The changing role of cultural institutions

“All museums have the capacity to contribute towards social good”

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 17.05.2019

In the international museums and heritage landscape, changes are on the horizon. A growing number of cultural institutions and organisations are reconsidering their roles and missions by uncovering non-traditional perspectives on their collections and spaces. At the same time, the International Council of Museums (Icom) is in the process of revising the official definition of museums, with the intention that the new definition must acknowledge and address wider social concerns in a more direct manner. In terms of socially engaged thinking and innovative practice in the museums and heritage sector, the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester has led the way since 1999. In the context of International Museum Day 2019, we spoke to Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies and Co-director of RCMG, about the changing role of cultural institutions and how research and practice can shed new light on collections and places in a socially relevant way.

d’Land: Professor Sandell, can you tell us how RCMG developed and what its mission is today?

Richard Sandell: RCMG was created in response to an influential report, commissioned by the UK government’s Department for National Heritage in 1997, which called for the establishment of a centre of excellence to support learning and engagement in museums1. Since the inception of RCMG in 1999, we have carried out collaborative and distinctively values-led research that focuses around the social roles and potential of culture. All of our work is designed in order to equip cultural organisations to enhance their benefit to society, to diverse audiences and to communities that have traditionally had fewer opportunities to participate in and benefit from culture. Our mission today is to carry out research that stimulates new thinking and creative practice that enables cultural organisations to become more ambitious and impactful in nurturing more equitable and inclusive societies.

The theme for International Museum Day this year is Museums as Cultural Hubs: The Future of Tradition. What major changes have you observed in museums since RCMG was established twenty years ago? What challenges do you see for museums in the future, especially in relation to being – or becoming – cultural hubs?

Reflecting on the Centre’s twenty-year history, there have been so many changes – but, at the same time, some familiar and long-standing issues persist! It is exciting to see that many of the issues we were exploring in the first few years have moved from the margins of museum thinking and practice to the core. For example, the idea that museums have a part to play in addressing contemporary social issues was hotly contested in the late 1990s – today we see even the most established, perhaps conservative cultural organisations more open to the idea that they are implicated in the social and political world we inhabit and can make a unique contribution to fostering more progressive, fair and equitable societies. This is heartening and exciting – it opens up huge possibilities for the sector. At the same time, things can be slow to change and the appetite for socially engaged practice is uneven across the sector with pockets of innovation and swathes of resistance – there is much more for us all to do.

The idea of hubs is an interesting one. It speaks to the potential for museums of all kinds to take up more active and socially purposeful roles in their communities. As well as becoming hubs, museums might also think of themselves as part of broader networks for social change. My colleagues Mercy McCann and Jennifer Bergevin have been carrying out research which reveals the unique contribution that museums might make towards broader efforts to bring about more just and fair societies.

RCMG has carried out research projects with cultural organisations and artists to make room for voices and perspectives that have not traditionally been heard. In Exceptional & Extraordinary, four artists2 reinterpreted the collections of eight medical museums. How did the idea for this partnership emerge, and how has it changed perceptions of the collections among the public and the museums themselves?

The idea for the project emerged from a body of research by RCMG through which we have explored and challenged the ways in which disability – physical and mental differences – is portrayed in museums and in the public realm more broadly. Working with disability rights activists and artists over the past twenty years, we have come to recognise medical museums as key sites with enormous, untapped potential for stimulating and framing public debate about the implications of deeply entrenched negative attitudes towards disabled people. We developed a highly collaborative methodology which brought together disabled artists and museum practitioners to jointly develop new narratives of disability through exciting new artworks and performances. These works were used to stimulate and inform public debate around a single question – why are some lives more highly valued than others? The project – deeply rooted in the museums’ collections and stories – proved powerful in prompting audiences to think differently about disability – to develop more empathetic and human responses to difference. We are excited to see that the project is stimulating new approaches to portraying disability in medical museums and in museums and galleries more broadly. A new collaboration between RCMG and the Wellcome Collection will result in a brand new permanent gallery opening in September 2019 which is being shaped by this body of work.

The year 2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. It was also the year in which RCMG launched a collaboration with the National Trust3 to reinterpret places and collections with regard to LGBTQ heritage. How did you do this?

In 2016 the National Trust approached RCMG to be their lead research partner on the development of their inaugural Challenging Histories national public programme. Rachael Lennon – the Trust’s National Public Programmes Research Manager commented: “We approached RCMG right at the start. We knew the Trust had never tackled this area on this scale so we came to RCMG to address our gaps in knowledge, help us to understand the histories that had been hidden and how to present this and to build our confidence in this area”.4

Over the course of the research, the scale and ambition of the collaboration grew significantly and in 2017 Prejudice and Pride – a major public programme that sought to research and reveal previously unknown or suppressed histories of same-sex love and desire and gender diversity across the Trust’s properties in England and Wales – was launched.5 The collaboration brought previously untold LGBTQ stories into the public realm; pioneered new modes of engaging audiences around these often contested histories; experimented with new ways of using histories to build understanding and public support for contemporary LGBTQ equality; and revealed how diverse audiences engage with and respond to challenging histories in heritage settings.

With the Centre’s support, twelve National Trust properties in England and Wales presented new stories reaching 353 553 visitors. The programme generated over 500 press and media mentions. RCMG made a series of short films disseminated through the organisation’s intranet, designed to raise awareness and build commitment for LGBTQ equality across its 65 000 staff and volunteers.

It is easy to imagine that people visiting historic buildings like these were not expecting to encounter the topic of LGBTQ heritage. Many of them were probably also unfamiliar with its connections to the properties they were visiting. How did people respond?

The programme certainly challenged public expectations. We worked hard to root the stories firmly in the individual sites’ histories and, at the same time, to craft and present them in ways that resonated with the wider (and contemporary) world. Responses were wide ranging – yes, there were some negative responses and uncertainty but we also found that people stayed longer and talked more.

Although some accounts in national newspapers claimed that the Trust’s tackling of LGBTQ themes was hugely unpopular with members, volunteers and the wider public, a detailed study of audience responses by RCMG showed that 71 percent in fact supported the Trust’s celebration of sexual and gender diversity. We were overwhelmed with the positive responses – some of these were from LGBTQ community members, surprised and delighted by the programme and the Trust’s recognition of their lived experiences. Other, less expected responses came from what might be termed “traditional” country house visitors who were deeply moved by the stories they encountered and who wrote to us to say the exhibitions, films and installations we created had challenged their thinking and changed their attitudes.

Your current project HumanKind6, which is also a collaboration with the National Trust, explores the timely issue of loneliness and social isolation. How can cultural institutions contribute to tackling such social issues?

Social isolation and loneliness is a huge contemporary issue – all sorts of organisations from government to charities to businesses have been exploring how it can be tackled. Whilst some small pockets of work have been done by museums, cultural organisations in general have been largely absent from the debate. Through HumanKind we have learned that they have a unique role to play – they can prompt reflection and debate, they can challenge the stigma that continues to surround loneliness and, excitingly, they can foster more and more meaningful human connections between people, during and beyond their visit. Our installation has got people talking – and prompted them to commit to make small acts of kindness that will help to directly tackle the causes and effects of isolation. These range from starting a conversation in your own community, to checking in on a friend or neighbour… to donating your time as a volunteer or donating to a foodbank to help to alleviate the poverty that one in five of the UK are experiencing.

Finally, not all museums have the resources and expertise to reinterpret places and collections, and some might feel unsure about how to include other voices and points of view. Do you have any ideas for how they could do this on a small scale?

Yes, all museums have the capacity to contribute towards social good! Look at your local community – what pressing social issues are they facing and how might your museum contribute? Talk to groups that are involved in this work and explore what role the museum might play. This could start simply – for example, offering a space for groups to meet – and grow from there. Listen to what your community needs. Look at the kinds of narratives your museum presents – whose perspectives are missing and how might they be included? I am a fan of small as well as large acts of museum activism – changing the label that accompanies a single object to ensure the language is more inclusive can make a huge difference!

This interview was conducted via email.

1 Anderson, D. 1997. A Common Wealth: museums and learning in the United Kingdom. London: Department of National Heritage.

2 The artists were comedian Francesca Martinez, documentary film-maker David Hevey, playwright Julie McNamara and live performers Deaf Men Dancing. Details about Exceptional & Extraordinary: Unruly Minds and Bodies in the Museum are available at:

3 The National Trust is responsible for the conservation of cultural heritage sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

4 Interview with Rachael Lennon. 2017. Leicester: RCMG.

5 Details about Prejudice and Pride: LGBTQ Heritage and its Contemporary Implications are available at:

6 More on HumanKind is available at:

Laurence Brasseur
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