What should be the role of museums in the 21st century?

Sunday 3 November, 16:0017:15, Frobisher 1-3Arts and culture

What exactly is a museum? The answer might once have been fairly uncontroversial, given well-established roles of cultural institutions to acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibit their collections.  Yet today in the age of the ‘woke’ museum, when so many cultural institutions feel the need to name-check a heady litany of issues – from Western hegemony, economic injustice and migration to homophobia, sexism and postcolonialism – defining what a museum is for has become a matter of fierce, often rancorous debate.

Take the recent furore amongst members of the International Council on Museums (Icom), whose board has proposed defining museums as ‘democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces’ that ‘contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary well-being’. Supporters welcomed increased accountability to marginalised and underrepresented communities, arguing museums should address global political, economic and social changes and use heritage towards ‘building a peaceful and sustainable future’. Opponents decried such an ‘ideological’ manifesto, criticising such new ‘fashionable values’ not only as ‘partly aberrant’, but for failing to attend to the traditional functions of museums, devaluing their role as institutions of research, preservation and education.

Some say building skills, confidence, community identity and more are roles now widely accepted by cultural institutions. Recently, however, controversy has also raged over who should fund museums. Campaign group Culture Unstained has escalated its campaign against fossil-fuel sponsorship of the arts, with Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance resigning from the Royal Shakespeare Company due to its deal with ‘world-killing’ oil multinational, BP. Author Sebastian Faulks captured rising anti-corporate sentiment when he called Man Group, a hedge fund that sponsored the Booker Prize, ‘the enemy’ and ‘not the sort of people who should be sponsoring literary prizes, but the kind of people literary prizes ought to be criticising’.

Countercultural artists have long wanted to stick it to ‘the man’, but such controversies seem to have further unnerved the prestigious cultural institutions who already struggle to define their role. Most prominently, the Tate group of galleries declared it would no longer accept gifts from the Sackler family, who own the makers of OxyContin, a prescription painkiller under fire amid the US opioid epidemic. Likewise, the National Portrait Gallery turned down a £1million donation from the Sackler Trust, citing a ‘conflict with the objectives and values of the gallery’.  With some museums already struggling for funds to acquire new works and undertake proper conservation work, not to mention employing curatorial experts and paying gallery staff, is there a danger that gallery content is becoming less important than keeping up woke appearances?

Why has the role of the museum come under such scrutiny lately and why do our cultural institutions and those associated with them find it so difficult to define what they stand for? When public funds are involved, is there really a problem with broadening the remit of cultural institutions to add social value and even to address society’s contemporary political concerns? Does corporate sponsorship corrupt the arts, or should museums and galleries take whatever money comes their way? Even if it is agreed that some sources of money are ‘dirty’, who decides which sources of sponsorship are acceptable?  Is the museum becoming a ‘woke’ institution, or finally waking up to the opportunity to add social value?