Appreciating the Changing Role of Museums

Appreciating the Changing Role of Museums

By Tot Foster, 30th May 2022

In this blog post, Connecting Through Culture, Tot Foster reflects on two events she recently attended that were hosted in museum spaces. Tot highlights the tension that can exist between the characteristics of contemporary cultural events being hosted within museums today and the traditions of the museum space itself.  

On one day last week, the 26th May, I attended two museum events.  

The first was a conversation between Abiti Adebo Nelson from the Uganda National Museum and Dr Kate Moles from Cardiff University organised by EdJAM. They were talking about their project that takes objects from the museum in Kampala into distant rural schools to encourage informal conversation, storytelling and performance – offering a space in which experiences of violence could be shared and ‘amplifying’ intangible memories of conflict and reconciliation by using those objects as conduits for storytelling and connection. I have to say I was bowled over by hearing about what they are doing; the ambition of the project and then the gentleness and deep sensitivity around stories and emotion from individuals and communities; unearthing shared understandings that can be mobilised for reconciliation. However, I also sensed a tension between these stories and the collection, preservation and heritage narrative associated with objects curated in a national museum.  

The same tension came up at Grayson Perry night at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. My friend was running a multi-coloured-felted-moustache-making workshop and supplied us with elastic rather than glue to hold the moustaches on, in case anyone felt tempted to stick a moustache on an exhibit. That said, Bristol Museum has my total respect in running an event that was about as eclectic and liberating as it gets in a formal museum setting. It was all about letting our creativity run wild; lots of dressing up and making elements of costume to change our appearance. Then anyone could walk onto a catwalk to show off their creations to the cheers of the assembled crowd. Two co-researchers on the Connecting through Culture project also went. They noted how many young people there were and got stuck into the creative making activities. I thought it was brilliant.  

In both these museum projects there was a sense of creating a space in which the community could express themselves, a move away from the paternalistic and colonial power structures that define what should be collected, kept and described. I had attended events previously about the need for decolonisation and disruption of power in museums – here it was happening in Uganda. At Bristol museum I was participating. For both projects I could see how some people were liberated to be themselves and be seen or heard. In that moment that the museum connected with people who don’t usually visit because the museum doesn’t feel like it belongs to them, the idea of museum was redefined and power dynamics shifted. As a researcher on Connecting through Culture, these events, just hours apart, gave me pause to reflect on our research. It validated for me personally both the importance the project places on understanding life trajectories and also our broad definition of culture; it’s not just about material artefacts and performance, it’s about connection and engagement; the support of community.  

My day ended with a questionnaire in my inbox – how was the night at the Museum? Does it make you more likely to visit the museum again? Yes, I think it does – but then I am a person who visits museums anyway. I hope the museum changes so that everyone else comes back on an ordinary day too.  

You can read more about the EdJAM project here:  

Mobile exhibition in Post conflict Northern Uganda