Why do people rally to save libraries but not museums?

An experiment capturing a conversation with Storify…

Huge thanks to everyone who contributed and let me share their comments. P.S. You know your sector is loved when there's a Ryan Gosling 'hey girl' tumblr about you…

6 thoughts on “Why do people rally to save libraries but not museums?”

  1. I suppose I would start by asking why we ask the question at all – the origins of museums and libraries are very different and it is interesting to look at why they seem to occupy a similar place in our collective psyche.

    I am not a historian, but from my limited understanding – the great museum collections originated with the passion for collecting and the fledgling era of global trade rather than an egalitarian social principle.

    Etched in the foundations of most museums is an elitist idea of academic erudition. It is only relatively recently that social development redefined them as something more educative.

    The word 'museion' translates as 'seat of the muses'. The original conception of the Muses was not as the spirits of creativity, but as abstractions to serve philosophical discourse.

    The conceptual model of a museum has always been rooted in the idea of a central authority giving a privileged form of access to their collection for the purposes of improving people.

    Literacy emerged and developed differently. As the book evolved from movable type through mass production it became much more socially egalitarian – the acquisition of literacy becoming a rite of passage for all but a relatively small part of society.

    The vision which founded the UK's public libraries was, I think, fundamentally different from that which established the great museums. I am always struck by the phrase 'street-corner universities' – the principle that libraries were a place where people could pursue their passion for knowledge in whatever direction it took them, and in the process improve their chances in life.

    The foundation of public libraries was broadly philanthropic, whereas the foundation of museums was less about people and more about erudition & status.

    I agree that the difference is bound up in class, but I think the class distinction is a reaction to, rather than a cause of, the different foundations of museums and libraries. I also think that the reason why many people feel instinctively more connected to their library is because there's something written into the DNA of public libraries that they are 'for them' – you can even extrapolate this argument to look at the difference in the physical location of museums and libraries.

    And yet museums have come so far in re-writing what it means to be a museum, but I wonder whether we have come far enough fast enough for people to feel the same kind of instinctive sense of belonging and protectiveness about their museums as they do their library.

    Another big factor, though it undoubtedly that the crisis in museums is less clearly-articulated than in libraries. People need a narrative – they need baddies and goodies, drama and pathos. The libraries situation has all that – we have short-sighted councillors and brave campaigners, key meetings and budget decisions all set against a threat to part of the infrastructure which will educate our kids. This narrative is all the more compelling because the library community and others have done a better job of articulating the value of information literacy than museums have of articulating the value of cultural literacy. So the threat is not as great, the story is not as compelling, the answers are not as clear, the loss is not as acute.

    Finally, I think that the impact of museums works in lifetimes, not headlines. The loss of the UK's museums (and the even more insidious loss of collections and cessation of future collecting) will be felt in 50 years time. The loss of the library will be felt next week.

    So, the sectors are different, and because of their origins I think they occupy different places in the national psyche, and the current issues they are facing are not the same, nor is the way they're being articulated. For this reason, I don't think the same tactics would work either – would a small group of impassioned campaigners mount a legal challenge against their own city council for withdrawing funding for their local museum?

  2. I think this conversation plays out differently in different countries.

    I was at an event last night, where the retiring Director of Australian National Maritime Museum (Mary-Louise Williams) and the Director of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum (Dr Dawn Casey) were in discussion.

    Mary Louise outlined that Australian libraries have a united voice, which means their messages are heard by the media, government and community clearly.

    She then said that the museum community in Australia did not have a comparable united voice, so the community and government didn't hear their messages of value clearly. This left the museum sector in a weak position in the context of funding cuts.

    It was interesting to get the perspective of such ‘insiders’, as opposed to members of the public whose connection to these issues are often mediated by the media.

    It was felt by the audience and both Directors that, in contrast to Australia, museums in Europe are powerful and almost have a political influence.

  3. I've popped back to post this, which helps provides some answers: "The Hancock Point Library struck me as the kind of place that works for its community: appropriate in scale, an authentic place, a 3rd place. I was telling my colleague Linda Norris about it in our weekly Skype meeting, and she made an interesting comment: why is it that so many libraries seem to have found ways to meet larger community needs (besides just the books), and so many museums have not? Libraries offer internet access, meeting space, a copy machine, a free cozy place to hang out, extended hours (the Hancock Historical Society is open 4 hours a week in the summer, compared with the library’s 20+), and so much more. There are multiple reasons to visit a library, not just one." From http://raineytisdale.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/the-power-of-10-revisited/

    And while I'm here, Nick wrote: "the foundation of museums was less about people and more about erudition & status" – though there are important exceptions…

    From http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/history/about-the-building/ and http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/history/about-the-building/about-the-building/*/viewPage/2 "In April 1824 the House of Commons agreed to pay £57,000 for the picture collection of the banker John Julius Angerstein. His 38 pictures were intended to form the core of a new national collection, for the enjoyment and education of all. … Trafalgar Square could be reached by the rich driving in their carriages from the west of London, and on foot by the poor from the East End. It was felt that in this location the paintings could be enjoyed by all classes in society."

    Alli – I wonder what Museums Australia would have to say in response? Is it easier for libraries to work together? I suppose they're not 'competing' for visitors in the same way that museums might be…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.