28 May, 2020
Museums: A public facing approach

Andani.Africa has developed a full needs analysis on South African museums, and particularly publicly funded museums. However for the purposes of this blog article we focus specifically on 1: Being Public Focused

Andani.Africa has undertaken research on South African museums and identified some key developments in Museum practice both within the South African context and how these link to shifts internationally. One key finding of this research process has been the need to refocus South African museum practice onto the idea of public engagement.

South Africa has been world leading in addressing historical injustices within museums, particularly with the updates of historical museums after the political and social changes of 1994. Museums built before this time, by and large, has narrow, unrepresentative and often racist narratives within them. Post 1994 Museums have systematically looked to update their content and their approach to content in ways that better represent the public they look to serve. At the time, this was a very forward-thinking approach and resulted in a number of innovations for museum practice worldwide.

Though South African museums may have been ahead of the curve in the 1990s, museums today face significant challenges. While there are many, one key issue that has put museums very much behind the trends of international museum practice lately, is not prioritising ways to better represent the public they look to serve. This lack of prioritization is evident in how budgets are being spent – which focus largely on the basic running costs of a museum rather than reaching and engaging with the people that the museum looks to reach. And we are seeing this play out as very low visitor numbers in our publicly funded museums.

Publicly funded museums are often seeing very low visitor numbers for budget spent, with much higher yields and impacts for ‘independent’ museums that are non-profit organisations. The reason for this is multi-fold, but one of the key issues is budget prioritization. Costs of marketing, public programming, youth and schools engagement and other such public facing work of a museum is simply not prioritized within most public museums. By comparison, many ‘independent’ museums spend the bulk of their budgets on programming and projects. This is part of a greater state entity inefficiency concern that needs to be addressed in order for public funded museums to better serve the public.

For more from Andani.Africa on the Future of African Museums, watch this video of Andani.Africa Head of Research Molemo Moiloa, made by the Goethe Institut on the occasion of New Ethics For Museums in Transformation conference held at the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam.

By Andani Africa