Imagine a Museum

Posted By John Orna-Ornstein on 20 December 2016

John Orna-Ornstein, our Museums Director, blogs about how museums are subverting our expectations, and why we should encourage it to happen more.

Imagine a museum where you encounter the grief and joys of the storyteller long before you come face to face with the objects that represent their complex stories.

Imagine a museum that provokes emotions and thoughts strong enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Imagine a museum that values the person, the story and the emotion above the collection.

A year ago, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) adopted Wandsworth Museum. It’s one of a growing number of arts centres that have strong links with museums. Farnham Maltings looks after Farnham Museum. The Spring arts centre includes Havant Museum. The models are different in each case, but that at BAC is shaping up to be particularly interesting. What happens when one of the country’s leading art centres, already deeply embedded in its local south London community, adopts the local civic museum?

Man talking to crowd
'London Stories: Made by Migrants' - Lemmar, from Battersea Arts Centre Moving Museum. Photo: Joyce Nicholls

London Stories is an early result. The audience navigates BAC’s complex and fire-scarred building in small groups, coming face to face with migrants or those who have personal stories to tell about migration. The stories I heard when I attended ranged from a recent boat migrant from Syria, to the traumatic and moving story of a woman who had lost almost her whole family to atrocities in Uganda. She finished her story in tears, shaking the hand of each audience member and thanking us for making her welcome in London. The experience finished with a display of one or more objects from each migrant, each one signifying something important about their own journeys. And the objects had a deep resonance that is incredibly unusual for museum collections.

Imagine a museum that puts the user before the collection

The whole experience was hugely moving, but also gently challenged our ideas of what a museum should look like and how it should behave. The objects were personal and every-day, only made significant by their story. They were displayed on plinths and not behind glass. They amplified a story rather than leading it.

Audience member examines doll
'London Stories: Made by Migrants' from Battersea Arts Centre Moving Museum. Photo: Joyce Nicholls

England’s museums are some of the best in the world. Extraordinary collections, wonderful buildings, a highly professionalised workforce, and standards such as Accreditation and the Code of Ethics that influence museums across the globe. But I worry sometimes that our professionalism, and even the quality of the collections we care for, can drive out risk-taking and squash innovation.

The recent report Character Matters looks at the English museum workforce. Based on a huge sample of more than 2,000 responses, it seems to suggest that people working in museums are, on average, more risk averse than the wider UK workforce. What does this mean for the future of a sector that is needing to constant evolve as the world changes around us, and what is needed to change it? Theatre practice is increasingly freed by the move outside formal buildings to new ‘found’ spaces. Literature is challenged but also freed by internet publishing. What is the equivalent for museums?

Imagine a museum that takes risks to give experiences that move and change you

The Moving Museum is gently subverting the 19th century idea of a museum as a place where things are displayed in cases. Elsewhere, Derby Museums Trust aims to be part of a ‘living story of world-class creativity, innovation and making’ by creating new galleries in the museum hand-in-hand, literally, with the local community.

‘If All Relations Were to Reach Equilibrium, Then This Building Would Dissolve’, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 2016. Photograph: Judy Hume. Image © MIMA

The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art aims to ‘re-purpose art as a tool’. It sees itself as a ‘useful museum’, and the focus of its energies is to influence society positively. That’s challenging, and it leads to behaving in ways that many museums might find uncomfortable. And National Museums Wales is changing the way it is governed as well as programmed, to give it more local accountability and a stronger social purpose in a way that is unique among the UK’s national museums.

But these examples are relatively few and far between.

Imagine a museum that is changing, creative and entirely individual to its location

I work for an organisation – Arts Council England – that safeguards standards for English museums, as well as supporting and sometimes driving the change and innovation museums need. There’s a delicate balance between the two, and sometimes this creates tension. I suspect that, as the pace of change continues to grow, we will all need to become more comfortable with subverting the museum as we currently know it.

Farnham Maltings: Night at the Museum, 2015. Photo: Sophie Smith

Imagine a museum that puts the user before the collection.

Imagine a museum that takes risks to give experiences that move and change you.

Imagine a museum that is changing, creative and entirely individual to its location.

The Arts Council is currently integrating its funding for museums and the arts. This will bring new opportunities for funding for museums. And, even more importantly, my hope is that it will bring new opportunities for subversion.

young person holds a turtle in a museum space
The Spring - Monster Museum Trail. Photo: James White

Find out more

A new network of museums interested in telling migration stories is being established by the Migration Museum Project with support from Arts Council England

Find out how we currently invest in museums across England

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