Susanna Pettersson, Director General, discusses the role of museums and universities in society and argues for the importance of collaboration between business, cultural institutions, public agencies and civil society.
At the beginning of the year, I had an opportunity to present my thoughts on the role of the university in society at one of the University of Helsinki’s Leadership Arena sessions. One of my core arguments was (and is) that in order to work innovatively and efficiently, you need to invest in broad relationships with the various stakeholders in society: universities, business, public agencies and civil society. If you speak more or less the same language, it is easy to find common ground for collaboration.
But what does this mean in practice? For universities, relevance and academic freedom are the key factors – that the role of research in society is seen as crucial. Without universities, society has no knowledge of the past, no framework for analysing the present and no opportunities to understand the future. Without academic research, we can say goodbye to new ideas, growth and social development.
Institutions such as museums work in parallel with universities. Science, art and design, architecture, dance, music, theatre and literature are reflected in various museum collections around the world. They constitute arenas for identity creation. And they are platforms for social encounters and innovations. This is why it is so important for the various stakeholders in society to have an open and future-oriented attitude towards cultural assets.
In his book The Future of Museum: 28 Dialogues (Hatje Cantz 2020), András Szántó has reflected on the role of museums in society by interviewing museum directors around the globe in the middle of the pandemic. “The goal was to investigate the future at a time when we were sitting still,” says the author, who reminds us that museums need to create new strategies and adapt to new circumstances – as we have now seen and experienced for ourselves.
Questions concerning diversity, social responsibility, strategies, technology and collaboration with different stakeholders have long been on the agenda. How museums can serve as a counterbalance to today’s 24/7 society, offering meditative experiences and opportunities as an alternative to the flood of information in the digital world. Equal opportunities, ecology, biodiversity, local versus global and issues revolving around “de-westernisation” are increasingly being debated.
Donatien Grau also takes up the same theme in his book, Living Museums, Conversations with Leading Museum Directors (Hatje Cantz 2020), in which he shares 10 interviews on three themes: the knowledge museum, the political museum and the museum in a global world. While Szántó takes the pulse by interviewing current museum directors, Grau met former museum directors for such institutions as the Louvre, the Tate, the Metropolitan Art Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Guggenheim. Reading the books alongside each other offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the time that has passed, and how it has created the conditions for what is of interest right now, while also laying the foundation for the future.
For a more practical perspective on the museum profession and the challenges of our time, it is worth looking at Museum Studies. Bridging Theory in Practice, edited jointly by Nina Robbins, Suzie Thomas, Minna Tuominen and Anna Wessman (ICOFOM, 2021). The book presents the Nordic perspective on the latest hot topics, such as museology, the museum profession, leadership, the development of collections, the audience, the identity of museums and ethical questions.
Common to all the aforementioned publications is a consensus that the strength of museums lies in their ability to offer unique experiences with real objects. The physical museum is going to survive. There is a great deal going on, and there is a great deal that the museums need to address. But their core strength remains. Museums are there for us – somewhere for us to recharge our batteries and find inspiration. They are places where we can breathe freely.
//Susanna Pettersson, Director General, Nationalmuseum