Thursday 28 April 2011

More Museum Problems

Over the past few weeks there has been discussion of the role of museums in Britain, prompted among other cuts by the announcement that the Museum of London (MoL) is planning to axe curators and conservators from its staff. The MoL was opened in 1976 and has collections containing 7 million objects documenting the history of the nation's capital from prehistory to the present day. Up to 17 posts have been targeted, cuts which are expected to save £1m. This has sparked outrage from eminent scholars who are suggesting academic expertise no longer counts for anything among today's policy-makers and that such proposals will "cripple" curatorial work.

Dalya Alberge, 'Job cuts at the Museum of London 'will cripple its vital academic work', London Evening Standard 12 Apr 2011.

Rebecca Atkinson, 'Museum of London Confirms 11 redundancies', Museums Journal,19th April 2011.

In connection with the overall theme of the blog, it is worth noting that soon after its creation (from the London Museum and Guildhall Museum), the Museum pioneered collaboration with artefact hunters who were fossicking around in the Thames waterside mud in the City (so-called 'mudlarks') and recovering masses of everyday items. It was the beginning of research on these by curatorial staff of the Museum collaborating with these collectors and a series of publications of such material (I'll try and find a bibliography somewhere) that led the way for a recognition of the role the artefact hunter and collector can play in the expansion of knowledge about life in the past.

Today museums in Britain are losing their academic role (not just in archaeology this is happening in other fields too like geology and natural history) as part of the general dumbing down of society. The karaoke/wikipedia society no longer needs or values specialists. Museums are less storehouses of knowledge than places of entertainment, where the more those dreary pots and bones can be bulked out by glittery gold and silver treasures found by members of the public ("like you, sir, get your discount metal detector vouchers by the exit") the better. After all the latter do not need any fancy academic interpretation, they have an instant coo-value mixing the "how-much-it's-worth" with "jus'-think-all-those-years-ago" elements so easy to exploit in excited press releases, but with no substance behind them. Museums can return to the old model of rows of attractive objects shown laid out one after another in a gallery with minimalist labelling, meaning little more to the viewer than a row of attractive objects shown laid out one after another in a gallery for gawping at quickly before dashing down to the gift shop on the way to Starbucks or McDonalds.

The current emphasis on public outreach which basically says, "if you want contact with the past go out and dig it up yourself, you may even find something that makes you a millionaire and gets you in the papers and on tv" is fundamentally damaging to the academic values of archaeology. But then, all that book-lerning 'n stuff are so "middle class" and "elitist" anyway aren't they? Like proper museums.

Photo: The Museum of London, one of my favourites it was new and innovative in the seventies and eighties, doing a fantastic job.

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