Academic journal article New Formations

Museums and How to Know about Access

Academic journal article New Formations

Museums and How to Know about Access

Article excerpt

Abstract Museums exist to keep material culture safe and make this vulnerable material culture available. The term 'access' is used to manage this tension. Tony Bennett has long diagnosed an insatiability to the politics of museums - that the stated purpose of museums to be accessible to all and to represent all can never be achieved. As a result of this insatiability within museums' purpose, museums have tended to generate critical intellectual work which unmasks where museums fail. Yet this is not only a desire associated with intellectual work, it is also built into the technocratic desire to know in order to improve. As such technocratic frustration always holds the potential for epistemic openness. This essay works within the logics of access and the technocratic desire to know; something which flowed from the project on which it is based - Museums for Us (2010-2011) - which was conceived as a Museum Practice Fellowship based at the Smithsonian Institution. The Museums for Us project responded to the institution's epistemic openness by working with people with intellectual disabilities, their families and teachers to explore and share their experiences and views of museum visits. In its final section, the article returns to its point of origin - a seminar held by the Centre for Education and Museum Studies - where five of us involved in the project (some of us with and some of us without intellectual disabilities) spoke of our experiences in our own voices and in our own way. For some staff in the room this created the conditions for a kind of 'tacit' knowledge (Strathern 2000), which has since enabled future programmes at the Smithsonian. Yet for others the seminar failed. The quality of knowledge and its basis for action were not secure. Using poetic ethnographic description self-consciously taken from the established academic discipline of anthropology, this essay - taking a certain ethical risk - re-encodes the experiences of people with intellectual disabilities visiting museums within an academic register. It does this very deliberately to explore the epistemic techniques through which certain ways of knowing access as life and contingency might become seen as a 'useful' approach to knowing access for a wider range of museum practitioners. The article, therefore, also knows itself as an access practice which, as with many access practices in museums themselves, makes exclusions as it seeks to make available something it believes is of crucial significance.

Key words museums, access, disability, knowledge for practice, audit, ethics


We will come to the elephant, the security guard, the mannequins, the fear and the fries. But all these moments took place in 'a museum' and so it is with 'museums' that we begin.

Museums are odd institutions which exist to do odd and particular kinds of work with materiality, time and social relations. Museums make themselves as the kind of structure which allow things from the past to be preserved so they exist into the future.1 Museums make themselves into specific kinds of spaces which make these things - and the people, the knowledges and the ideas they are used to represent - available to 'the public'. There are things. There is time passing. There are people. The museum is the organizational means of managing this task of keeping safe and making available.

Tony Bennett has long spoken of an insatiability in museums' mission. Bennett has located this insatiability in the dynamic created between, on one side, the rhetorical demands to be 'equally open and accessible to all' and to meet the 'principle of representative adequacy sustaining the demand that museums should adequately represent the cultures and values of different sections of the public' and, on the other, the 'political rationality' of museums 'as instruments for the reform of public manners'.2 Yet the insatiability is, perhaps, even more fundamental. Museums are there to do that which they cannot fully do. …

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