Museums Must Be Social or Not at All

Six inspiring proposals seen at London’s MuseumNext on how cultural organisations are changing to become open, diverse and inclusive spaces.

Woman Suffrage Parade. Washington, D.C., 1913

Woman Suffrage Parade. Washington, D.C., 1913 | Library of Congress | Public domain

Since it was first launched, the MuseumNext conference has been exploring the future of cultural centres. At this year’s conference in London, the most important debates revolved around the role and responsibilities of museums in including multiple voices and communities in their work.

MuseumNext is one of the professional forums for finding out about the interests, the challenges and some of the star projects that museums and cultural spaces around the world are working on. In 2024, after five years without a physical forum, MuseumNext Live was held in London from 10 to 13 June. The event serves as a barometer for gauging the mood of museums and their teams of professionals. And this year, if we had to measure the temperature of the digital and technological euphoria that has dominated museum trends in recent times, we could say that it was cold, subzero in fact. Of the three days of MuseumNext Live London, only one was dedicated to digital projects and strategies, while the second and third days were dominated by presentations and conversations about the multiple and rich experiences in education, mediation and work with the public being promoted by cultural organisations. In short, there was very little talk about Tiktok, a bit about AI and a lot about how to transform cultural institutions into more open, diverse and inclusive spaces.

The general discourse envisaged for the event was related to advocacy for a sustainable, ethical and accessible museum, inclusive to people, communities and neighbourhoods. A museum where public participation goes beyond sharing pretty pictures on Instagram and that implements educational and mediation programmes that involve people historically excluded from the great events and cultural facilities.

It is hard to sum up a three-day event with some 400 attendees from more than 100 cultural organisations and a programme of 50 activities (including workshops, cultural visits and presentations) held in eight different locations. Even so, below is a short list of the most inspiring museums, people, experiences and ideas from MuseumNext 2024.

The Young V&A Museum, or when children decide what the museum of their dreams would look like

If there is one jewel in the crown among London’s rich ecosystem of museums, it is the revamped Young V&A. Housed in a beautiful Victorian building in the multi-ethnic Bethnal Green area, the museum (reopened in summer 2023) was thought up and designed by children from local schools after a process of co-creation with experts and the V&A’s education team. Helen Charman, Director of Learning & National Programmes and the person in charge of this transformation, guided us through the different galleries and spaces for play, imagination and learning in the museum, which exhibits around 2000 pieces from the V&A collection through the surprising eyes of children. With very few screens and lots of beautifully designed and welcoming spaces, it sets the standard for a museum designed to awaken the curiosity and ingenuity of people aged 3 to 14 years, but that visitors of all ages are sure to love. You can read more about how the museum was created here.

The Migration Museum in London, the museum that was born (and grew) inside a shopping centre

Can you imagine a museum inside a shopping centre? Noise, products everywhere and crowds of people running around buying things. Against this hostile backdrop, in 2020 the Migration Museum opened its doors inside the Lewisham shopping centre in London. Exhibitions and activities took place in between sports shoe stores and Starbucks. According to the artistic director Aditi Anand, after four years of operation the experience could not have been more rewarding and enriching. With more than 7000 visitors a month, the Migration Museum has made an impact and generated relevant cultural experiences among people from the neighbouring area and the regular visitors to the shopping centre. What happened? Well, the museum moved into a space that people already visited, and if we had to choose a popular space full of movement, variety and diversity, a shopping centre may well be just the spot. However, after the immense effort of adapting to a peculiar environment, the museum has finally found a permanent home, and from 2026 it will have to reinvent itself once again when it moves into a student accommodation building.

Having a digital strategy for your museum is not so… difficult

Nick Hodder: “People don’t hate change. People hate change when they don’t have agency.” Nick Hodder is the Assistant Director of Digital Transformation at Imperial War Museums, a network of five historic war museums located across Britain. At MuseumNext, he talked about how to implement a digital strategy (without dying in the attempt). What often happens when large, well-resourced cultural organisations explain how they organise themselves digitally is that some of the attendees in the room sigh and think, resignedly, “yeah right, as if this could happen in my (small and disorganised) museum.” Still, Hodder provided sensible and scalable ideas and advice for any museum. The first and foremost of these: it is impossible to make any strategic change to a museum if the people in charge don’t have agency as well as real action and decision-making capacity. In other words, you can stop producing reports and making plans for the future if you don’t have all the internal support needed to execute them. Some other interesting and commonsense tips included: don’t be dazzled by the speed of technological innovations, rather focus your digital strategies on your target audience; be prepared to make mistakes and to adapt constantly; be aware of the internal organisational culture so as not to generate too many expectations; and propose realistic strategies adapted to your organisation’s resources. Factors such as creativity and trust in internal teams are more relevant for Hodder than ambitious plans for the future. “We need adaptability rather than digital strategies,” he concluded.

Dynamic curatorship, or how to empower the public to get involved in an exhibition

Enriching cultural programmes and content by incorporating the knowledge and expertise of the people who visit museums or participate in their activities is a positive thing, but to what point are cultural institutions willing to open up to external participation and lose control of their discourse?

Verónica Reyes Carrillo is a cultural mediator and head of Diversity and Inclusion at the Museum of Communication in Berne (Switzerland) and, together with curator Ulrich Schenk, she spoke about “dynamic curatorship,” a practice that they have applied to some of the exhibitions and that consists of creating mediation dynamics within the exhibition rooms so that visitors can have their say, questioning and/or modifying the exhibition’s discourse. One example is the Words matter! initiative, which invites visitors to an exhibition to put stickers on any texts that they consider to contain offensive words or inappropriate phrases. The Museum of Communication’s mediation team works to receive, listen to, validate, incorporate and visibilise other discourses. Understanding that museums are living spaces, permeable to criticism and more diverse views is one of the raisons d’être of cultural mediation, as understood by Verónica Reyes. To start treating museum visitors as “game-changers” is the way forward.

Educational and mediation projects – is it possible to create long and lasting links with diverse communities?

Sonia Mutaganza and Fouzia Sadala are two young women of African descent who work at the FOMU, the museum of photography in Antwerp (Belgium), in the production and curatorship of activities. Just a few years ago, they used to go to the FOMU as participants in its public programmes, until the museum hired them. According to them, joining the staff of a cultural team is the key to creating truly inclusive museums. They now lead several projects within the organisation, such as the Community Dinners – meetings where they explain the FOMU’s upcoming programme to organisations and associations from the city’s associative and artistic fabric, or NightWatch, a programme of artistic residencies that calls on young people aged between 16 and 26 to develop their own projects. To stop treating people as mere numbers, to be open to criticism and to build long-term relationships of trust with communities of museum users are some of the keys to building more open and diverse museums. “We need to give young people opportunities and treat them as equals, as colleagues, experts and critics,” they explained. Bureaucracy, and having very high expectations of a project, are some of the obstacles they encounter. Their case is an inspiring example of how it is possible to push down the walls of the museum to incorporate brilliant and critical people.

How to establish queer and decolonial discourses in cultural practice

Two names of experts to keep in mind are those of Dina Jezdic and Margaret Middleton. The two of them participated in different presentations at MuseumNext, but with a key point in common – the museums of the future will be those that are willing to coherently and carefully change and incorporate queer and decolonial artistic practices and discourses. Dinna Jezdic is an independent curator, programmer and expert in feminist, anti-racist and indigenous art. In London she spoke about decolonial curatorial practices in museums, on which she has based her doctoral thesis.

Margaret Middleton is an exhibition designer and has written numerous articles and publications on how to effectively include LGBTQ communities in exhibition programmes and content. Her website contains a range of specialist articles and useful resources.

The overall conclusion: museums must be social or not all at. The museums of the future will be those that know how to become spaces that are malleable, flexible and prepared for permanent change. With more or less technological resources, the relevant museums (whether big or small) will be those that manage to have their own genuine identity, as spaces prepared to incorporate multiple voices into their collections and activities and with the skill and ability to bring powerful and meaningful stories to the people.

View comments0

Leave a comment

Museums Must Be Social or Not at All