The future of museums: ‘soft power’ and the hard sell

Perhaps surprisingly, museums are thriving in the digital age, but they must commit to constant innovation in order to capture the attention and loyalty of their audiences

The main quadrangle at the British Museum in London. Photograph: Getty Images

‘Soft power” refers to winning people over on the basis of cultural appeal and ethical values, as opposed to more conventional diplomatic strategies or brute economic or military force. It’s by no means a novel concept, but it has particular contemporary relevance in a fractious, crowded, pluralistic world.

MuseumNext is a peripatetic series of conferences on the future of museums that begins its Dublin iteration today. Among the subjects it will address is the idea of museums as agents of soft power.

This strand is organised by the Knowledge Quarter, a broad partnership that encompasses academic, cultural, research, scientific and media organisations in one small area of London. Within a one-mile radius, including King's Cross, Bloomsbury and Euston, the richness of the Knowledge Quarter partners – including the British Museum, the British Library, the Wellcome Trust, the Guardian and the University of the Arts – is breathtaking.

An exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Lynn Scarff of the Science Gallery in Dublin

If museums are agents of soft power, whose interests do they represent? Miki Lentin of the British Library takes the broadest possible view. Museums should, he says, serve "anyone and everyone". As a stakeholder in Knowledge Quarter, he believes in the availability of knowledge to anyone who is interested. Knowledge Quarter is, he says "a modern manifestation of a 'live museum'. . . Technologically connected, networked and collaborative, we believe that all our partners should impact everyone, from any background."


‘Deep understanding’

Lynn Scarff, director of Dublin's Science Gallery, takes a more nuanced view: "There is a critical need for museums to have a deep understanding of what the interests and needs of their audiences really are before they engage in programming or strategy that falls within the realm of 'soft power'. We need to bring our audiences with us, give them opportunities to participate and magnify their voices." She prioritises engaging "with audiences that do not traditionally come to or participate in cultural spaces".

Ngaire Blankenberg, European director of Lord Cultural Resources and the co-author of Cities, Museums and Soft Power, says: "Today, museums only have soft power if they are accountable to citizens and their communities and if they are perceived as being relevant and legitimate by these same citizens. If not, no matter how cool their exhibitions or buildings are, their impact will likely only be fleeting."

She points out that, although museums may be legislatively guaranteed independent institutions, they do have boards, and generally need ancillary funding, “and it would be naive to say that these have no bearing on the way museums operate”.

There have been advances, however. “Many national museums were used to legitimate notions of cultural superiority and colonialism. We would call these ‘hard power’ museums.”

She says cities are becoming increasingly significant even if they have not yet supplanted the role of nation states. Cities “are at the front line of big issues of our day . . . Municipal governments must manage refugee settlement, for example, or flooding from extreme weather, or crime or terrorism. Cities make a different appeal to people than countries. Country citizenship is given by a passport – it is a highly politicised, highly controlled process, but people claim belonging to a city because of how much they feel at home there. Museums can help people to feel at home, but not if they aren’t trusted, respected or seen as worthy to visit.”

The very word “museum” might suggest fixity and stability, but museums are ever-evolving. “We should be in a constant state of transformation,” says Scarff. “Coming from a space like Science Gallery, where we have no permanent collection and a constantly changing programme with a focus on events, this is perhaps easy for me to say.”

Lentin sees Knowledge Quarter as being “as much a laboratory as a museum: research has the potential to spread beyond the four walls of a physical building into the device or mind of the individual who interacts with it. The sharing of research and information has become a major factor of people’s working lives, and by blending sectors such as science, research, culture, music, technology and information we have been able to create networks that demonstrate the fluidity of research and knowledge.”

Blankenberg notes that although museums might not be “the gold standard of institutions that have ‘transformed with the time’ in terms of their internal structures” they do respond to visitors. But also, she says, “We should not undervalue the importance of stability. Despite horrific budget cuts that have forced many to close, museums on the whole tend to be able to exist for far longer than other cultural projects. There are more museums today than ever before.”

Co-operative strategies

Cuts are a reality, and she sees them as having spurred alternative, co-operative strategies on the part of institutions. But apart from cuts, creative partnerships are pursued for their own sake: “It makes sense to have a networked approach to community engagement.”

Scarff similarly sees an increase in communication and co-operation. “I think as a group of professionals we recognise what we can learn from each other. However, what I think we are only beginning to tap into is what we can learn from other sectors.”

She mentions starts-ups, branding, for-profit practice. The Science Gallery is quite good at the difficult task of attracting younger visitors, but she cites an old saying to the effect that you visit museums three times in your life: “Once as a child, once as a parent and once as a grandparent. That is the reality for many spaces, which lose young audiences specifically in the young-adult years from 15 to 25 years old.”

Lentin believes museums must be proactive and points to Knowledge Quarter’s recently established higher apprenticeship scheme as two ways of reaching young local communities. There is work to be done here, Blankenberg acknowledges. “As the baby boomers age, and fertility rates in Europe decline, museum visitors are also getting older.” There is no quick fix; museums will have to win their audiences.

All three are very positive about technological change. “What is critical is that we don’t programme for technological development but rather we look to how [it] can enhance the visitor experience,” says Scarff. “At our core as cultural spaces we are about great storytelling and compelling experiences; whether that is done by a human or an iPad on wheels, the quality of the story has to be paramount.”

For Lentin, “it may seem counterintuitive in a digital age, but today’s knowledge economy and tomorrow’s growth sectors need the right physical spaces and environments to thrive . . . In the 21st century, we’ve seen that the physical environments that museums and academic centres provide are even more important as places of collaboration.”

Blankenberg makes another similar point: “In the internet age there is a danger that if it is not accessible online, it doesn’t exist. Given that a tiny percentage of museum collections worldwide, representing millennia of knowledge, are digitised, this is scary.”

Is it a paradox that, in the digital age, museums and galleries have managed to flourish? It certainly is if they are viewed strictly as repositories of information of one form or another, but they are much more than that. As Charlotte Klonk puts it in the title of her study of the evolution of art gallery interiors from the beginning of the 19th century, they are "spaces of experience".

Klonk alludes to a famous sequence in Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 film, Bande á Part (right), in which a group races through the Louvre. The camera pans at speed past a succession of prominent masterpieces. Klonk presumes the radical new-wave director was pointing out the obsolescence of static paintings in the age of the moving image. But, she points out: "Neither film nor television has been able to dislodge the attraction of the self-absorbed, lingering gaze in the museum."

She suggests that “museums are the last public space left in which dialogue and interaction between visitors is encouraged. We do not sit quietly in the dark, as we do in theatres and cinemas, or on our own, or as we do in front of a computer terminal.”

Look at a succession of chronological images of museum interiors and it is clear that what has changed is not only the nature and mechanics of display. Increasingly, presumed canons are revised and cultural definitions and priorities are broadened. The Natural History Museum on Merrion Square, for example, is itself a museum piece, a Victorian artefact, and is celebrated as such.