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Are museums for the people or just the elite?

9 June 2014 by David Fleming

A man stood at with microphone speaking in front of SJAM logo

This is the second of a five part series looking at museums and democracy, this time looking at the early days of UK museums. Were they built for the enlightenment of the people? or were they just private clubs for the ruling classes? The series is from the text of a lecture I gave in May 2014 at Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital research symposium entitled ‘The Arts, Them and Us: creating a more equitable system for subsidised culture’.

Part 2

I have been interested in the notion of the democratic museum for many years. Indeed, it was because I believed that they are democratic institutions that I started working in museums in 1981.

I had developed a rose-tinted view of museums on our family visits in the 1950s to Kirkstall Abbey and the Abbey House Museum in Leeds, two bus rides away on the other side of the city, where we marvelled at the Victorian street scene and the displays of old toys, and activated the Murder in the Museum automaton; and on a single visit to Leeds City Museum with my father, where an unfeasibly large spider from Leeds Market, a scary tiger and a coal mine accessed through a trapdoor in the floor, made a big impression.

Of course I found out many years later that it wasn’t a real coal mine at all, but simply part of the cellar painted black, with mirrors. I have found it difficult to trust museums ever since…

Encouraged by these childhood adventures, having passed my 11-Plus examination and gone to Grammar School, then University, I got it into my head that I could use my history qualifications to empower working class people. Stupid boy!

My basic misunderstanding about museums was that I thought they were places where people like my parents and sister, who were brought up in rented back-to-back houses with shared toilets along the street; who had a bath once a week in a zinc container in front of the coal fire, using the same water as the previous family member who had used it; who lived in houses without books; who left school with no qualifications and with a limited confidence in their own intellectual capacity; could discover new avenues to learning and self-improvement.

In my naivety, I had got the idea that these great public institutions had been created for that end. I realised when I began to work in museums that I was being delusional. I realised that museums were dominated by elitists who didn’t share my views.

Many of our museums were founded in the middle and later decades of the 19th century. Among the complex motivations was the perceived need to provide to the new industrial working classes opportunities to extend their knowledge, thereby to encourage responsible citizenry.

The popularity of Mechanics’ Institutes’ educational programmes, devised specifically for industrial workers, stimulated public interest in the notion of museums. Government even went so far as to enable municipal authorities to provide museums, in 1845. Thereafter followed a rush of municipal museum foundations.

It is interesting at least, and no coincidence, I fear, that so many museums were created precisely at the time when there was determined resistance to creating a more democratic political system. Many of our museums – and the same can be said for all those created right up until the First World War – were created by a society which was dominated by a small, rich, educated elite, where the majority of the adult population had no say whatsoever in the governance of the country, and where concessions to democracy had to be forced unwillingly out of the governing class, who gave way in a spirit no nobler than that of self-preservation.

Ostensibly, many of these foundations were for the benefit of the industrial working classes, but I suspect that in actuality, right from their earliest days, museums thought and ran themselves more like private clubs than public institutions founded for the benefit of the masses.

Museums may have been set up in an atmosphere of enlightenment, but this does not mean that they were democratic in nature, and I believe that exclusivity is in their DNA.

Part three of this series of blog posts looking at democracy and museums will appear later this week.

  1. Adele Chynoweth says:

    I appreciate Dr Fleming’s analysis.

    I understand too that mainstream publicly-funded museums in Australia are too dominated by middle class/elitist discourse and as for human rights content, it does exist, thank goodness but it is defined by what the middle-class/elite deem acceptable and/or exotic and as a result many narratives are marginalised or rendered invisible.

    The problem with the museum that is dominated by the educated elite is that it remains ‘unmarked’, politically neutral and academically impartial. Therefore any voice that serves as an alternative to this elitist position is viewed as intellectually inferior.

    So thank you Dr Fleming for your analysis. If we don’t name it authentically as you do then we can’t change it.

    And yes, coming from a working class background and working in an elitist museum is a hard gig.

    • David Fleming says:

      I have found myself having to explain that I come from a working-class background, because one of the tactics used by elitists to try to minimise the impact of arguments that expose elitism is to argue that I “patronise” working-class people when I talk about their needs and aspirations – as though I couldn’t possibly have any real knowledge of what those needs and aspirations might be. This is a position often adopted by middle-class commentators who have no experience of working-class life, and who can barely imagine that people with working-class origins may be able to articulate an argument on their own behalf. Perhaps my origins shouldn’t be a factor in observations about the serial failure of many museums to give a stuff about working-class people. But sometimes they are.

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