Understanding the cultural impact of museums

NMDC believes that museums make a real difference to people’s lives.  It is an argument that is frequently used to advocate and promote our work to stakeholders; but what does it mean and how might we investigate it?  What is the nature of the impact that museums have on the individual and how does this play out in communities, societies and even nations?

A 2010 paper by Professor Sara Selwood – Making a difference: the cultural impact of museums – explored the wide range of impact and influence NMDC members and their projects have on reflecting, exploring and defining cultural heritage and cultural values in the UK.

The nature of the difference that British museums make is partly shaped by their own values, those of their public and private sector funders, and their audiences’ access and receptiveness. Whom British museums make a difference to and what they make a difference about can be expressed in a number of ways. These can be both specific and generalised: school children’s willingness to learn; adults’ appreciation of art and science; Northerners’ understanding of their Roman inheritance; Britons’ understanding of their own social histories, etc.

The essay aims to provoke thinking about museums’ cultural impact and how to describe it.  It attempts to demonstrate the differences that museum collections, exhibitions, displays and other programmes make to people: how they affect their understanding of the world and how people respond to their museum experiences.  It focuses on museums’ contribution to sustaining and changing British national and regional identities, and how museums have, and are, reflecting the changing face of British communities. 

Download the executive summary.

Download the full essay.

Download the appendices.