Visual CommunicationNicholas Serota, Director of Tate, and Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, addressed the topic of "The Museum of the 21st Century" at the London School of Economics on 7 July.  The discussion was part of the art publisher Thames & Hudson's 60th anniversary celebrations.

When asked by the session chair, John Wilson, to look at how museums have changed in the twenty years since both men became directors of national museums, Neil MacGregor replied,

Neil MacGregor_s"What has changed is the whole way in which people use the collections...the understanding that [museums] are the centre of our civic life.  And the symbolic value of having the greatest things equally available to every citizen is enormous...visitors use the collections to think about the world, themselves, and they have become part of the consciousness of us as citizens of this country.  I don't think people would have used those words or thought that way, thirty years ago."

When pressed by Bamber Gascoigne, former trustee of both the Tate and the National Gallery, to specifically look at what the future would bring, MacGregor replied, "The big 21st century question for us is going to be, how we use electronic methods to enable more people to learn from the collection...that is the real challenge for the next twenty years."

SerotaSir Nicholas Serota added, "I think a diminishing proportion of our visitors are going to be people who visit the galleries themselves, and an ever higher proportion are going to be people from across the world, who look to these institutions in London as a source of knowledge, information, engagement, and in the best sense of the world, entertainment.  We have to invest in our online capacity, and have to encourage our curatorial teams to work there as much as in the galleries."

NM: "I think that all the major UK public collections have agreed to put as much of their collections on line as possible, on view at the highest definition possible, and downloaded free of charge for academic and study purposes.  At the BM, this has completely transformed the way in which drawings can be studied. The entire Old Master drawings collections can now be studied as well in Africa or Asia as it can in the Print Room.

The idea of [the internet] as a place for exchange of ideas, there is no problem with that.  However, there is a question about the duty of the museum to be the guarantor of what it believes to be sayable, reliably, about the objects...the authority of the research about the objects.  That puts some limits about how open one can be."

NS: "The big challenge for institutions like ours in the next twenty years is whether we are going to remain authors, or to what extent we become publishers...the degree to which the authority of the institution is going to be used, and to be used as a platform for an international conversation, is the big challenge.  And the relationship between our authority and ability to do that, and those of more conventional publishers, or indeed, broadcasters, is something we need to explore.  I am quite certain, over the next ten to fifteen years, that we will probably only add a limited number of curators who are principally concerned with the display of objects in the galleries, but we will undoubtedly add people who will be "commissioning editors" working on the presence of the collection online.  Of course, we will have to make a distinction between what we ourselves, say, and those things that other people use our platform and our collections to say about themselves or our own objects."

John Wilson: "So then the Tate and the British Museum then become multi-platform operations?"

NS:  "Yes, we are doing it already and we will be doing it more to even a greater extent."

NM: "Absolutely.  The future has to be, museum as publisher, broadcaster in a new way, without question."

multimedia globe 398x302NS:  "The possibility of a much more direct communication between our visitors and the people who work in museums must be the biggest opportunity that we have."

NM:  "Of course I agree with that.  The other huge change that will transform the use of the collections, is moving away from European languages.  We have to provide access to these great world cultures in non-European languages, and that is an enormous venture.  And, we need to reconfigure the information that we provide about our collections so they make sense to people who don't come with a basic European history.  That is a century-long project, I think."

John Wilson:  "So what will the museum of sixty years hence look like?"

NS:  "It may be rooted in those buildings we currently occupy, but it will necessarily address audiences across the world, rather than in the locality, and it will not simply be a root of access to knowledge but a place where people across the world have conversations.  And the institutions that take that fastest and furthest, will be the ones to which authority arrives.  I think there will be a big shaking out, if you like,  and a greater discrepancies between those institutions to those who grasp those opportunities and those who do not."

John Wilson: "And it will be broadband alongside glass cases?"

NM:  "Yes and it will be more than that. And, the other big revolution that we haven't really talked about is the revolution in the transport of objects.  This has completely changed the conversation about where things should be, what things can be together.  I would see,  in sixty years time, the buildings still there, visited in the same way, but, certainly for the British Museum's collection, I would imagine that for a very large part of the collection, would be, at any one time, on the road around the world, because this is physically possible to do, safely.

We're a global world, we talk about global citizenship, but most people in China, have never seen anything not made in China.  This is the challenge of the century.  How do we make sure that the world can know about the world, by studying the things -- that's what museums and galleries are all about.  Physical transport is just as important as the internet, in changing what the museum will be over the next thirty years."

To listen to the podcast in its entirety, visit this link.


Neil MacGregor
Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum

Sir Nicholas Serota
Copyright: Manuel Vason 2004