Thursday, June 18, 2009

Using the museum building to its full potential

The role museums play in society seems to be much under discussion in these recessionary times. One US wag has suggested they should be turned into soup kitchens, using their generally large, warm and centrally located buildings to look after inner city down and outs. The interesting broader question is whether it is entirely ethical for museums to focus on ‘higher’ aesthetic/educational/intellectual matters whilst basic social needs go unmet.

I must confess to being a bit bored by such discussions, not because they are not valid but because they lead nowhere. It’s like discussing whether the NSW Government should have contributed $3 million to completing St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney a few years back to allow two spires to be erected. No benefit whatsoever to the adjacent down and outs but a mighty aesthetic improvement.

What DOES intrigue me is what more we could do with the spaces in museums by leveraging off the subject matter they contain. I’ve always loved the idea that the Royal Society for the Arts in the UK has had of setting up coffee conversations in Starbucks. As I understand it, they place a convenor/facilitator in a high street Starbucks at a regular appointed time, who choses a subject and invites the coffee drinkers to stay a while and get into a good debate.

Wouldn’t museums be such good places to do that, acting as convening places and drawing people into lively discussions, using one of their exhibits as a focal or starting point. It doesn’t have to be for ever – just something that is tried and if it takes off so much the better.

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