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Museums and the Contemporary

November 9, 2016

Can museums be involved in current affairs?  The recent Brexit referendum might have dominated the media over the past couple of years in the UK but there was little evidence of this in museum displays or shows.

Exhibitions at museums tend to focus on subjects or place, such as First World War or Historic Palaces such as Hampton Court or Queen’s House, Greenwich.  Major exhibitions often take a long time to develop from idea to opening, making it hard for museums to respond quickly to current events.  New Walk Museum, Leicester was able to create an exhibition celebrating the city’s football club Premiership success this summer only 45 days after the club were crowned English Champions.

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New Walk Museum’s Fearless Foxes exhibition

However should museums get involved in contemporary or cultural affairs such as Brexit?  The museum sector is extremely wary of straying into this territory.  Many museums are dependent on public sector grants, and usually government tends to react badly if it sees museums trespassing into the domain of the politician.  Independent museums also see contemporary topics as an unnecessary distraction from more typical programming (big events, historical exhibitions and commercial hire) which can bring in significant income. It is unclear if an exhibition about the Brexit campaign would have generated income or been popular among a weary public.

It is also doubtful if many museums have enough material to put on display about recent events.  Contemporary collecting is a costly exercise, you need people to collect, catalogue and store objects, resources most museums rarely have in abundance in the age of austerity.  To put it bluntly the current priority for museums is to survive and generate income and not reflect on current affairs (unless it becomes lucrative).

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