Brown Bag – Kathy Cremin ‘ Power, freedom, and love – what are museums for?’

Kathy Cremin’s involvement with museums is a recent development in her career. She has only been working with the institutions for about 8 years. Over the course of her years as a professional she has worked with libraries, museums and theatres and has focused mainly on the topic of literature.

Her talk today proved to be an interesting and very thought-provoking theorization on the current museum industry, both where we are and where we are (or should be) going. Lovingly subtitled ‘Banana sellers of the world unite’, Kathy took us through many notions of being a museum professional today that we try not to think about. The realisation that museum practice is more about ‘do what I say, not as I do’ is prevalent in nearly every aspect of the industry, but to acknowledge it requires a great deal more self-reflection than the average professional is likely willing to give. And even when we do acknowledge the problems Kathy raised, we are seldom willing to do anything to correct them (if we are even in a position to do so).

This is the first ‘interactive’ Brown Bag in quite a while and began with a simple question: What are museums for? Nearly everyone at the seminar had a different answer, ranging from being places of education to entertainment to inspiration. There is no wrong answers in any of them, but what museums should be for and what they are for can in practice be very separate things.

The next 'interactive' was a short quiz, which was entertaining and at the same time very informative. It was a current look at the climate in museums today and characterised by such questions as: who said the following? ‘The reason we’ve had our funding increased is there’s nothing else cultural here.’ The answer? A director of a prestigious gallery in a medium sized town. This answer should spark stark terror in the minds of museum professionals everywhere. Have we really reached this point in the pursuit of cultural preservation? Has culture really become so meaningless?

I suppose one could not say that Kathy’s talk was particularly optimistic, but that is all right. We don’t need optimism right now. We need someone to stand up and say what we are doing wrong so that we can start to do things right. And the more people who stand up and protest, the better. Nearly everyone I know can point to a specific museum as say: ‘See? They’re doing it right.’ Which is all very well and good, but how many of us can point to ten such museums, or fifteen or twenty?

The reality is in the fact that every museum should be doing it right, but we can only ever name a few that are. They are, as Kathy said, the anomalies or exceptions rather than the standard. Kathy went on to point out that museums today need to be people-centric, reactive and topical, and so many of them are not, even if they think they are. They preach to the public with banners and quotes that museums 'inspire and engage', but more often than not these are just signs they post in the lobbies and on websites. They do not do these things within their organisations. Museums are more focused on what communities can do for them than what they can do for their communities.

Museums today are concerned with many things. For most, they concern themselves with funding and visitor numbers. Museums and staff are so busy proving their usefulness to governing bodies and funding partners by using whatever ‘interesting aspects’ they can, that they have become afraid, as Kathy says, to be themselves. Each museum is a brand. We have become much like corporate labels that way. We need to sell the brand in order to survive, and so time and effort and money goes towards maintaining and marketing that brand to people who are not the public. ‘Public Engagement’ is not about the community, but about the face of museums that are concerned with media, marketing and boards of directors. Museums should first and foremost be liable to the publics they purport to serve, right? The truth is that they are very rarely concerned with such.

Museums exist to reach the public consciousness, to be institutions of culture and history. We must love what we do and love what it’s all about. As Kathy says, to change how people think museums must first change how they feel and you cannot connect with people on an emotional level unless you care about yourselves and about them. She uses a very good example about the power of objects to tell personal stories. Rarely do such personal stories of powerful love ever make it into the museum itself. They are watered down, cut and pasted together into other bits by curators trying to fit the person’s story into their own pre-determined narrative. We do not tell the stories of the communities, we make those stories fit with what we want to say about those communities.

Kathy raised a good many points about India, though almost any country with as much history would also work. In India, culture is in everything; every aspect of life, in every place you look. Indians live and breathe their culture. Can the same be said about the UK? About America? In many ways, India itself is a museum, on every street corner. They love their culture and that clearly shows. There are no barriers between the outside and the inside (the museum) as there are here.

In the UK, museums think big. They are, in fact, very good at it. But thinking big means ignoring the small – the personal, the stories, the aspects that make up culture. We are always looking at the big picture or the big theme, and therefore many museums miss out on the small stuff.

Kathy spoke about John Lawson (a bit more about him here) who is a storyteller at the Ryedale Folk Museum, and specifically focuses on mining history. Mr. Lawson argues for the importance of culture being at the heart of everything a museum does. He believes that we need a better understanding of culture to make people better [the example used (and very paraphrased) was: we don’t need more police to deal with increase vandalism, rather we need storytellers to pass on the culture to the community to give people more history and understanding]. Storytellers are an integral part of a museum (some would say the most important part), but so few museums are actually concerned with the stories.

We talk about community outreach, about involving the public in museum exhibitions, but in practice it is rarely done, or only at the beginning of the planning stages. One of people in attendance at the Brown Bag today agreed this wholeheartedly. They were shocked to discover recently how little of the public’s stories actually make it into final exhibitions, despite how much work usually goes into ‘outreach’ with communities. Museums talk about outreach all the time, but how little of it makes it to the final exhibition wall, I wonder? Certainly there are examples (like Mike Pickering’s Brown bag a few weeks ago) of how museums do it well, but they seem to be the exceptions rather than the rule. It is the community stories, the personal stories that we should tell because they are the ‘culture’.

Kathy made a good point about Ireland, where so few official records and histories exist, and much of the past is based on accounts passed on by people (oral histories). But it has taken many, many years for museum professionals to put stock in those histories and display them in museums. We speak of ‘value’ in museums today; how valuable we are to communities, the value of culture to the public, or how we educate people on the value of objects, but we never think to acknowledge the value the community itself brings to preserving the past.

[Some of the views expressed in this review are my own. Those that are directly attributed to Kathy Cremin are indicated by the use of her name.]


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