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Excellence in the Arts, and where museums fit in?

November 22, 2012

The arts community and museums have been uneasy bed fellows.  Both sectors cover a wide range of institutions from large well respected nationals like the British Museum and Royal Opera House to exciting local players like the Museum of Anglian Life and the Winchester Hat Fair.  However the official quango for the arts in England, ACE, now includes the remit for museums and libraries (but interestingly not some of the national museums like the BM or the Tate which are directly funded by the Department for Culture Media & Sport).  This means museums now need to to seriously listen to the Arts Council’s priorities.

The Arts Council’s first goal is excellence, this is tempered by its mission to provide arts for everyone (which also includes museums and libraries now).  The ambition to provide excellent arts provision for everyone was a founding principle, since the Arts Council was funded after the Second World War.  This has caused tension as opera and ballet are perceived as beautiful and excellent art forms, but largely the preserve of the elite, and not the masses.

Within the museums sector there have been similar tensions, especially prevalent among traditional disciplines like the fine arts, textiles and archaeology were displays and collections have not always been accessible to the widest audience.  But other parts of the museum world have grown up with the idea of embracing access (and trying to be excellent if not innovative) from the start.  The museum sector experienced a massive explosion of new museums and growth of new disciplines in the 70s and 80s which created a multitude of new museums and galleries.  This movement was largely led by new independents that were spurred on to preserve dying technologies and lifestyles.  These new institutions included open air museums like MEAL and St Fagan’s, industrial sites like STEAM or Ironbridge,  often opening with little or no public funding.  While the interest in people’s history brought social history to museums, with examples like the People’s History Museum and  Discovery Museum.  This explosion was replicated at a local and community level with a profusion of smaller museums being set up to tell their story, whether it was a local industry, a much loved building or local district.  The one thing they had in common was that these organisations were looking to tell a community story.

In this regard the “Arts” concern of excellence leading to elitism, is irrelevant to some museums, were the founding principle was to preserve something of the past for everyone.  Perhaps a tad simplistic but remember for every “respected” national or regional institution there are hundreds of community museums.

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