When considering the theme of responsibility in response to the relationship between academics and curators two key questions arise; what is the responsibility of museums as public institutions and research centres in portraying history to the public, and how does this shared responsibility link curators and historians? Following on from the first session on History, this session will debate the nature of museums’ ‘responsibilities’, and will explore how this links with questions surrounding who gets to write history.

The idea that museums are socially responsible institutions is far from new. Traditionally, museums’ responsibility to the public was conceived as being tied to their role in assembling, researching and conserving collections, and disseminating the knowledge associated with them to the public. This role was bound up in unequal power relations, however, and museums came to be seen as temples of the dominant in society, reifying their principles and beliefs. The discussions on the potential power of the permanent exhibition in creating historical, national and political narratives highlights the need for historians and curators to recognise their responsibility. Yet there is little consensus on who historians and curators have a responsibility to and what form this should take.

In recent decades, museums have sought to move away from their traditional monocultural identities, and have embraced cultural diversity. They no longer concentrate merely on the histories of dominant social groups, and instead seek to engage with histories of those traditionally excluded from museum narratives.

However, ‘responsibility’ continues to be a contested term in relation to museums. The influence of public history has resulted in an interrogation of curatorial authority and of the narrow, binary conceptions of curators versus community. Museums are increasingly called on to work collaboratively with communities, and are seen to have a responsibility to include public voices in exhibitions, rather than simply disseminate historical narratives to them.

 

Questions

This session will reflect on the issues these shifts raise:

  • are the curator and historian ethically obligated to make the public aware of historical events, figures and movements?
  • or, does this presuppose that it is the prerogative of the academic or museum to decide what constitutes history?
  • should we be moving beyond the simple ‘dissemination’ models towards permanent exhibitions that acknowledge multiple histories and include public voices?
  • do museums have a responsibility to try to effect social change, or, would acting as agents for social transformation require that academics and museums decide on a ‘truth’ in a way that contradicts the imperative to represent multiple histories?
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