The Museum of the 21st Century

LSE Arts and Thames and Hudson 60th anniversay discussion
The Museum of the 21st Century
Tuesday 7th July 2009

There was quite a buzz at the London School of Economics. The auditorium was packed; close to 500 people to hear the director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor and director of Tate, Nicholas Serota discuss the roles of collections in the 21st century. This was one of many 60th anniversary year events by publishers Thames and Hudson and was run in conjunction with London School of Economics Arts.
John Wilson from the BBC chaired the session. I wish to thank the organisers for securing me a pass to this event.

John Wilson chaired an entertaining and seamless conversation, ensuring that the big issues of the day were discussed and that the human side of the most powerful museum directors in the UK was on view. The highlights were clear – both directors have a firm grip on the realities of audience participation, global relevance, political recognition, cultural guardianship, trusteeship and future relationships. Their commitment to the museum as a learning space and one where knowledge is shared was evident. The both recognised a historic ‘imperfect relationship’ between curators and audiences and agreed that this was an important area, ripe for transformation.

The best jokes of the evening:

It’s good to see the director of the British Museum before he’s lost his marbles!
(LSE rep whose name I didn’t catch)

Parliament is seathing with closet aesthetes! (Neil MacGregor)

Some highlights on the musings of the future of the museum:

On audience engagement…The future of the museum may be rooted in the buildings they occupy but it will address audiences across the world and will be a place where people across the world will have a conversation. Those institutions which take up this notion fastest and furthest will be the ones which have the authority in the future.

On THOSE marbles…
Yesterday’s debate was about whether another country should have objects in their collections. The greater argument is, how do London and Greece ensure that some of these objects can be seen in China, Africa etc.

On travelling collections…Transformations in the notion of trusteeship, making this a reality is imperative. Beginning with professional world of trust, collections and expertise should be available to others around the world. Working to ensure that collections are seen, shared, discussed in Asia, Africa, South America. Museums are unique in being able to build these international communities where publics can engage in culture.

On changing roles of authorship…One of the great things that is happening is that major collections are putting as much as possible online available for download free of charge for academic purpose. This has completely transformed the way that drawings can be studied. There is a question about the duty of museum to be guarantor about what it believes to be authority.

The challenge is to what extent do museums wish to remain authors or to become publishers. Authority of institution can be used and provide a platform for international conversation. In 10-15 yrs we will have curators who will effectively be commissioning editors but will have to make a distinction between what we say and what others who use our platform to say things about themselves. The future has to be
museum as publisher and broadcaster.

On museum as educator…
The museum is the first open university and institutions are all trying to work out more ways of engaging audiences with expertise from within the institution. The big question is how to use electronic methods to enable more people to learn. It was agreed that a diminishing proportion of audiences would be those who visit the galleries themselves; the growing challenge would to look for online capacity and encourage curatorial teams to work there as much as they do in the galleries.

On transformations in cultural communication…We have had an imperfect relationship between the curator and our audience. Now is the time to extend this. There is a great need to reinterpret the museum in non-eurocentric way. This includes making collection material available in non-european languages; encouraging and learning about interpretation from a non-eurocentric perspective.

On the media…
The relationship between the media and museums has transformed: there was a time when museum news only appeared in the arts pages, it is now often in the news section. Arts are now an issue.

On The Plinth
It’s Twitter art!

Below is a potted summary of the event. Please note that this is not a word-for-word transcript but a potted summary! To hear to full podcast please visit:

JW- You’ve both been in the job since the late 80s, why are you still here?
The daily opportunity of being alone with some of the greatest objects in the world. Reminds you that what may be worrying you is fairly minor in the long history of things
The pleasure of viewing numbers of people who come through the doors; being able to engage with them, enjoy them – nothing beats that! It is the great voyeur’s pleasure being the director.
Nowhere else in the world offers what is possible with collections and publics as what London offers.
With free entry, the relationship between public and collection is transformed making it an infinitely more exciting job

No-one has offered me a better job.
Museums sit within society in a very different place to what they do in USA.
Rewards of working with so many different kinds of people.
An extraordinary challenge.
Working closely with artists is a powerful strength of the institution.

JW: Black clouds are gathering do you feel the reaper?
Because of the strength of public appreciation and engagement we will come through. It will be more difficult for politicians to cut money to museums in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century.
The experiment in the 90s (charging entrance fees) strengthened the position of museums

It’s possible but what’s changed is the way in which people use the collections.
People do now use collection to address the world and themselves, to become a real part of the consciousness of us in this country.

They may have thought more in those terms n the 1820s-30s.

That’s why this country is so different. The National Gallery is in Trafalgar Square because it was thought that residents of the East End and the West End could walk to the gallery and mix.
This19th century language and has returned to centre stage.

JW: Are we living in more enlightened times in terms of attitudes to culture?
Marginally. It is more difficult to cut grants but is still difficult to name 5 politicians who could be effective secretaries of the state;

Parliament is seathing with closet aesthetes!
There are no ministers in the cabinet with this responsibility when they were appointed.
Coverage of museums in press has completely transformed. It used to be tucked away in arts papers and is now frequently in the news. Arts are an issue now.

JW What is the best argument to take to politicians?
The museum is a repository of world knowledge and has a place in civic society.

The world in 1987: on the whole Britain gave impression that we were in denial of the contemporary, every politician is aware that if you want a young public to take their place they need to see what is being made across the world.

JW: How do you see the role of nationhood and museums?
Museums have a role to play in fostering international relations
The place to start is in London. There has been a huge change since the war. London is a city of diasporas, unique – a city where the world lives; where different cultural traditions coexist and survive. That is the extraordinary excitement of living in London. Collections reflect that phenomena. Divisions between home and abroad don’t make sense any longer. There is a false polarity. Because of our imperial history, we are a unique world resource which together, represents the world. We try to make a reality of the notion of trusteeship – collections and expertise should be available to others around the world. Museums uniquely can do this in building international communities. This starts as professional world of trust and then can reach millions of people across the world. The government’s response has been 1million pounds to work overseas, recognising that collections are so important that they must be funded to operate overseas.

Until 2000, The Tate felt comfortable with representing international and contemporary art from UK and Nth America. Now we represent more widely; not to a great extent but this has changed the institution, creating partnerships and relationships with museums around the world. The most defensible position in the world is to look out rather than in. There was a recognition that we weren’t recognising quality and significance of work in other parts of the world.

JW: Can culture make inroads around the world?
Exchanges are important b/c its extraordinarily hard for us to grasp how various world views are seen by different cultures. Friendships can survive the political chills.

We have a broader view of the world; museums are in there for the long term

JW: Is the case for museums fading?
The basic argument hasn’t changed. The value of having a collection is that it is a place where the world can look at the whole world. It is a question of whether you believe in shared human culture or whether you want to define this in national terms. All enlightenment institutions are concerned with shared human culture. It is a question of how you see a cultural inheritance and a definition of a national self. This is a key question for the world. Whatever else has happened in the world we can no longer live in simple national identities.

The Greek government considers the removal (of the marbles) illegal and so they haven’t had these discussions. There has been a politicisation of culture. It was a great insight of British parliament to separate museums from government, in that way, trustees could not be subject to political directions. It depoliticized museums.

Many people take enormous pleasure from seeing work in different contexts. If you could only see British art in Britain the world would be a different place.

JW: Do you ever wonder about the marbles?
No, because the key question is; was it proper for them to be removed? There is no question it was legal as you couldn’t move them without the support of the power of the day. But that is not the point, rather it is what happened when they were removed. When they came to London they were displayed at a height where people could see them. This is the purpose of a great museum; to enable huge numbers of people to examine closely what they wouldn’t have been able to previously.

JW: What have been most significant artistic developments?
Note: here the discussion focused on what I think was public reaction to artistic intervention in the demolishment of a house. As I was unfamiliar with the case (and the people next to me chose that moment to talk, I couldn’t get the gist of Nick’s response other than: the Tate doesn’t do market testing on exhibitions. They rely on the conviction that these are the artists whose works should be viewed

Note: too much chat again so potted understanding!
The reality is that collections would be shared across the UK. This is the reality of public ownership. The Plinth (current exhibition in Trafalgar Square) raises the question of what public sculpture is, what sort we want. Thanks to competitions, there is a huge range of public who think about what is on a plinth and is in some measure, their decision.

Symbollically says something about the generation of today.

It’s twitter art!

JW: What is the role of art and culture for 2012 Olympics?
It needs good ideas that build on what is happening in institutions rather than short events.

It’s a great opportunity to build on what is already there, if politicians can agree that the world already exists in the collections. We already have a world cultural festival the cultural Olympiad is already there.

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This blog examines social media, cultural institutions and digital participation. It's based on the research projects Engaging with Social Media in Museums and New Literacy, New Audiences. Regular contributors are Angelina Russo, Lynda Kelly and Seb Chan


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