History with Attitude

By Reinhardt, Caroline | The Spectator, April 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

History with Attitude


Reinhardt, Caroline, The Spectator


Elitism is out, populism is in. Caroline Reinhardt on the new generation of museums

Museums mean different things to different people. To some, they are an agreeable morning's entertainment, with an undemanding veneer of education. To the planner or developer, they might represent the cultural cherry to render a new proposal more palatable. To the politician they are a potential tourist magnet. But, to a growing number of professional curators, the very word conjures up images of arid, colourless mausolea, of serried ranks of flints and shards. And so a new generation of museums is emerging which avoids the 'M' world altogether. Instead we get punchy, one-word names, like 'Catalyst', 'SEARCH', or `Eureka!' (respectively, the museum of the chemical industry in Widnes; Hampshire Museums' outpost in Gosport; and the children's science museum in Halifax).

There is something happening behind the scenes at the museum. A revolution has taken place in its philosophy, which would like to see the glass cases smashed. Today's museum aims to be genuinely populist. It welcomes -- indeed actively seeks out all sectors of the community, and eschews anything that smacks of elitism. Explanatory material (preferably using state-of-theart technology) is pitched at the simplest possible level. And, above all, the new museum seeks to pull its head out of the historical sand to address issues in the contemporary world. The buzzwords are 'access' and 'relevance'. This is what they call `the new museology'.

If you visit museums at all regularly, you will probably have noticed some of these changes in approach - the technical innovations, perhaps even the dumbed-down interpretation. You may have been less aware of the broader aspects of the revolution. There is only the occasional isolated incident to stir up a flurry of controversy: the acquisition last year by the Museum of London, for example, of a painting showing heroic poll-tax protesters in full riot in Trafalgar Square; or the decision of the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow to present female circumcision, uncritically, as a simple coming-of-age ritual. The underlying policies are overlooked.

Policies, however, there are. When the Prehistoric Gallery of the Museum of London was revamped not long ago, it was with the stated aim of giving `greater prominence to green and gender issues'. At the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford - a museum whose whole raison d'etre is the integrity of a 19th-century collection -- there is now a programme of modifying displays and alternating original labels to suit modern multicultural sensibilities. The director of Tyne & Wear Museums has opined that museums should play 'a proactive role in contemporary societal issues. . . [and] act as an agent of social change'.

If this approach has not yet changed public perceptions of museums, it is mainly because of practical constraints. Most museums are restricted by the range of their existing collections, by their own institutional history and above all by their finances from making more than a few gestures towards the new orthodoxy. Only rarely does a museum find itself in the happy position of having a sufficiently free hand and a big enough budget to invent itself from scratch. Which is why the acknowledged flagship of the new museology in this country is to be found in the unlikely setting of Croydon.

Croydon, South London, is the archetypal edge city, all monolithic office blocks and torturous traffic systems. It is not known for its historical attractions, and for many years it had no museum. Towards the end of the Eighties, however, Croydon Council committed itself to a major programme of urban regeneration, including L30 million towards a new cultural centre. Some L4 million of this was earmarked for a new local history museum, which finally opened its doors in 1995. As measured by official plaudits, it has been a great success: it won an Interpret Britain Award in the year it opened, and the National Heritage Multimedia Award the next. …

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