While sitting waiting for someone in the museum offices yesterday, I picked up a copy of the Museums Journal (as you do. It just about beats staring at the walls) and it made for interesting reading. One article did, anyway. It listed the results of a phone poll of 3,600 people in London, who were asked how often they visited museums, and which areas of museums interested them most. Quite a few people said they had visited a museum in the last year, or would consider visiting one. Not too surprising (although I have a sneaking suspicion the figure might be inflated – if asked most people will probably say yes…nobody likes to be seen as uncultured!), but it was the figures for ‘top areas of interest’ that interested me most. At the top of the list, with 82% of people showing an interest, was natural history. Next was ancient history, cultures and civilisation, local history, and then down in fifth (with 66% of people being interested) was famous artists.
Which may not be fascinating to many people, but it intrigues me. One of my pet peeves with museums is the amount of money that gets invested in art galleries compared to other departments. I know that art galleries are important to museum directors because they bring in the most money – art collectors tend to be quite well-off, and they donate lots of money and lovely important works of art. So art galleries get a lot of investment because they are nice cash cows, while other departments remain neglected and understaffed because they bring in very little revenue. I have seen natural history departments left without a single curator to look after the collections because there is no money to replace staff, while at the same time the art sections of the same museums are expanded, and I’ve seen archaeology displays ripped out to make way for more modern art gallery space (contemporary art only got 47% in the London poll, while ancient history got 78%).
These are the areas that really interest the general public, but they are being sidelined as art becomes more important in museums. It baffles me. Yes, art is important, and I know it makes money, but dinosaurs and stuffed animals and mummies are what children go to museums to see!
And yes, I know I’m biased, because I am a natural historian and obviously I think my subject should be most important, but this seems to be a widespread trend in museums now. And more than anything I find it sad, because kids going to smaller museums these days will see fewer displays on the subjects that really interest them, and be able to learn less about the history of life and of different cultures and all the things that inspire kids to want to go see the world and do exciting things like dig up dinosaurs, or discover new species and lost civilisations, because some of the smaller museums may end up having to downsize their collections as the cost of their care becomes greater than the revenue they create. In the end museums are a business, and everything in business comes down to money.
But most importantly, if natural history is dropped from museums I’ll be out of a job!