Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

2

The good enough visitor

Mark O’Neill

… culture can be understood as the domain of all that becomes more by sharing it.

(Gadamer 1998:6)

The demand that publicly funded art museums contribute to the creation of a more socially inclusive society poses a fundamental challenge to many assumptions about what these institutions are for and to how they function. To go beyond providing mere physical access to the presence of works of art (even if this is free) to providing intellectual and emotional access to the meanings of the works of art for all potential visitors and to taking a developmental approach to visitors’ aesthetic experiences, will require changes in the conventions of art museums. Such changes often evoke real and profound opposition. Is this opposition designed to protect a valued tradition, which is coincidentally and not intentionally exclusive? Or is it that art museums, as currently conceived, are inherently exclusive? What is the relationship between aesthetic standards applied to works of art and traditions of display, and the ethical standards that shape the public services provided by art museums, which receive public subsidy either directly or through the tax system?

These questions, about how art museums achieve legitimacy in a democratic society, are part of a debate that is not new, though the terminology has changed. This article sets recent controversies in the context of the historical argument about the social purpose of art museums over the past 150 years. Its purpose is to seek a basis for going beyond the sterile conflict between ‘elitism’ and ‘dumbing down’, and to contribute to the definition of what a socially inclusive museum might be. While many art museums now have education and even outreach staff, this represents essentially a welfare model of provision, with a mainstream that is well provided for alongside some cultural benefits for the less well off. A socially inclusive art museum would transcend this model and treat all visitors, existing and potential, with equal respect, and provide access appropriate to their background, level of education, ability and life experience.


What are art museums for?

According to Carol Duncan, in her book Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (1995), there are three main views about what art museums are for.

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