Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

Preface

The notion that the cultural and the social are inextricably linked and interrelated and, more particularly, that museums have the potential to act as agents of social change, to impact positively upon the lives of individuals and communities, is hardly a radical one. And yet many of the practices and structures to be found in museums, many of the goals that they articulate, and the philosophies and beliefs that underpin them, appear to deny their social agency and responsibility. Furthermore, many museums’ efforts to remain discretely cultural in their outlook, and to autonomously pursue agendas that are fiercely resistant to social change and concerns, are reflected in their allocation and use of resources. Even those that have gained greater confidence in articulating a social role acknowledge that there is much to do in transforming their organisations to reflect new priorities.

Many museums continue to view the processes of collection, preservation and display, not as functions through which the organisation creates social value, but as outcomes in their own right. Whilst there is a growing consensus of the importance of broadening access to museums and diversifying their appeal and visitor profiles, relatively few museums have purposefully explored their wider social role to engage with and impact upon social issues facing their communities. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of museums and museum workers who view their social role and purpose beyond that of simply facilitating access to the museum. Museums are beginning to explore their contribution towards the combating of social as well as cultural inequality.

What role can museums realistically play in tackling the causes and ameliorating the symptoms of social inequality? It may yet be too early to answer this question comprehensively but what is already clear is that, in many of the issues with which museums seek to be involved, their role is unlikely to be central. Rather museums, alongside many other organisations and agencies, are acknowledging their responsibility and their potential to play a part in addressing social issues and concerns. However, recognition of museums’ limitations as agents of social change is not to deny their significance, nor does it lend support to those who argue that museums must ‘stick to core business’ and that which they know best.

-xvii-

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