Why local museums should ask big questions

Last week I met with Stephen Aguillar-Millan a future consultant. He described himself as a Futurist (though I think not in the early 20th proto fascist art movement sense). His organisation the European Futures Observatory  undertakes a range of projects that examine various aspects of the future.

We met the day George Osborne’s admitted that the UK austerity measures will continue into 2018.

Stephen believed that most organisations plan for a future which they assume will not be different from the past. He cited a number of local economic strategies which assume that once austerity is over, economic and social life will return to the more benign state of ‘before the cuts’. This attitude is widespread, though not exclusive, within the public sector. Often the impetus for radical change is not felt until it’s too late and then draconian cuts are the only option. Would anyone working in the public sector in 2008 have believed that it would have shrunk by a third by 2012?

Public organisations struggle to prepare the public for change. The political expediency of the electoral cycle means that politicians will shy away from big decisions anything up to a year before an election. Moreover they struggle to create the space for conversations or debate. Public meetings are sparsely attended, consultation exercises are only ever on specific issues and are viewed by the public as re-enforcing decisions which are already taken. The local press with its eyes on short–term sales is never really able spell out the complexities of big problems. At the same time local authorities are mindful to keep good relations with the local media and thus try to manage the news in a way made palatable for the public ear. In Suffolk last year, discussions about the future provision of public services in the context of lower levels of spending was reduced to arguments about libraries and lollipop ladies.

The West faces unfamiliar social and economic challenges from the rest of the world. Whilst globally, climate change and increased population will mean that resources will not be abundant in the way we are used to. I can’t imagine a future where we in the UK can have it all.

The challenge for policy makers at all levels is to find the space to ask big questions and involve the public in problem solving. Here museums have a great opportunity to play an important role. As institutions they benefit from high levels of trust. They are perceived by many (just like libraries) as neutral spaces which encourage debate. Most importantly they are places where people meet, socialise and connect with others.

So what big questions should we ask of ourselves and how could museums use their collections to continue the discussion?


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5 Responses to Why local museums should ask big questions

  1. emuseo says:

    Hmm, I see this trend predating the 2008 crash. Museums and cultural providers having been dropping down the local government agenda for some time, with notable exceptions. 20 years ago several authorities had heads of museums reporting directly to their Chief executive’s, today I suspect there are none, and the largest museum services would be lucky to be 2 or 3 levels away from the top tier managers. The first decade of this century saw a growth in adult and child services (partly demographic but also due to new responsibilities). For example 2013 will see many authorities taking on public health responsbilities from the NHS. With resources being paired back, culture is much vulnerable as they are further down the pecking order, than in the 80s, the last time they were large scale cuts.

    The reaction from the public sector museums? Merging of services, moves to charity status, reduction of salaried posts and greater use of freelancers and volunteers. I also anticipate more cultural convergance, where arts, museums and sometime archive services are managed as one, either within an authority or as a standalone. See Luton and Hampshire CC.

  2. traceygooch says:

    Interesting post- my big question – what do we want from our future? Museums will hold objects and art and ideas that symbolise what different people want the future to be. How that future is created may be an even bigger question…

  3. I found this paper extraordinarily interesting, have a read and let me know if you think its something that could be applied to museums http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/reports/assets/features/the_challenge_of_co-production

    • tonybutler1 says:

      Thanks for commenting on my blog. The paper you reference is great, it’s actually a follow up to a pamphlet NEF produced in 2007 called A Manifesto for Co-Production which identified Mental Health services as pioneers in co-production. There are many really interesting intellectual currents in this from from Edgar Cahn and time banking to Elinor Ostrom and Common Pool Resources to work that bodies like Carnegie Trust UK have been promoting it for years around the notion of Asset Based Community Development.

      All these ideas are transferable to museums providing there is enough institutional buy-in to the principles. Coproduction would lead to systemic change rather than being seen as another style of community working.

      one of the key principles in the Happy Museum project is Build Mutual Relationships, and this explores how museums might learn from community groups and local organisations

  4. Pingback: Happy Museum – Open Workshops | Museum Network Warwickshire

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