Arts and Design

'This is a watershed moment for UK museums—their expanded civic role has never been more vital'

When we embarked on our new nationwide museums campaign, “The Wild Escape”, we asked ourselves how we in the museums sector can help in facing the challenge of biodiversity loss. What can we do to contribute to the debate? And, why do we believe museums can play a role in this?

This is a watershed moment.

In these last three years we have seen museums rapidly reimagine their role in society. Now, with cultural habits dented by the pandemic, and the perfect storm of cuts both to creative education in schools and learning departments in museums, we need to act to help mend the connection between young people and our public museums and find new ways to unlock the power of our incredible collections.

The expanded civic role museums are primed to play—as leaders, educators, conveners and collective repositories of creativity—has never been more vital.

Increasingly, we are looking to museums to provide the creative stimulus that can be missing from core curriculums.

When we consulted with the 900 UK museums we support and work with about their top priorities, their answers revealed the profound role they now play in civic life. To engage with young people, schools and families; to be open resources for their diverse local communities; and to act on the wider challenges of today. These critical issues were at the forefront of their minds.

We’ve seen it in action too. It’s reflected in the work of our most recent Art Fund Museum of the Year winners. Firstsite in Colchester with their space for everything from a community foodbank to a programme on migration. The Horniman Museum and Gardens in south London transforming its community programme in response to both Black Lives Matter and to the climate crisis.

While National Museum Cardiff’s wide ranging Urban Nature Project empowers children to share their own research with museum scientists, by investigating nature on their doorstep, and organisations from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery to the national museums including Tate and the Natural History Museum are showing strong leadership in their actions on the climate emergency and protecting the natural environment.

Now, as the loss of biodiversity in species and habitats across the UK becomes critical, our museums are stepping up with a vital new purpose. They have the unique ability to both connect children and young people with creative inspiration as well as a route to taking positive action in what might seem like an overwhelming environmental challenge.

Whether seen in person, online or in the classroom, our national collections offer infinite creative inspiration and have the potential to mobilise a generation.

Jenny Waldman is the director of Art Fund UK


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