What makes a good museum?

  • Published 16 May 2012

Lord Chris Smith, Chair of the 2012 Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries, reflects on how museums can become inspiring places that capture the imagination.

Lord Chris Smith

Lord Chris Smith

One of the great delights of my life for the past eight years or so has been my role as Chairman of the Trustees of the Wordsworth Trust. The Trust owns Dove Cottage at Grasmere in the Lake District - the place where Wordsworth wrote most of his greatest poetry - together with a cluster of houses around it, including our Museum and the Collections Centre, which houses valuable manuscripts, paintings, watercolours, books and papers. (Over the years, we’ve been assisted wonderfully by the generosity of the Art Fund, among many other donors.)

We hold an astonishing collection, including some 90% of all Wordsworth’s existing papers and manuscripts, and can show them in the very place where they were written. To be able to see the original text and annotations for The Prelude, or for Dorothy’s Journal, and to look out of the window at the fells, streams and lake about which they were written - this is indeed special.

The Trust was founded more than 100 years ago ‘for the eternal possession of those who love English poetry all over the world’. The visit to Dove Cottage itself, with the fire lit and informative guides taking small groups of visitors round the tiny house, has always been at the heart of the experience visitors have had. They then go on to the museum, to see some of the manuscripts, glorious paintings of the people and places, Wordsworth’s umbrella and skates, and to hear poetry being read.

Bringing the collections to life at the Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere

Bringing the collections to life at the Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere

But one of the things that has gradually been dawning on us is that for many years we’ve assumed a level of audience knowledge about poetry, Romanticism, Wordsworth and his contemporaries that doesn’t necessarily exist. It does, of course, among scholars and students, but not always among the general visitor public. And we need to find ways of engaging, exciting and informing them that we haven’t dreamt of before.

I suspect this is a journey that many museums and galleries are now embarking on. In the past, it was possible to rely on a body of received cultural knowledge and experience as a ‘given’ amongst an expected audience. Now, however, we can’t assume such a background, and in any case we want to break out from seeking just an expected audience, and to gather in the unexpected too. So the task becomes one not so much of educating a knowledgeable audience but of helping to create one.

To do so, we need to entice, inspire and explain. Instead of assuming a reasonable degree of familiarity with Romanticism and the period of the French Revolution, we have to help people seize hold of sweeping ideas about the relationship of man with nature, about individual liberty and the state, and about the turbulent times that brought these to the fore. We have to tell the story of what our museum is, and what it represents, better than we’ve ever done before.

There’s something else we’re gradually discovering, too. Putting a manuscript in a glass case with a parallel text in print beside it, and even with an audio version available too, can be a not-very-immersive experience for the visitor. Finding better ways of presenting manuscripts and texts and bringing them to life is something we’re now spending a lot of time exploring. While still respecting the primary importance of ‘the real thing’, we can surely find lots of ways - through sound, lighting, technology, explanation and presentation - of making the object come alive to the audience.

British Museum visitors inspect one of the pieces included in A History of the World

British Museum visitors inspect one of the pieces included in A History of the World

It’s a dilemma that applies to all museums based around objects, and the history and ideas they embody, but it’s perhaps most acute for manuscript-based collections. We do know, though, from the success of initiatives such as Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, that when the connection is made between object, history, ideas, and the imagination of the audience, then rich possibilities arise and something rather wonderful occurs. Making that connection is what the museums and galleries of today have to strive for.

This is a challenge, too, for art galleries - where the relationship between the visitor and the paintings and sculptures they are seeing may be more immediate than with manuscripts but nonetheless can never be taken for granted. Some of my favourite museums around the world are those collections that have been put together by individuals, and reflect the eclectic, individualistic but remarkable tastes of their creators.

These wonderful personal collections, though, have some particular dilemmas. How do you engage the visitor simultaneously with the individual works of art, with the connections between sometimes disparate things, and with the story of their choice and collection? And how do you refresh the familiar - especially when the element of familiarity may well be part of the value of the experience for some visitors?

I believe that the answer to these dilemmas has to be the same as it is for the manuscripts dilemma or for the absence-of-prior-knowledge dilemma. It has to be about exciting the visitor with the ideas behind and around the object, enabling connections to be made, imagination to be aroused, and a story to be told and heard.

The quality of the original work has to be the starting point. Without quality, without something that will indeed inspire and excite, it’s almost impossible to create the connections. Some art centres and museums have indeed been set up ignoring this cardinal rule, and have failed as a result. This was of course the most compelling problem with the Millennium Dome: it was a wonderful building in search of a content, and that is the wrong way round to approach these things.

Quality of content first - that’s the necessary but not the sufficient starting point. Then you have to think about the story the content tells, and is part of. And if you let your imagination fly while you’re doing that, and if you think of the audience and how they’ll react, you’ve probably got a rather good museum on your hands.

Find out more about the Art Fund Prize.

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