What is a good and functional museum relationship?
According to the fourth rule of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, “museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and management of the natural and cultural heritage. -- Museums have an important duty to develop their educational role and attract wider audiences from the community, locality, or group they serve. Interaction with the constituent community and promotion of their heritage is an integral part of the educational role of the museum.” So, we have the ethical obligation to establish and maintain relations with our communities. What is an ethically sound museum relationship like? Both parties should surely ask themselves what they expect of the relationship, what they get and what they give. If the relationship does not work, who needs the museum? We are facing some rather fundamental questions when we ponder our relationships with our communities.
The background of Lusto – The Finnish Forest Museum lies in the Finnish Forest Museum Foundation, which was founded in 1988 and given the task of establishing a national forest museum in Finland. The foundation consisted of more than 40 stakeholders in forestry who wanted to preserve cultural heritage relating to forests. Forestry organisations were closely involved in planning the museum, gathering the collections, building the museum, starting the operations and even organising the funding.
Many things have changed in 20 years in both forestry and the museum field as well as in the relationships between the forest museum and forestry organisations. We have asked our interest groups what they would like to get from us. Some of the relationships have perhaps gone a bit flat. Some stakeholders did not know what to wish for at all, since they no longer knew how the relationship started in the first place. This means that museum counselling is needed and, at the moment, we are actively looking for new perspectives into old relationships. Communities are important to us, since we would have no significance without them. In order to appreciate, understand and protect the natural and cultural heritage, we need to have enough people who appreciate, understand and protect it. Luckily, many relationships have also been deepened and strengthened in the course of the years. We have even made some completely new relationships and found a new spark in old relationships.
Even though the Code of Ethics talks about interaction and service, talking about the “educational role” of museums feels slightly one-sided and dictated. Learning – as well as the responsibilities, obligations and rights relating to culture heritage – should be mutual. Could the key features of a good museum relationship be modelled after the instructions for a good romantic relationship? These include trust and a steady foundation, shared values, open and direct interaction, mutual responsibility for the relationship, respecting the needs of both parties, acceptance and appreciation, freedom and personal development, true friendship. The parties must also ask themselves whether they are desirable partners. And it does not make sense to stay together if you do not have what is most important: a common goal and purpose.
A good, ethical museum relationship is based on museums being able to open up the significance of appreciating, understanding and protecting cultural heritage to communities for which the cultural heritage may be an important resource that they need when they build their identities, images and brands. The cultural heritage is a societally significant resource whose use and utilisation are enabled by a good museum relationship.
Curator, Exhibitions Lusto – The Finnish Forest Museum
Collections Manager, Lusto – The Finnish Forest Museum
Member of the Board of the Finnish National Committee of ICOM