Loss of relevance is the biggest threat facing museums
Lucimara Letelier, 10.10.2018
Why should we wait for atrocities to remind the public that museums matter?
I opened my speech as the only Brazilian speaker at a museum conference in London earlier this year by saying “museums are dying”. My argument was that this was due to loss of relevance, but I could not have imagined that the real death of one of our major museums in Brazil would take place literally three months later. It was devastating.
In the week of the fire, we achieved the highest level of media coverage ever for a niche topic in mass communication: museums! As our heritage is often, mistakenly, seen as relevant only to preservation specialists and museum professionals, the visibility unlocked by this tragedy was by far the biggest ever for the sector and its causes.
After the painful episode of the fire at Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, museums were at the forefront of the mind and heart of all Brazilians, even if just for a moment in history.
Do we have to wait for atrocities to call attention to the relevance of museums? Can we actually extract what this tragic episode can teach us about the future of museums?
With those questions in mind, we must examine this painful episode above and beyond the usual causes attributed to disasters of such magnitude. This will allow us to expand this learning to the context of museums’ global challenges.
What happened at the Museu Nacional has unfortunately occurred to other major museums and collections in Brazil - and other countries - before now. The lack of a security and fire prevention plan, and a long-term financial crisis exacerbated by the lack of a consistent public policy, brought these institutions to their cruel destiny.
Museu Nacional was extremely iconic for multiple reasons - the perfect symbol of the broader fight from all Brazilian museums seeking to enhance the sector as a whole. But while the causes of the tragedy outlined above are fairly accurate, what is not often mentioned is that they all descend from the lack of relevance museums are facing.
Museu Nacional was our oldest museum. The first museum of our nation. It once held the largest collection of natural history and anthropology at Latin American (20 million objects gone) and it was our oldest scientific institution. Yet that was not enough for the public and private sectors, or civil society, to recognise its relevance and protect our heritage. Why?
There is a desperate call for museums to interconnect their knowledge, resources and collections to the major crises and causes of our time. As much as it is important to recognise the precious work that Museu Nacional and other museums have done to collect, preserve and research our 200 years of history, there is a new call for museums’ action to go beyond that, which has not necessarily yet been heard.
Museums are being challenged to diversify their content, actions, audiences, communities and staff, which has a direct impact on their ability to diversify their income. The case of Museu Nacional, as with others that are dependent on one or very few sources of funding, calls into question how diversified its course of action was.
Diversification in multiple areas of museum work can build resilience to protect museums from situations like this, which are most common in developing or emerging economies but can potentially happen anywhere.
The interfaces between museums’ core mission and social causes, sustainability agendas, digital and tech culture, community needs and territorial development, have recently become much more important to contemporary relevance then the ability to ensure our past is safeguarded. Paradoxically, the ability to prioritise the present and the future can save what we preserved in the past. It is the link with the present that highlights the relevance of the past and redirects it to serve the future.
In many ways, following this route may be an invitation for museums to leave their comfort zones and innovate and reinvent themselves collectively by embracing conflicts, talking about diversity, committing to decolonisation, indigenisation, repatriation, green sustainability and a genuine inclusion of marginalised communities, and incorporating these issues into their main narrative in order to shape this new path.
Failing to respond to this call in time will delay the process of change required for a real revitalisation of our museums. Denying it will prevent us from breathing new life into the museum ecosystem or fostering a sense of belonging among the public, who will in turn lose their commitment to protect and save museums when the time comes.