, especially those which enjoy public funding and support, might seek to be relevant to all those who pay for them or to work towards broader social goals – rather than narrowly defined cultural goals- remains alien, even abhorrent, to some,” states Jocelyn Dodd.

The editors added that, increasingly, traditional museum practices – and ‘the systems and structures which perpetuate the elitist and exclusive museum’ – will be open to question and scrutiny.

“Many museums and galleries will face imperatives for radical changes in working practices and those who have traditionally held power and are accustomed to an autonomy that has resulted in neglect of audiences will continue to feel uncomfortable and threatened.”

The editors state: “With no blueprint for success at present, many unchartered opportunities exist for museums and staff in all areas of museum work to respond creatively to the social challenges and the issue facing the communities they seek to serve.”


Interviews: Contact Richard Sandell/Jocelyn Dodd on 0116 252 3963. Copies of Including Museums (price £15 plus £2 p+p – please note copies available after July 3 only) – available from RCMG, Department of Museum Studies and the University of Leicester Bookshop (tel 0116 252 3000).

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Information supplied by: Barbara Whiteman
Last updated: 26 June 2001 16:46
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