This missive was published in the Association of Independent Museums bulletin in February 2013
Despite profound economic challenges, it seems that the last 12 months have witnessed the most lively debates about the behaviour and purpose of museums for many years. The government is trying to convince the sector that Philantropy can be developed outside London, big cities. Many National or large metropolitan museums have championed the cause of social justice, supported by the Museums Association. Bodies like the Collections Trust have promoted the idea of the Commons as means to share ownership and access to cultural heritage both in the virtual and flesh worlds. For its part AIM has set out its vision for a resilient sector based on independent governance and entrepreneurialism. The title for next year’s conference Money That’s What I Want, is assertive in emphasising the need for income generation.
There is a danger that independent museums miss a trick if they focus solely on business development based on financial growth and think less about the social impact of their organisations. I’m not talking about large scale instrumental programmes which were rolled out across the nation as the last government encouraged museums to solve a range social ills. There are small scale interventions which civil society organisations make every day, which to make their communities a better place.
Civil Society is characterised by voluntary action undertaken by citizens independently. Two centuries Alexis de Tocqueville described after he explored the United States ago it was ‘the free voluntary associations which strengthen civil society by creating habits of the heart.’ Typical organisations might be local development trusts, food co-operatives or even museums. As the state shrinks under the Coalition Government these bodies begin to play an increasing role in bridging social capital within communities.
The majority of independent museums were founded by collective action, by volunteers who wanted to preserve what was special about the place where they live. Studies show that communities with higher levels of cultural participation and decision making have higher levels of well-being.
The Happy Museum project has funded several independent such as Godalming Museum, the Garden Museum and the London Transport Museum. They are developing creative projects alongside other community groups. It’s precisely because people working in these organisations be they staff or volunteers, have strong social connections that their museums are at the centre of local society. Museums, particularly independents, can be beacons of social innovation, inspiring people to co-operate and collaborate to solve problems and to strengthen their communities.