Private Viewing: Is it time we consigned the Victorian museum to history?

Ipswich Borough Councillor Bryony Rudkin and Ipswich Museum Chief Operating Officer gather around th

Ipswich Borough Councillor Bryony Rudkin and Ipswich Museum Chief Operating Officer gather around the model of what the Ipswich Museum will look like after it undergoes renovation. Museums need to be reinvented to inspire a new generation to explore who we are as a society. - Credit: Archant

Museums & galleries are having a hard time. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke says it’s time we reinvented them for the modern age.

The archealogy series Time Team was very good at making the past come alive and making relevant to o

The archealogy series Time Team was very good at making the past come alive and making relevant to ordinary people. Modern museums need to follow their lead. - Credit: Archant

Museums and art galleries are often seen as rather austere, unsexy monoliths – unloved and consistently underfunded when they should be vital, engaging and interactive repositories of our collective past. Too often they are regarded as being boring and dull filled with dusty relics of a bygone age with little or no relevance to our modern life.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Museums and art galleries should be part of our collective identity. They should tell us stories. They should reveal who we are. They should engage our imaginations. We are always being told that times are tough, that the public purse cannot continue to be raided to support cultural events but we ignore our heritage at our peril.

The time has come to reinvent the museum. It’s time to ditch the Victorian vault approach and resuscitate our past and present it to a new generation in an engaging, interactive way that fires their imagination and makes them want to discover more.

As much as we may resist the notion, we are all the product of our collective past. Society evolves over time. Attitudes change as fashions change. Social and political history are inextricably linked.


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Change is inevitable but modern technology has speeded up the process. The communication of ideas is faster than it has ever been and the way that language changes can seem dizzying.

Museums and art galleries help us identify who we are and make sense of our past. They help us come to terms with who we are.

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A recent episode of Time Team had Tony Robinson talking about grave goods as dating evidence. He was looking at an early episode of the series in which he was using a large mobile phone (complete with telescopic antenna) and a book of road maps and said that both items would now be considered obsolete and so would be perfect dating evidence.

Museums are more concerned with our history and the world around us while art galleries take a more existential approach, looking at changes in ideas and how our national identity has evolved over time. Art tends to challenge accepted norms and help lubricate change. Art holds up a mirror to who we are now while museum artefacts examine where we have come from.

Sometimes galleries and museums can work together, particularly in areas relating to the recent past. Museums and art galleries have worked effectively when harvesting first person testimony relating to the effects of the two world wars. Museums have carried out interviews with those who experienced war first hand while art galleries have curated exhibitions which make sense of the art work created at the time.

Both try to get behind the official headlines which invariably revolve around us being stoical and plucky. Art allows us to glimpse a truer view of those years. It provides a chance to see both the fear and the resolve which was very much part of ordinary people’s lives.

It’s so easy for people to see museums and galleries as being something of a luxury but they are very much part of who we are. We should cherish our museums and galleries because they are reflections of us.

I am hugely pleased that Ipswich Borough are pursuing a lottery bid to integrate the museum, art school gallery and associated buildings on the site into one integrated heritage centre.

By making the museum and galleries exciting, relevant spaces we are reclaiming our own history and culture. So often history is only seen as political history whereas social history carries equal importance because that is the history of us all – the history of ordinary people, their thoughts, feelings and how they lived their lives.

These are the lessons we can learn from both galleries and museums. History is more than dates. History is more than a list of kings and queens, battles and different coloured governments. History is thoughts and feelings. It is opinions and social change.

As my history teacher was fond of saying. “Unless we learn from the past, we shall be condemned to repeat the same mistakes for eternity.” He was talking about the First World War at the time but the sentiment stands for all history.

Museums shouldn’t be austere, forbidding, cold, charmless places. They should be engaging and challenging. They should create an atmosphere that makes people want to interact with the exhibitions and to engage with the past. Museums and galleries should be about discovery and ideas, then people may be happier to finance them.

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