Thirty-three years ago the eyes of the world were on the Soviet cruiser the SS maxim Gorkey, anchored off Marsaxlokk bay in Malta. During the first weekend of December 1989, whilst battered by a fierce storm and rough seas, onboard this cruiser, President Bush and Chairman Gorbachev marked the end of the cold between east and west. The world was happy as it ushered in a new era of peace. Europe rejoiced as Poland and the other Baltic states took their place among the free nations of the world. Over the next years, East European countries which for years had been under communist rule joined the European Union.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago when social media feeds were constantly bombarded by posts of people suffering trampling of their human rights because they were expected to wear masks and encouraged to be vaccinated for COVID19. This plethora of human suffering and first world problems suddenly turned into oblivion and irrelevance on the 24th of February as the first posts of the real human tragedy started filtering in from Ukraine.
The shock of seeing the belligerent mightly Russian war machine invade another sovereign much smaller European state suddenly hit our social media. Scenes of families with children taking shelter in underground stations and basements as missiles rained on their homes were surreal. Initially many of the people I spoke to could not understand how this was happening in 2022 but over the coming days, many started realising that war’s darkness had truly descended upon Europe. The relative peace enjoyed in Europe over the last years has led many to forget that what happens in one of the furthest corners of Europe would inevitably rock the continent’s fragile peace. In today’s connected world the ripples of the effects of war are felt even faster than ever before, and no hiding of heads in the sand will be spared of its reality.
I watched the heart-wrenching scenes of young fathers, suddenly enrolled as soldiers, tearfully kissing their wives and young children goodbye hoping that it would not be the last time they saw them. People fleeing with the few possessions they could carry but trying to take with them their pets. The generosity of Poland as it opened its borders allowed these desperate refugees to stream in away from Putin’s murderous invasion. Around the free world, Volodymyr Zelensky’s persona shot to fame and admiration which no amount of horse riding, bare-chested Putin videos could ever achieve.
As I watched all this human tragedy start to unfold I had a moment of deep existential despair as I suddenly started to see history repeat itself. Just like Europe had mishandled Nazi Germany between WWI and WWII, it had once again miscalculated Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. If we’ve learnt nothing from history then were museums just repositories filled with old forgotten objects? If museums are not helping us common people of the world learn from past mistakes then we who dedicate our life and efforts to museums are failing in our mission.
Yet rather than giving up, times like these should fill up anyone passionate about the power of museums, with a resolve to make them more relevant and stronger than before as instruments of change.
Museums and galleries should be places where we can learn from our past. Where objects and narratives can offer visitors priceless lessons as a result of past tragedies, common history and remarkable artefacts on display. This need becomes even truer in times of conflict like these days.
Responding to the needs and expectations of museum audiences
Over the last months, I have been actively involved in projects and research trying to understand museum audiences, their motivations and expectations when visiting museums. I am particularly intrigued by younger audiences, especially those succeeding Millennials known as zoomers or Generation Z. This particular audience group not only expects to interact with displays involved in museum displays but wants to be directly involved and in control of the museum experience. These post-millennials are the true digital natives and will make up a significant potential of future museum audiences in the next decade. They are without a doubt a very important audience cohort that has significantly different expectations than other audiences.
If we expect museums to be relevant places of engagement and learning then we must ensure that they meet audience expectations. If we look at the current audiences at different cultural venues, such as museums or the theatre, one will immediately notice that the current audience base is primarily baby boomers, with millennials thinning out. Museums are clearly finding it harder to attract Generation Zs, which paints a somewhat bleak picture for museum relevance in the future.
Museums need to be able to respond quickly and effectively to changing social and world realities. How can museums remain relevant if they ignore escalating tensions between nations such as the ones we are experiencing right now. Social issues such as sexuality, human rights, gender equality, poverty and migration.
For our museums to remain relevant they need to move away from being simply collection based repositories and instead must engage with their communities to help them discuss and understand complex societal issues. Only like this will museums be contributing towards helping society and humanity become better. Visitors do not simply visit war museums to look at old swords, huge cannons and generals in uniform, they are interested in stories, in hearing both sides possibly of these events, finding out what common people went through during wars. Stories about humanities are what museums should be about, collections and artefacts are there to illustrate these narratives. Museums can bring whole communities together and help them focus on what unites a community rather than issues that divide them. Museums must be bold enough to tackle hot issues which may attract criticism from those who disagree with the exhibits. Museums have the unique power to offer understanding and knowledge as the antidotes to hatred and ignorance.
The significant developments in digital technology over the last years can help transform museums from places where you learn through observation to places of interaction, participation and engagement. This is exactly what younger generations expect from museums.
In times like these museums need to look within themselves and see if they are truly, effectively and continuously addressing social and existential problems. The challenge for museums is big but the opportunities are bigger.