What is a museum? Museums are no longer built in the image of that nationalistic temple of culture, the British Museum. Today, almost anything may turn out to be a museum, and museums can be found in farms, boats, coal mines, warehouses, prisons, castles, or cottages. The experience of going to a museum is often closer to that of going to a theme park or a funfair than that which used to be offered by the austere, glass-case museum.
The last few years have seen a major shifting and reorganisation of museums. Change has been extreme and rapid, and, to many people who loved museums as they were, this change has seemed unprecedented, unexpected, and unacceptable. It has thrown previous assumptions about the nature of museums into disarray. The recent changes have shocked most those who felt that they knew what museums were, how they should be, and what they should be doing.
This fixed view of the identity of museums has sometimes been firmly held and, until recently, little has disturbed it. But it is a mistake to assume that there is only one form of reality for museums, only one fixed mode of operating. Looking back into the history of museums, the realities of museums have changed many times. Museums have always had to modify how they worked, and what they did, according to the context, the plays of power, and the social, economic, and political imperatives that surrounded them. Museums, in common with all other social institutions, serve many masters, and must play many tunes accordingly. Perhaps success can be defined by the ability to balance all the tunes that must be played and still make a sound worth listening to.
At the present time, in many areas where decisions are made about the funding and maintenance of museums, hard questions are now being asked about the justification of museums, about their role in the community, and their functions and potentials. Where the answers are