THE WORD The value of heritage to our future

As museums and galleries are able to open again from Monday, Professor Christopher Smith, executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, reflects on their importance to our post-Covid restoration

The closure of sports grounds, music festivals, concert halls, theatres, museums and galleries – and all the many places where we come together in play and to experience performance – has left a huge gap in our lives.  Young and old, rich and poor, we have all been felt a lack of something that was much more than passing time – it was enriching time.

For humans, play is one of the most natural and important activities.  It’s not something we leave behind when we grow up – it is the essence of what we are.  We perform, and we watch others perform and, in that interaction, we learn and we share.

The word recreation was first used in the sense of the "refreshment or curing of a sick person."  There’s something very telling about the fact that a word which has slid into meaning ‘time off’ at its heart is about making oneself new again. The role of culture in rebuilding health runs right across the physical, mental and emotional range. And that I think is what we have really missed – the shared experiences that build relationships and restore ourselves. 

The wealth of experiences we have in our museum and gallery sector is breath taking.  Design collections make us think about the everyday objects we use all the time, and why they work so well.  Fashion museums remind us that clothes and ornament are and always have been a critical part of humanity’s self-expression. There are museums of childhood and toys, of slavery and industry, of sex and disease, of food and of nature.  The stories we can tell over time in given places, and the connections between us across the world, bring to life the ways in which we have lived together as humans and as part of a rich natural world, and the possibilities for the future.

Museums and galleries have succeeded brilliantly in collapsing dichotomies of high and low culture; and the degree to which they have been missed up and down the country is a sign of their centrality.  The Cultural Recovery Fund which Lord Mendoza championed and spearheaded with huge energy was rightly welcomed as an attempt to bridge across this desperately difficult time for performers and institutions.  But for many of us it’s high time we got back to see old friends and find new ones among the standing collections and special exhibitions.  And there’s no doubt the sector desperately needs us to restore its fragile economy; by the end of March 2021, the UK Museums Association had recorded over 4,000 job losses in the sector due to the financial pressures of Covid-19.

It has been one of the ironies of lock down that you could spend time buying fruit and veg in a supermarket, but you couldn’t look at a still life with fruit and vegetables in a gallery.  It remains to be seen whether online shopping will remain a useful way of circumventing the queue in Tesco’s.   What about the online museum?

Almost all museums and galleries have sought to maximise their online presence and the success has been striking.  Online events and virtual platforms have brought culture and community to those who have previously been excluded by distance or disability.  There is a strong argument that we should not lose this openness, and we must carry on lowering the psychological barriers that some still feel at the gallery door.  And it’s not a one way teleport into London either – the virtual world offers the chance to become familiar with the extraordinary riches up and down the United Kingdom, especially if resources are well distributed – that’s why I was delighted that we could support UKRI’s digital innovation and engagement for museums which was targeted at smaller institutions.

So I can’t wait to get back to see the shows that were interrupted (like the AHRC and ESRC exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on refugees) and the new shows that are planned.  And I will continue to learn from the virtual collections that get richer all the time.  But more than anything, I can’t wait for that sense of joyous life affirming recreative play that comes from entering a museum or a gallery.  They are our laboratories of the imagination. We’ve missed them, and they have missed us.

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