In search of social relevance: The state of museums – Reflections from Central Europe

by Constantin Greiner |

Anyone who has kept a close eye on museum work over the last few years will have seen many institutions having great difficulty carrying out to the full all the duties expected of them. Fortunately, there are still some dazzling examples of those who have indeed succeeded in bringing us impressive work but, sadly, these remain the exception. We cannot be beguiled by new and repeated reports of record visitor numbers. Only a handful of museums and galleries achieve these records and fill their spaces with a broad audience. Admissions to the others are falling year on year.

For many of the medium to large museums it seems that the gap between the inward-facing areas of work (research and training) and outward-facing tasks (communication and entertainment) is becoming too great. Fulfillment of the ever-increasing demands in just one of these fields alone presents many museums with significant challenges (especially in view of the current resourcing environment). Fundamental differences between the various beneficiaries and target groups mean that the demands behind every area of work also differ.

There are some astonishing examples of ‘succés d’estime’ whereby some institutions really consolidate their position in society but this happens all too rarely. As a result, the municipal museums lose not only visitors but, above all, their social relevance. And it is now the middle-classes who barely ever make their way to a museum for they see the contents as not of any contemporary relevance and the ‘visitor experience’ as boring. As long as this section of the public stays away, it is actually irrelevant whether this criticism is accurate or whether it is simply a matter of prejudice.

This paper will not go on to deal with weaknesses or shortcomings in the field of museum leadership. What needs far greater attention is this: how museums can get back their social relevance and how museums can get closer to the middle-classes. A brief review of the development of museums themselves should help us do this.

It all started with the collective loss of a civil society
The first buildings constructed specifically to exhibit the most varied of objects went up around 250 years ago and these marked the beginnings of what later became known as museums. These had become necessary because more and more collections were coming into being up and down the country. The burgeoning middle-class at that time was one of the most powerful drivers behind these new collections, indeed in many places dedicated associations were founded (a case in point being the Kunst-Societät, or Art Society, in 1792 at Nuremberg or the Wiener Kunstverein, or Viennese Art Association, in 1830.) There were no limits as to what was considered collectable. Objects ranged from artefacts of a rather whimsical nature from distant lands to pieces of scientific and technical interest. Rarely were there the distinct boundaries we now see between different types of collection.

The members of these associations were largely preoccupied with capturing the innovative and introducing this into everyday life by means of a collection. Collections brought together by these associations were, in their fundamental thinking, related to the baronial treasure chambers of the Baroque period. This active period of collecting can be seen as a form of development in social emancipation. Bourgeois citizens no longer wanted to leave the creation of collections to representatives of the state. With the advent of museum buildings and the associated exhibitions, the right place and the right medium was found to share these new impressions with the rest of the community. A distinctive feature of the collections at this time of enlightenment was the fact that middle-class collectors were quite unable to turn their backs on those topics and questions which were socially current. In fact it was precisely these people who shaped these very topics. This meant that the development of museums and the development of society were safeguarded by the very fact that they had quite naturally fallen into step with one another. It was because of this that the issue of relevance did not come into question.

The museum bids farewell to society’s middle-classes
As collections increased in size, so a ‘professionalisation’ of museums took place. Instead of being directed by several members of an association which, not unusually, may have been led by a painter or an inventor, a professional structure edged its way in, bringing directors and curators. The involvement of middle-class citizens was to become restricted to financial management but then when museum funding was passed to the state and its representatives, this task was similarly passed on, too. At the same time the spotlight of museum work fell increasingly on the collection itself and on academic debate. As a result of this the core self-image of the newest institutions underwent a subtle but steady change. While the early, civic collections had been driven by the desire to show people something ‘novel’ and interesting, collections were now driven by the desire for enrichment and completeness. With this development the museums put in place the foundation stone of their current orientation, namely that of being a ‘collective commemoration’ and a cultural archive for society. But at the same time this means that museums are less able to occupy themselves with current social issues and must instead take a retrospective view in order to build the ‘archive’ as completely as is possible.

This development is also reflected in the composition of museum visitors today. The classic German museum visitor is better educated, is firmly positioned amongst those with conservative values and is often in possession of a profound existing knowledge in relation to what he or she is offered in a museum. Society’s middle-classes were, therefore, not only squeezed out of their determining role in museum direction but also marginalised as visitors. This development has been observable for several decades and, in itself, is nothing new. However, it remains worthy of mention because it is through this that the orientation of museum management (directors, curators as well as those responsible for funding policy) is described. It can, therefore, be concluded that this development is fully desired, or certainly tolerated, and is expected consciously to orientate the museum offering towards a conservative, familiar public. Current issues and topics which have greater relevance to a wider society are suppressed, and suppressed with approval.

More civil society, please
This is not about how future museum management should change everything and do everything better. But if museums do not want to run the risk of pressure for public legitimation together with the pressure of constantly dwindling funds, then there is viable route through to be followed, and this is by making themselves strong and relevant to the core of society. There is no shortage of ideas and content. Numerous ideas have been put forward on this matter over the last few years: Audience Development, different museum teaching approaches, research into those who visit and those who don’t, to name but a few.

The core of the problem as to why in the past no new ‘layers’ of visitors could be found, lies predominantly in the structural formation of the key stakeholders. There are still numerous museum directors who justify their work’s importance only by the value of their stock of exhibits and who view the conservation of this value as enough of a social objective. For these people the gap referred to earlier between the historical scope of collection in relation to the future scope of communication will become too great.

What could help is to remind ourselves of the history of museums and the work of their associations. As already indicated, this type of problem did not exist as long as there were broader groups in society (organised into associations) who could themselves take on responsibility for the development of museums. What follows here is a consideration of a participative institutional organisation.

Outline for a new and participative institutional organisation of municipal museums.
By contrast with the German model passed down over the years, an open and participative institutional organisation is characterised by a museum management comprising not solely its director but an enriched leadership involving others. In the model underpinning this arrangement, the Director is positioned at the centre of the organisation. He, or she, leads and takes responsibility for the organisation’s activities and is the final operational authority. In addition to the director are representatives from both the funding body and the museum management community. The funding representatives ensure that the museum is financed in a way that corresponds to its objectives and also share responsibility for ensuring that the activities of the management team are oriented towards the agreed objectives. The representatives of the community are more firmly tasked with a shared, shaping role such as bringing in new ideas. A shared responsibility also lies with them, in particular that of ensuring additional resource and support from beyond the museum’s immediate environment.

A special feature of this participative institutional organisation is that task completion is not organised within the museum according to a hierarchy. It’s more about supporters who are bound up in the museum’s ‘cosmos’ and who lend their own support to the fulfillment of tasks. As well as the now obligatory ‘Friends of’ group, this ‘cosmos’ also comprises a network of interested parties and this includes universities, tourism associations, municipal marketing offices and so on. Museum staff play a coordinating role which also includes quality assurance. They bring together aspects of various tasks, namely those which are not directly worked on in the museum itself, to form a whole and to ensure a level of performance suited to a museum.

Current Organizational Structure Vs. Model for Future Organizational Structure

Current Organizational Structure Vs. Model for Future Organizational Structure

This broader management works to the objective of varied ideas and multilayered influences being taken into consideration when shaping the programme. But in order that the museum’s capacity to act remains safe, it is essential that the management focuses its ideas and adopts a shared agenda. The tasks, roles and responsibilities are also determined here.

Involving a broader range of people in the management process will, in the most natural of ways, bring to ‘new target groups’ a greater currency and relevance to the museums’ area of interest. Narrow, blinkered approaches to the business itself will be enriched and refreshed by new ways of looking at things from the outside. With a window of opportunity like this, the self-image of museums would certainly change from being a cultural ‘archive’ to a ‘platform’ for cultural experiences. Social relevance comes with the participation of society within that platform.


Constantin Greiner, based in Munich, Germany, studied economics before doing his PhD on strategic management for museums. Constantin worked in several functions as consultant before joining Munich Strategy Group. He regularly gives lectures and publishes articles at the intersection of museum studies and economics.