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It’s good to talk

For many people, museums are perceived as balanced places of education and knowledge, embodying some sort of benign didacticism. Embracing this apparent objectivity, several institutions have been keen to set up as organisers and mediators of public debate on topical issues.

In doing this, they take on not only the interpretation of their own collections, but also attempt to connect more directly with what is going on in the world around them. Some have carved out dedicated debating spaces for this, while others attempt to design dynamic and responsive elements into exhibitions dealing with contemporary issues.

But how successfully can a museum chair this kind of dialogue and are they even the right places to do this? The Science Museum and Natural History Museum (NHM) in London have looked carefully at how they can build debate into the fabric of their operations. The Science Museum’s Dana Centre was launched in 2003 as a venue dedicated to the adult debate of contemporary science.

The decision to create the facility followed “huge focus groups” asking people what would get them into the museum, says its event programmes manager Kat Nilsson. “It is about creating a space for dialogue for adults, as the main museum is often thought to be for kids and families,” she says. “So we try to reintroduce adults to the Science Museum through the Dana Centre.”

The idea for the Dana Centre partly came about when it became clear that some subjects – an exhibition on plastic surgery, specifically – rely on images that are not suitable for children. But the focus groups also showed that audiences were demanding something more engaging and conversational from museums.

When the London Transport Museum (LTM) reopens this month following a ¬£20m refurbishment, it too will attempt to tackle current debate, in this case over the future of the capital’s public transport system. For its director, Sam Mullins, looking to and debating the future is an essential role for the museum.

“It seemed ludicrous to end the transport story now, or 10 years ago, when it leads you inevitably into contemporary issues which are always changing,” he says. “But [tackling these issues] has big implications on the skill set of the museum’s staff and its exhibition furniture.

“This kind of perennial contact with the public doesn’t come naturally. What you can do in an exhibition is limited in terms of how much you can provide multiple viewpoints. The closer you get to contemporary subjects, the more viewpoints you really need.”

This is one of the difficulties of tackling current and changing issues. While historical objects are full of stories and interpretations, when they are consigned to the past they are mostly inured to controversy. Inviting debate over potentially contentious issues demands different sets of facilities and abilities.

Managing debate

“We have had to divide up the museum media into permanent exhibitions, temporary exhibitions – which are three to four years in planning, so not very contemporary – and a rapid response through Nature Live,” says the NHM’s director of public engagement, Sharon Ament.

Nature Live carries the museum’s programme of informal talks, which run on a daily basis – a huge undertaking even for a relatively well-funded national museum. The museum also had to create a dedicated “media lab” in its Darwin Centre to host the events.

Seating about 100 people and fitted out with cameras, screens, special microscopes and microphones, the studio also streams events live to the internet, inviting online viewers to contribute to the discussions.

But given the extra demand on resources, why do museums feel compelled to host such forums? Is it because the traditional role of collecting and interpreting objects is not dynamic enough to pull the public through the doors? With regard to the LTM’s desire to be at the heart of the transport debate, Sara Selwood, the head of cultural policy and management at City University, London, says:

“My immediate reaction is that they are interested in doing this because the main function [of the museum] isn’t sufficient. It is not an unreasonable thing for them to do, but it does also raise questions about whether museums are to do with the past or the present.”

Ament believes that contemporary relevance is not optional, but vital to museums’ survival: “The day museums stop having relevance to their visitors’ lives, they become an irrelevance.” And in today’s climate of online “social networking” and constant interaction, maintaining a dialogue with visitors is perhaps even more essential.

But genuinely open debate can create editorial difficulties for museums as mediators in how controversial viewpoints are handled and who has authorship of them. And as the notions of neutrality and objectivity are thrust more starkly into the spotlight, there may be commercial implications too – will sponsors or stakeholders become uncomfortable with tricky subjects?

Most curators and programme managers seem compelled to uphold a position of neutrality, insisting they retain editorial control and present both sides of an argument; it is seen as a prerequisite of having the authority to host a debate.

“It is vital that editorial control is maintained or the museum looks stupid,” says Nilsson, in reference to a previous Dana Centre debate on the future of energy, sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels. “If I were to put on an event saying how wonderful nuclear fuel is, I wouldn’t have much credibility with the audience or my conscience,” she says.

Ament agrees, claiming that “editorial freedom” is built into contracts with sponsors up front. “It is a founding principle of the museum and one we hold very dear,” she says.

But Nilsson does acknowledge that the Science Museum’s commercial department has had some difficulties managing partner relationships.

Greenpeace, for example, has shown some concerns over perceived (or potential) conflicts of interest with sponsors. Mullins, too, recognises the limitations of his situation, as the LTM is essentially an arm of Transport for London (TfL), itself a political entity.

The downside of objectivity

“We want the museum to be an objective place to discuss current and future transport, but there is a highly political dimension,” Mullins says. “As an example, the mayor’s office and senior TfL people are always critical of the public-private partnership route for funding the Tube, but underneath that, there are huge numbers of people who are having to try and make it work.

“There is always this kind of duality, so we have to be careful. It would be quite stupid to give a platform to people who just want to slag off the mayor. To do something that is significantly off-message regularly would be like cutting your own throat.”

But if museums want to be engaging spaces of public debate should objectivity really be regarded as so sacrosanct? Not according to David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool (NML). He believes that editorialising is necessary.

“I can’t bear it when people describe museums as neutral spaces,” he says. “It is like some sort of badge of honour that we have awarded ourselves, but it is also like we have emasculated ourselves. We are in search of the truth, not neutrality, and they are not the same thing. We should stop being frightened of having opinions voiced in a museum space.”

In August, NML opened the International Slavery Museum – a space that Fleming says is “full of viewpoints” and which takes a “fundamentally anti-slavery stance”. Alongside a historical context, the museum also addresses the present-day plight of people who are in bondage or are “practically slaves”.

Given the predominant moral consensus, this line of editorialising is unlikely to be seen as problematic. But how far can you push it? Is racist nationalism an acceptable viewpoint for an exhibition of multiculturalism in Britain? Should neo-Nazi viewpoints be given space in a show about 1930s Germany?

“We have to be brave enough to have things that might cause offence,” Fleming adds. “But the law will stop me having to show views on certain subjects – pro-paedophilia, homophobia or racism, for example. From a personal point of view, the law is my safety net.

“But I don’t see why we have to take the museum as some holier-than-thou, sanctimonious way to be neutral, just so it isn’t too threatening. At the end of the day, it’s a myth that we don’t have partiality – everything is authored.”

So maybe neutrality is not quite as desirable as received wisdom would have it. Perhaps a degree of provocation will engage the public and catalyse discussion. Even for museums interested in the contemporary rather than controversy, hosting public debates may start to change the way they operate.

“We are thinking hard about our collecting policies: less hardware, more documentary material – trends, photos, oral history,” Mullins says. “And if you’re reworking your collecting and communicating, you have to rework your curators, too.”

This article was written for Museums Journal, November 2007.