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Are museums failing us?

By news editor, on 9 March 2012

A distinguished panel of experts agreed that, in general, museums are failing the public they are intended to serve. That was the resounding opinion of four heritage professionals forming the panel for the UCL Institute of Archaeology’s debate entitled “Presenting the past” held on Monday 5 March.

David Clarke, former Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Scotland, complained that museums all display things the same way, slavishly sticking to a chronological walk through their exhibits, when the majority of visitors to a museum care little whether an artefact is 200 or 2,000 years old.

Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, described the majority of museum displays as “stultifyingly boring” and bemoaned the uniformity of approach. He highlighted the need for creativity in display in order to excite the public, in the same way that archaeologists and curators are excited by the past.

In the era of stringent funding cuts, museums walk a fiscal tightrope, with many falling into the abyss and closing due to lack of funding and investment in the sector. It is, therefore, vital that new life and excitement are injected into museums if they are to survive, especially at a local level.

The panel agreed museums are part of the entertainment industry: people now visit museums and heritage attractions on “daycations”. Museums need to stay up-to-date in areas such as digital technology, and give people the opportunity to engage with and question archaeologists’ interpretations of the past.

Bob Bewley, Director of Operations at the Heritage Lottery Fund, highlighted the disconnection between museums and their local community, who do not see the museum as representing their past.

At Flag Fen, near Peterborough, Lisa Westcott-Wilkins, former editor of Current Archaeology, and now MD of DigVentures, is pioneering a new approach to funding archaeology – crowdfunding and paid participants. If this model works in terms of paid public participation, perhaps there is scope for its extension to assist the museum sector.

The presentation of the past is key to its future, and museums must get it right.

Review by Meredith Laing, MA Public Archaeology student, UCL Institute of Archaeology

The ‘Presenting the Past’ Debate is one of a series of events being held to mark the UCL Institute of Archaeology’s 75th anniversary.

Watch the Debate again at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/calendar/articles/20120305

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