'Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.' ~ The Museums Association
Learning and access are supposed to be central to the purpose of all museums, but I'm not entirely sure that all museum staff are aware of this. Consistently high numbers of school children trudging around museums throughout the land in groups of thirty at a time suggest that they are welcoming places for those who want to learn, and I thoroughly enjoyed every visit I went on when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Some museums host regular 'handling days', activities for the young and the such like, and with the governmental pressure that's put on them these days to become 'attractions', rather than institutions responsible for safeguarding our heritage, the number of 'social' activities available has risen... with lights, shows and widgets to boot in some cases. But what about those of us whose interests lie beyond these social events, or demonstrations of this ceremony or that, whilst being offered lumps of stale cheese on a stick? What if your desire to study an object or collection goes beyond the normal couple of hours trundling around after a tour guide or teacher, and your request for access involves a curator giving up time to find an object that isn't on display in order to make it available to you?
I've met some wonderful museum staff. They've been so helpful and have given up a huge amount of their time despite being rushed off their feet. I feel very fortunate to have met them and have the greatest respect for them. At the same time, I've encountered some of the most pretentious, self-important... well, not wanting to mince words... plonkers you could ever wish to meet; individuals who weren't just unhelpful, they were deliberately obstructive. The idea that a member of the general public should be permitted access to the collections not on display, the 'inner sanctum' if you like, and that they should be required to actually take part in such sacrilege, was downright offensive to them.
Obviously, the primary concern of a museum is to safeguard the objects themselves. That must always come first. The second concern, surely, is to make those objects available for the purpose of education, research and enjoyment... or else, what is the point of them being in a museum in the first place? They may as well be in the safe of that type of private collector who takes them out twice every decade in dim light before whisking them back in again.
One of those plonkers I referred to felt obliged, though I don't know why (I suppose it may have been the amount of wine he'd consumed), to explain his reasoning when it came to keeping priceless artefacts away from the rabble. Collections, he explained at a gathering of like-minded stuffed shirts (myself excluded from that description), should be made available to those who can understand their significance and advance scholarship... not bus drivers and secretaries. How exactly are we to advance scholarship and understanding, or even inspire a desire in future generations to do so, if we restrict access? And what about the Museums Association's definition of what museums do... they 'safeguard and make accessible' objects which they 'hold in trust for society'. I see 'accessible' and 'society' in there. The former word does not mean 'lock up for all time' and I think the latter includes bus drivers and secretaries.
I've even heard it suggested that the display cases and walls of museums should be filled with replicas, so that the originals can be locked away. Whilst I can very much see the sense in that when it comes to fragile objects that may be irreparably damaged due to being on public display (I'm thinking of poor old King Tut's tomb here), what on earth would be the point in going to the Louvre to see a copy of the Mona Lisa? Or to the Orsay to see a copy of Manet's Olympia? Turn the Marmottan into a showcase for fake water lillies, and fill the British museum with painted resin 'antiquities', and then twenty academics can study the genuine articles while the rest of us fiddle with interactive displays and gawp at genuine 21st century original Neolithic pottery.
The objects housed in museums can be enjoyed by anyone... any old Tom, Dick or Harry can find himself swept away by a Tissot or a Renoir. It's true, you don't need a masters degree to like art - who knew? And it's that initial feeling of being swept away that can lead to a much deeper interest, a quest for knowledge, and eventually a request for special access to view the rest of a collection. That's how it all started for me with Japanese prints. One minute I was a teenager worrying about my homework, the next I was obsessed and inflicting myself on various museums for hours at a time.
When someone asks me what they should do to learn more about Japanese prints, I tell them to read everything they can get their hands on and then to go and find museums with collections and ask to see them, so they can get a feel for them. I've been surprised by the number of people who've come back to me and said they were made to feel like a nuisance by the staff they contacted. If not for people with a genuine and deep interest and a great desire to learn, who on earth are these collections being preserved for? If not to promote a wider understanding and greater level of appreciation, why do museums exist at all?
So, what do you think? Are museum resources so limited that staff should not waste their time providing access to items not on display to anyone who doesn't have the right credentials (naturally, this excludes bus drivers and secretaries)? Is the move towards widget-infested interactive doo-dahs a good thing? Who doesn't like pressing buttons to make things move/flash after all? Can objects that never see the light of day really be said to have been preserved for 'society'? Do you feel that the atmosphere in museums is generally welcoming? Exclusive? Inspiring? Uncomfortable?