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Museum Reports

The Museum often undertakes reports, audits and other investigations with the aim of promoting imaginative knowedge. In October 2016 we responded to the UK Government's Review of Museums, and our submission is reproduced below:


In the terms of reference, the department states the government is committed to ensuring that arts and cultural experiences, including those offered by museums and galleries, are available to, and benefit, everyone and not just the privileged few. The Museum applauds such utopian thinking, but feels this is likely to be unachievable given the nature of much of the UK's cultural assets. Most large museums (and their regional counterparts) contain artefacts which are the result of the privileged collecting of several hundred years, by individuals such as Sir Hans Sloane, Lord Elgin and members of the royal family. Even where collecting was undertaken on a more institutional level, there is huge intellectual elitism present, for example in the extensive Greek ceramics collections in the British Museum, or the silverware galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

There is the further problem of taking these artefacts out of their original cultural contexts and removing them to the often sterile glass cases of the museum. What might be captivating as part of a room display at a historic property, for example, can become unintelligible and dry within the confines of a national museum. This concern is amplified on a greater scale when considering non-British artefacts, although their reparation is a matter which we do not have sufficient expertise to comment upon at present. So, unless the government is planning a major reorganisation of the collections of our larger museums, it would be impossible to evade the privileged nature of these institutions. Making them accessible or even interesting to a wide range of visitors is a very difficult task. Many of our larger museums act as unofficial mausoleums to Britain's imperial past, and so dealing with this history more directly might be helpful.

However, the Museum of Imaginative Knowledge believes a more radical approach is needed, and seeks to change the way we consider objects and their histories - we have repeatedly called for a major reorganisation of large cultural institutions and a championing of smaller museums and collections. With a group of like-minded institutions, we have formed the International Association of Imaginative Museums to campaign for more creative displays and curating.

Key considerations

The report will consider accredited museums in England, and we would firstly take exception to the scope of this report. The process of accreditation is typical of the government's approach to museums, in creating a museocracy which means those employed within museums spend time undertaking administrative tasks rather than working with visitors and their collections. We suggest there is valuable evidence from non-accredited museums whose idiosyncrasies often provide a refreshing experience for visitors which is lacking in regional and national museums. We suggest the Review team spend some time looking at the research by Dr Fiona Candlin on 'micro-museums' and how they contribute to creative life in England.

This also seems a somewhat ambitious remit, given the differences between the many accredited museums in England, but it is also a task that the International Association of Imaginative Museums (IAIM) is undertaking. As leader of the IAIM Review, we are visiting museums around the world to analyse their collections and how they are communicated to the public. Having begun in September 2016, we are at an early stage but would be happy to share our findings with the government in due course. Our initial focus is the British Museum, which we have just begun to review, and aim to compare it with other large museums, in particular the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as well as with smaller institutions. Our concerns with the British Museum are that many of its displays seem old-fashioned, tired or repetitive, and seem to lack purpose and connection to the everyday life of the visitor. There seems to be a continued focus on privileged collecting from the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly with regard to objects from Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire.

Overall, we feel the British Museum's collections, on the whole, are not sympathetically or imaginatively displayed. There are some exceptions to this, such as the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1), Mexico (Room 27) and Africa (Room 25), where more creative approach (of sorts) is evident. Particularly problematic however are rooms such as Greek and Roman architecture (Room 77), Greeks and Lycians (Room 20) and Roman Britain (Room 49) where there is a serious repetition of artefacts, and as a consequence these rooms appear more like an archive than a display which might capture the imagination of the public.

The approach favoured by the Museum of Imaginative Knowledge

We are a small institution (as are the members of the International Association of Imaginative Museums) but feel we have an important task to champion objects from our collections such as the one pence coin, pieces of double yellow line, and fragments of burnt toast. We also feel museums should provide better quality information on their collections, either through guided tours which are both enlightening and entertaining, and through publications which are affordable and well-made.

We believe that much of our contemporary culture (and that of the recent past) is not being collected or assessed by larger institutions (with exceptions such as the V&A's Rapid Response Collecting for example), and that those charged with running of museums have become burdened with excessive bureaucracy and lack imaginative flair. Museums should not be mausoleums for the past, they should be exciting places which encourage visitors of all ages to question what we value in our lives and to offer a variety of historical interpretations.