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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 12:20 GMT
Museums turn on government
Natural History Museum
Interactive fun: But are priorities becoming distorted?
A group of leading curators and museum administrators is to launch a scathing attack on government museum policy on Sunday.

Launching the book Museums For The People? at the British Museum, the speakers will accuse the government of distorting museums' work by loading them with social policy priorities.

The tendency to replace real specimens with electronic games and virtual whizzbangs is short-sighted

Richard Fortey, Natural History Museum
The original purpose of museums is being lost "to a vast array of other social activities", says Josie Appleton, who wrote the book's foreword.

"Museums are supposed to care for, study and present collections," she told BBC News Online.

Business tests

"Placing social policy ends first is a reversal of the meaning and purpose of the museum and puts in question the existence of museums as such.

"We're challenging the orthodoxy that museums should be about social and political ends."

Robert Anderson, director of the British Museum, writes in the book: "There are strong arguments to keep the lamp of scholarship burning in a few museums with rich collections, even if this approach cannot be universal."

The British Museum
British Museum's Robert Anderson: "Keep lamp of scholarship burning"
Many of the speakers at the launch will accuse the Labour government of continuing with damaging policies launched by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in the 80s.

In the 80s, museum work had increasingly to be justified in economic terms and was subject to a range of business tests.

Lowering expectations

Now all museums funded by the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) have to publish access targets and detailed measures.

They need to show they are, in the department's words, "widening access to a broad cross-section for the public for example by age, social class and ethnicity".

Some museums say that this work is not and should not be the primary business of museums.

And they say it has also led to a lowering of expectations for the public who do come to museums.

Some museums have betrayed the collections that alone justify their existence

David Barrie
"Many museums seem to think the public had the most limited capacity for concentration and little need for quiet," Ms Appleton writes.

Richard Fortey, a senior palaeontologist the Natural History Museum, says in his contribution to the book: "The tendency to replace real specimens with electronic games and virtual whizzbangs is short-sighted.

"This kind of show does not stick in the memory any more - it becomes just another TV programme.

"It's not so much 'dumbing down' as 'editing out'.

"We have to face the fact that it is very difficult to make a display out of the process of understanding."


A number of the authorities in the book are alarmed about what lies ahead if the current ethos is not challenged.

Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum's Fortey: Concern over 'editing' of knowledege
David Barrie, a board member of Re:Source, the council for Museums, Archive and Libraries, sounds a warning note: "By concentrating all their resources on trying to become successful visitor attractions, some museums have betrayed the collections that alone justify their existence.

"Politicians, having failed to grasp that museums are valuable in themselves, have insisted that in return for state funding they must help deliver political goals like social inclusion or urban renewal.

"So long as the government keeps on forking out, everything may seem fine.

"But sooner or later it is possible - perhaps even likely - that, having tried the experiment, it will find better or more cost-effective ways of achieving its political objectives and turn its back on museums."

The government has said that it strongly supports the work of museums and that it has allocated them an extra 100 million in funding for the years 1999-2002.

It has also said that many museums have benefited from lottery funding and the current programme of building renewal - which it says is the biggest since Victorian times.

  • Museums For The People? is published by the Institute of Ideas and will be launched at the Connecting The Collection conference at the British Museum on Sunday 11 November
    'It's a question of money'
    Neil McGregor, National Gallery Director
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