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Biomedicine in museums

What is 'the inclusive museum'? Part 2

I think Sniff raised some timely questions in her post last Friday about the upcoming International Conference on the Inclusive Museum (to be held in Leiden in early June)—especially what the meaning of the buzz-word ‘inclusion’ is, and why museums should be ‘inclusive’.

The ‘Scope and Concerns’ page of the conference website is an intriguing programme document. As I read it, the organisers’ argument for ‘the inclusive museum’ runs approx. as follows:

  1. ‘this time of fundamental change’ asks for new roles for museums.
  2. there is no universal visitor any more (at least not in the ‘old’ sense).
  3. on the contrary, museums visitors are a diverse crowd, and there are many dimensions of diversity.
  4. how does then participation in museums work?
  5. the answer is to be open (inclusive) to all these forms of diversity—which in turn involves two things:
  6. first, the recognise the particularity of visitors,
  7. and, second, to create new forms of universality, “where every visitor is allowed the space to create their own meanings, where no visitor is left out”.
  8. this new inclusivity involves new forms of engagement which introduces new forms of active participation on the side of ‘visitors’: “a blurring of roles, between producers and consumers of knowledge, between creators and readers of culture, and between the person in command and the person consenting”.
  9. the new inclusivity also involves new modalities of representation, especially those based on digital technologies.

What they basically say, I think, is that museums need to cater for a more diverse crowd of demanding visitors, and that this necessitates a more creative use of digital media technology.

Not a particularly revolutionary conclusion! But what’s more interesting is, to relate to Sniff’s questions, why this process is described in terms of ‘the inclusive museum’. Is this really the best way to conceptualise what is going on in ‘this time of fundamental change’ (globalisation)?

Isn’t the current change in the role of museums better understood in terms of ‘marketization’? In other words, instead of thinking of globalisation as a process of cultural ‘inclusivity’, isn’t the changing role of museums better conceptualised in terms of their economic transformation—away from being state institutions in which academic and curatorial elites control the collections and exhibitions, and towards new forms of market-oriented corporations? Rather than serving a diversity of ‘particular visitors’, aren’t they becoming more oriented to the needs of consumers, using the best available sales and advertisement methods available, including digital technologies?

I believe marketization has a lot of positive consequences for museums (dont’ forget that many museums, not least art museums, have always operated on market conditions with excellent results). There are many good reasons to open up for a more two-way communication between buyers and sellers of cultural experiences, and to open up for a larger degree of reciprocality in the production and appreciation of cultural heritages (consumer influence). And nobody would probably disagree that digital media technology is here to stay (cf. museums and web 2.0).

But there are also negative consequences of this marketization, for example, a profound risk for lowering the quality of museums, especially in cultural history museums which are not used to operate on the market. And I believe these negative consequences are better understood and opposed if one avoids the fluffy notion of ‘the inclusive museum’, and instead takes a more unsentimental and realistic view of what is going on in the museum world.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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