University College London

Prof. David Lowenthal

Professor Emeritus and Honorary Research Fellow University College London

University College London

22 Heron Place, 9 Thayer St London W1U 3JL, England, UK

Museum Dilemmas: Why the Best Are So Best

Today's museums are more numerous and more popular than ever before. They have become emblematic of national, ethnic, and tribal identities; they are prime storehouses and showcases of essential heritages; they are looked to as ambassadors of international and multicultural goodwill; they have gained unsurpassed repute as the most trustworthy purveyors of history and memory.

Yet at the same time museums are increasingly besieged by every kind of pressure. Their well-deserved prominence and popularity carries with it horrendously burdensome and often conflicting tasks, while subjecting museums to ever more dire risks. They are threatened by theft and war and iconoclasm, by dearth of funding and personnel, by the costs of catering for ever more numerous and demanding audiences. And they are called on to be at once trendy and traditional. They are expected to provide the latest state-of-theart interactive entertainment suited to populist taste, to make all their holdings accessible to everyone at all hours, to honour demands for restitution and repatriation from tribal, indigenous and other claimants. Yet they are simultaneously enjoined to engross and protect their precious holdings, to act as stewards of timeless treasures to be held and passed on intact to future generations.

These dilemmas reflect persisting negative stereotypes of museums, long maligned as fusty, static, elitist, hoarding, self-protective mausoleums. I show why these stereotypes continue to persist and to magnify problems of museum management despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, of which the museums we celebrate at this gathering are exemplary instances. After reviewing some of the most serious ongoing crises, I offer suggestions for enabling both the Best and the Rest to continue providing manifold benefits to current patrons and stakeholders, while also ensuring the continuance and enhancement of that heritage for their great-great-grandchildren - the even larger constituencies of generations to come.


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