Why we need museums now more than ever

Rebecca Carlsson
Original paper on Museum Next >

In today’s uncertain times, museums can act as an anchor in the storm.
To those who aren’t as passionate about the power of museums as readers of this blog, it can often seem that such institutions are merely places where forgotten objects go to enjoy their final years.
But despite this, there’s a strong case to be made that the museum is more relevant today than it has ever been. From addressing key social issues to transforming how we see the future, the humble museum has the power to reflect and shape our society. Here are five reasons why we need museums now more than ever.

  1. Learning from the past
  2. Bringing communities together
  3. Standing firm in the face of adversity
  4. Digitalisation, innovation and interaction
  5. Educating future generations

Learning from the past
First and foremost, museums and galleries provide an insight into the history of humankind. And while no museum can claim to provide a complete picture, the lessons we can learn from past events, wonders and tragedies are priceless.
This is especially true in times of turmoil. Today, it’s impossible to ignore the escalating tensions between nations, between political parties and between different cultural groups. Instead of finding common ground it seems that issues of class, race, gender and environmentalism are becoming ever more polarised.
To help the public re-establish this common ground and learn to build bridges rather than breed division, many believe that museums have a role to play in giving us perspective – be it through intellectual exercises or merely holding up mistakes of the past as evidence of where such behaviour will lead us once more.
Last year, the Museum of Oxford launched its Queering Spires exhibition to celebrate the ‘hidden history’ of Oxford’s LGBTQIA+ community. Speaking at the time, co-founder of the project Richard Howlett said that Oxford has a “queer history to be proud of.”
But, Howlett went on, it’s a “history hidden in people’s attics, filing cabinets and memories. We look forward to helping bring it to life through this exhibition.”
This exhibition came at a time when it was reported that hate crimes in England and Wales doubled in just five years, with four out of five anti-LGBT+ hate crimes going unreported.
Through exhibitions like Queering Spires, museums can help individuals and groups celebrate what makes them unique, spreading the word that’s it okay to fall outside the box despite the continued intolerance of some.
In the face of hatred and ignorance, knowledge and understanding are often the best weapons. This is what the museum has the power to showcase.

Bringing communities together
Museums have the power to create unity on both a social and political level, but also on a local one. Local museums are able to provide a sense of community and place by celebrating a collective heritage, offering a great way to get to know the history of a particular area.
There are endless examples of local museums in the UK. One such institution is the Hove Museum and Art Gallery, located in Hove near Brighton. Housed in an Italianate Victorian villa near the seafront, this local abode was once home to a wealthy widow before housing German prisoners of war during World War II.
The home is filled with a variety of local historical treasures, including dolls, rocking horses, prints, paintings and sculptures. From prehistoric times to the pioneering 20th century filmmaking that occurred in the area, this museum offers a comprehensive history of Hove.
Similarly, the Discovery Museum in Newcastle Upon Tyne celebrates the Northern Powerhouse – long before this phrase was coined in recent years. In centuries past, the region led the way in engineering and entire communities flourished on the back of innovation. The eclectic mix of exhibits at the Discovery Museum are all tactile and hands-on, encouraging interaction from visitors, while the lightbulb exhibition details how Joseph Swan unveiled his invention for the first time in Newcastle.
As technology and digitalisation sees us becoming more and more globalised, institutions such as these offer a welcome reminder of the achievements and discoveries located closer to home, bringing communities together.
Museums can also bring people together in a more literal way, through public events, workshops and lectures. The British Museum, for example, works with community organisations and charities to explore, research and respond to projects. Their past projects have included working with schools, young people, creative arts partnerships and the local LGBTQIA+ community.
Meanwhile, some museums like the Museum of Street Culture in Dallas, Texas create exhibitions designed to support vulnerable local people. The Museum of Street Culture recently launched a project designed to engage the public in dialogue with people experiencing homelessness, challenging stigma and increasing awareness.
Exhibits like this couldn’t come at a better time, with recent reports confirming that the levels of homelessness are actually five times higher than previously thought.

Standing firm in the face of adversity
Of course, taking a stand often means that a museum exposes itself to criticism from those who disagree with their exhibits. And in some cases, criticism can boil over into something much worse. For a stark example of this we need only look back to 2017 and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.
Here, tourists found a noose purposefully left at the museum – one of several hate incidents that followed the 2016 election result. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Centre reported more than 1,300 hate incidents between November 2016 and early February 2017.
Former Director Lonnie G. Bunch III described the leaving of the noose as a sickening “symbol of extreme violence for African Americans,” one which immediately evokes Jim Crow-era lynching and white-on-black violence.
But surely the incident only serves to highlight the importance of institutions like the NMAAHC. While such fervent hatred exist, it makes the need for African American stories to be told even clearer.

Digitalisation, innovation and interaction
Thanks to the rise in technology over the last two decades, what it means to be a museum is being questioned and challenged. Modern tech is transforming museums from spaces of looking and learning to spaces of interaction, participation and engagement.
This is evident in major institutions around the world, including the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum’s Lumin AR Tour uses augmented reality to improve both the educational and the practical aspects of the museum experience. The tour, introduced in 2017, can be implemented on a handheld device available inside the building.
When the device is pointed at certain sculptures, artefacts or paintings, more information about them is made available. Pop-up snippets, detailed descriptions and additional photography are just a few examples of what the devices offer, increasing the average time visitors spend engaging with items inside the collection.
One of the most interesting and popular options is the ability to ‘x-ray’ an ancient mummy, allowing visitors the chance to experience the interior as well as the exterior of this fascinating find.
Similarly, the ArtLens Interactive Studio at the Cleveland Museum of Art contains a variety of screen-based activities that require physical movement and interaction from the viewer in order to operate.
Just some of the activities visitors can expect to enjoy include: virtual painting and virtual collaging (using items found throughout the gallery’s collection); researching and learning about various featured artists and mediums using portable devices; front camera self-portraiture; virtual pottery; and matching shapes to items in the gallery.
Examples such as these show the changing faces of museums, as curators begin to think outside the box and develop more immersive, social and collaborative ways of learning for visitors.
Advances in technology have also made museums more accessible than ever. For those who might struggle to attend an institution in person, museums and galleries are increasingly sharing their collections online. Virtual reality, digital guides, downloads, apps and digital trails are all becoming increasingly available to anyone and everyone.
We need museums because their future is so full of possibility and opportunity – and more people than ever can access them.

Educating future generations
Speaking of the future, museums and other cultural institutions will always have a role to play in the education of future generations. From creating exhibitions targeted towards children to teaching children in a quasi-classroom environment, institutions around the world are doing their bit to pass down knowledge.
Back in 1990, Semper described a museum as “an educational country fair” – and this is more true today than ever. In the United States alone, around 80% of museums provide educational programmes for children, and spend more than $2 billion per year on educational activities, according to the American Alliance of Museums.
Museums for children have been a staple part of museum culture for decades. From Eureka in Halifax, West Yorkshire, to the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum (both located in London), there are endless institutions designed to help children engage with and enjoy learning.
What’s more, traditional museum spaces are also offering interactive exhibitions and opportunities for children. The Tate in London offers a dedicated website for children about art – Tate Kids – which allows children to play games and quizzes, watch videos about art and be inspired to make their own creations at home. They can also share their creation with other children around the world via the site’s online gallery.
Museums are just as important to the future as the future is to museums. Not only can our museums bring history to life, but they can also shine a light on both our present and our future – a light which can be hard to find elsewhere.

MuseumNext Podcast

Youtube Channel | Spotify Channel

MuseumNext (www.museumnext.com) is a Global Conference series on the future of museums.
Since 2009, our events have acted as a catalyst for inspiration, innovation and collaboration, bringing together those who are shaping the museum sector. These films share presentations from our conferences.

Spotify Channel
Creating the inclusive museum through storytelling

Exploring Ask

Youtube Channel

Jim Broughton, Head of International Engagement, The Natural History Museum London
Jim talked about the decisions museums must make in order to identify new areas for expanding their revenue-generating activities, without compromising either credibility or core purpose. He shared how the Natural History Museum had developed a strategic approach to evaluating and cultivating opportunities in order to accrue benefits that support its mission to challenge the way society thinks about its relationship with the natural world as much as they contribute funding towards its operations, programmes and research.
MICRO’s fleet of six-foot-tall museums are installed in high-impact public spaces from Rockefeller Center to NYC’s busiest public hospitals, reaching new audiences who would not otherwise have access to traditional museums.
The world’s first physically distributed museum, MICRO is a museum for everyone, everywhere. MICRO’s co-founder Charles Phillipp will share insights from MICRO’s unique approach to museum storytelling and design for new audiences in public spaces, an approach that ensures visitors of all ages and backgrounds can engage with complex topics from biology to physics, engineering and beyond.
Adam Reed Rozan,
Director, Programs & Audience Development,
National Museum of American History

Cultural organizations have historically shied away from taking on complex social issues through their collections and the stories they tell, choosing the safer path instead. But can they still afford to take the safer path? Many are choosing not to.
In this talk, Adam Rozan explores how cultural institutions are either preparing for or dealing with drastic, global changes. He highlights specific examples, particularly from the corporate world, and the lessons that all organizations can glean about what’s working or not.
Peter Gorgels, Internet Manager at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will share everything you always wanted to know about Rijkmuseum digital strategy and Rijksstudio, but were afraid to ask. This session will deep dive into some of the most successful projects on the digital side of museums, sharing the lessons that Peter and his team have learned along the way.
Lynda Kelly is Head of Web and Audience Research at the Australian Museum, Sydney. She has published widely in audience research and writes the popular blog ‘Audience Research’.

Jean Dubuffet. A barbarian in Europe

Due to the coronavirus, the Mucem exhibition can be visited virtually.

Painter, writer, inventor of “Art Brut”, Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was a major figure on the 20th century art scene.
This exhibition shows how Jean Dubuffet combines his painting and writing activities with the research he has devoted to what he calls Art Brut. It presents his artistic production in all its diversity, with a particular emphasis on showing objects and documents resulting from the explorations he has carried out by visiting museums of ethnography or popular art, as well as various collections dedicated to the “art of the mad”.

We are Museums Community


Let’s celebrate together the full potential of our international community to inspire cultural courage and drive the museum industry towards a better future.
Here, you will find shared energy sparking global conversations, strengthening collaborations and solving key challenges of our industry.

The Community is currently revolving around these topics:

  1. The climate emergency and how museums can take action
  2. How Nature can inspire symbiotic community engagement 
  3. Putting new ethics in extended realities for museums
  4. How museums live beyond Pandemia

Einstein – Hawking. The Universe Unveiled

Arte. Documentary by Michael Lachmann (UK, 2019, 52mn)

Could Einstein and Hawking together have reconciled relativity and quantum mechanics? This captivating documentary mirrors the discoveries of the two greatest minds in modern physics who revolutionized our vision of the Universe. This first part looks at the work of Albert Einstein (1879-1955).
Relativity, the Universe seen as a space-time continuum and attraction as a distortion of this continuum caused by stars and planets… This first part looks at the work of Albert Einstein (1879-1955). They are put into perspective by astrophysicists, in particular those of the Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), which brings together 900 scientists from around the world. How do researchers today view the ideas of the Swiss-American genius?

Coronavirus: “A piece of Elsewhere in your home”

Maison d’Ailleurs – Yverdon-les-Bains (VD)

It’s time to take your capsule!
No, we’re not talking about a medicine, but rather about something whose effects could be similar to a vitamin shot: a bit of Elsewhere… at home!
“A Bit of Elsewhere in Your Home” is a micro-series of daily episodes based on culture, science fiction and good humour.
Because we all need it, and at the moment it’s difficult (or rather impossible) to go out to take care of our morale: we’ll bring you every day a little bit of Ailleurs, our Ailleurs, the one of the museum and its collections, and this, until April 30th at least.
So get ready to discover works, games, comics, books, objects… and to meet the partners and actors of the museum!
Hang on, we’re coming up fresh, motivated and disinfected, to make you laugh and think…
Let’s spread the culture virus!

Revisiting Black Mountain. Cross-Disciplinary Experiments and Their Potential for Democratization

Issue 43: OnCurating.org | PDF

The symposium “Revisiting Black Mountain College: Cross-Disciplinary Experiments and Their Potential for Democratization (in Times of Post-Democracy)” asked questions in relation to anti-democratic tendencies in many countries worldwide. How can education still hold up democratic values, while at the same time presumably measuring its success by careers in the market?
This issue brings together contributions from participants of the conference and adds further contributions by Andres Janser, Olga von Schubert, Caroline Adler, Boris Buden, Lucy Bayley, Sascia Bailer, Simon Fleury, Gilly Karjevsky, Asli Uludag, and Mieke Matzke.The interview by Ronald Kolb with Bitten Stetter, Brandon Farnsworth, Dorothee Richter, Jochen Kiefer, Martin Jaeggi, and Paolo Bianchi—all professors or lecturers at the Zurich University of the Arts—provides an internal perspective of today’s curriculum-based universities in relation to an education model like Black Mountain College—which can be seen as the opposite.

Symbiotic seeing – Olafur Eliasson

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is one of the most important artists of our time. A major solo exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich presents many of his new works. Virtual exhibition…

Curator: Mirjam Varadinis

“I strongly believe in the importance of having physical, embodied experiences. It matters to actually engage with our senses.” Olafur Eliasson

At its centre is a large scale installation created exclusively for Zurich that addresses a key issue of our age: the relationship and interplay between human and non-human actors on Earth.
In ‘Symbiotic seeing’, Eliasson tackles themes such as coexistence and symbiosis and aims to bring about a fundamental shift of perspective. The exhibition invites us not only to reflect on climate change – as a consequence of human action – but also to comprehend the human being as part of a larger system. The socially and environmentally committed artist, who was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN in September 2019, proposes an idea of the world based on coexistence and collaboration rather than competition.
Eliasson’s art translates complex theoretical deliberations into spatial works that not only appeal to people rationally but also touch them emotionally and move them physically.
He has been working for over twenty years with an interdisciplinary team that includes craftspeople, architects, media specialists and cooks. He is known for space-filling works, light works and sculptures that prompt audiences to reflect on themselves and the world as they experience them.
His works often resemble scientific experiments. In contrast to scientists testing speculative hypotheses, however, Eliasson is interested in conjuring uncertainty and raising questions that can provide a space for new ideas, themes and thought experiments.
In Eliasson’s art, the viewers or users play an active role. They interact with the works in different ways and, in doing so, they become their co-authors.
Many of his works invite the viewers to consider their own position in the room in relationship to the work and other visitors. In a wider sense, this means becoming aware of one’s own role in the world at large. Eliasson’s works therefore also function as models of society and of the relationships between individuals and groups.

Research pin-wall, detail. Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2019, Photo: Studio Olafur Eliasson

“The central theme is the role of the viewer or user. The question is whether their activities or actions are what actually brings the artwork into being. One can say that, without their participation, it has no meaning.” Olafur Eliasson

Installation view Symbiotic seeing, Visualisation by Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2019

One important inspiration for Symbiotic seeing was the research conducted by the American biologist Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) and the chemist James Lovelock. In the 1960s, the two researchers formulated the ‘Gaia hypothesis’. Gaia, from the Greek root meaning ‘Earth’, was the name of the mother goddess who personified the planet. Margulis and Lovelock hypothesized that the planet Earth and the biosphere can be understood as an organism, given that the biosphere (the entirety of all organisms) creates and maintains the conditions not only for life, but also for the evolution of more complex organisms.
In her book The Symbiotic Planet (1998), Margulis goes on to explain how symbiosis in the development of life is just as important as the ‘survival of the fittest’ formulated by Charles Darwin. She describes how symbiotic relationships take place at the micro as well as at the macro level: ‘[H]umans are not the work of God but thousands of millions of years of interaction among highly responsive microbes.’ Just like the transition from single-celled to multicellular organisms was based on cooperation, the populating of Earth was only possible thanks to fungi and plants working together. According to Margulis, all lifeforms together regulate the Earth’s temperature and atmosphere – an interesting idea in the era of the Anthropocene, during which the relationship between humans and the Earth has become severely unbalanced. (You can find out more about this topic in the exhibition catalogue.)

What is time? | The Magic of the Cosmos

Part 1 | ARTE

It was Albert Einstein who first shattered Isaac Newton’s hypothesis of a universal time and explained that it is in fact a subjective experience. An episode in a captivating documentary series on the mysteries of the cosmos.
If man has been trying to measure time with increasing precision for thousands of years, it would be difficult to define it, as it is still one of the greatest mysteries of physics. For the perception of its continuous flow is nothing but an illusion. Albert Einstein was the first to shatter Isaac Newton’s hypothesis of a universal time and explain that it is in fact a subjective experience. Why is this? Simply because movement in space affects its flow. Einstein thus reveals the fundamental connection between space and time, inducing in passing that past, present and future exist in the same way and without distinction!
The magic of the cosmos
Episode 1: The Illusion of Time

Documentary series by Randall MacLowry (United States, 2011, 53mn)

Part 2 | ARTE

Space separates two galaxies as well as two atoms. Author of the book “The Magic of the Cosmos”, published in 2004, the physicist Brian Greene reveals that it is a dynamic fabric that can stretch, twist, deform and undulate under the effects of gravity. Even stranger still is the recent discovery of a mysterious ingredient that is said to make up 70% of the universe and which physicists call “dark energy”. Even if they admit its existence, they still don’t know what it is. Examining space on infinitely small scales only makes the mystery even deeper.
3D animated sequences prove that our ability to reason quickly reaches its limits and struggles to influence our behaviour. Mundane objects such as matches and chairs allow for surprising experiments when handled by researchers. To prove the validity of their theses, researchers don’t hesitate to jump on a surfboard or study the methods of magicians. All of these are reasons to worry sometimes, especially when we learn that our brains make decisions seven seconds before we are aware of them! A fascinating journey to the four corners of the world, from Australia to Germany via the United States and Sweden, to observe our neurons in all their states..
The magic of the cosmos
Episode 2: What Is Space

Documentary series by Randall MacLowry (United States, 2011, 53mn)