Culture& Interview with Sharon Heal

Latest News

Sharon is the Director of the Museums Association, the membership body for everyone working in museums that promotes the value of museums to society.

She regularly comments on museums and cultural policy in the UK; speaks at conferences and events in the UK and internationally and has published extensively. She lectures on the history of museums, museum ethics and museums and social impact.

Sharon is the chair of the Museum of Homelessness and a Trustee of the Thackray Museum.

What would you say is the role of a museum today, especially in the light of the controversy over the ICOM definition, and how to do you think it has changed?

We have seen a real evolution in the role of the museum in the West and in the UK in last five to ten years.  Museums have shifted how they position themselves from repositories of collections and places that look after objects and archives to now being proactive spaces engaging communities in discussion and being socially engaged. Not everyone sees or works in that way but there is a growing tide of museums thinking about their role and purpose.

At the Museums Association, we believe that museums change lives in three ways: Firstly, by enhancing health and wellbeing in communities by working with the public health sector. Museums can also create better places for us to live and work. There has been a real shrinking of civic space with libraries and community centres closing. Museums have clung in there and can, at their best, be at the heart of their communities and can provide a space to represent and reflect the past, present and future of a city or a community. They also change lives by providing a space for discussion, debate and reflection.  Societies are now incredibly polarised across Europe and America, so creating a platform to talk about contentious issues and to bring communities together that have been on opposing sides of those issues is important.  It’s a time of heightened conversation and debate and the ICOM definition controversy reflects that.

Do you think the Covid-19 global pandemic will have an effect on how we see the role of museums and how people engage with them?

It is an interesting and unfolding question.  In the short term there have been issues with staff, funding and the viability of museums, which won’t be resolved over the next few months.

It is a good time to think about the role of the museum in 21st century when we are in a pandemic, a lock down and experiencing such a narrowing of our horizons.  There has been a rush online with a digital offer and that’s great; music venues, theatres, concert halls and museums and have all opened up their content for free and made available what they have already. That’s good but that’s for the term of the pandemic.  Eventually it will come to an end and what museums look like afterwards will be interesting.

I am absolutely convinced that it’s not going to return to what it was.  It’s a game changer.  There are some museums that won’t survive this crisis. The emergency funding from governments across the UK is hugely welcome and what the crisis has exposed is that museums are a part of the public realm and need funding to survive.  That is a discussion now.  We firmly believe that museums are worthy of investment and public funding and that they need to be delivering for and with their communities in the future.

There is digital exclusion happening right now because there are plenty of kids who don’t have access to a computer or online resources so there are communities who don’t have that access.  How are we thinking about them? What will we provide for them in the future?  That is something that we haven’t thought about properly as a sector.  We need to think about some of the fundamentals – we traditionally think about museums being about buildings, exhibitions and collections and that’s how they are still perceived.  This is a chance to say that whilst the collection is obviously our USP we need to think about the connection to our communities. We need people; academics, staff and volunteers, to enable audiences to explore. I hope as a workforce and collectively we can have a conversation about the purpose of museums.  We are nothing without our communities and the public.

Moving on to questions around diversity, what would you say are the barriers to better representation in museum workforces and collections for diverse audiences? Why do you think are we still talking about this?


The sector has grappled with this over the last ten to twenty years. None of the schemes and programs that have been run, including the Museum Association’s schemes, have quite cracked this problem in terms of diversity.  I would hesitate to put it down to one reason.  Something we are thinking about a lot more now is the museum space and concept as something that is alien to some people.  It is not just about people not seeing themselves in those spaces, it is that some see them as hostile places and places of violence because of their colonial past.

Often the museum building and the collection is a product of empire, created on the back of empire and slavery.  Hassan Mahamdallie, when he was at Arts Council England (ACE), said; ‘if you want to bring about diversity in the workforce, collections and audiences, the edifice has to crumble. You have to deconstruct a museum and what it was founded on’.  That is very scary for some and there is a question about how far it can go.  Can you decolonise the space?  We need to have these debates in order to address the lack of diversity. The origins of the museum are an interesting starting point in terms of diversity and I think there are some other obvious barriers; pay and a very narrow entry route into the sector; unless you have access to the bank of mum and dad, then that excludes a lot of people.

What would you say are the most common reasons why many Museums are having difficulty tackling issues like decolonisation and representation in their workforce and collections?

It strikes to the heart of the institution.  Many were founded on the back of empire and transatlantic slavery in this country. As a direct result of slavery and empire, collections were brought back into this country.  To start unpicking that is a huge task.  It takes a lot to stand back and reflect on that.

There is a concern that in doing that it will deconstruct the museum. Also decolonisation has become synonymous with repatriation and reconstitution and there is a fear that if you begin the process you will end up with nothing left to display.  But there are many museums such as the Horniman Museum, the Pitt Rivers and the Manchester Museum that have built amazing connections with diaspora and source communities and are actively working to decolonise.

Lots of different types and scale of museums are beginning to think about the origins of their collections and want guidance. The Museums Association has set up a decolonisation working group with experts from the sector and academia and we hope to publish ethical guidance to support this work later this year. We are also working with ACE and ICOM-UK to ensure that advice and guidance is joined up.

There is a lot of good practice out there.  Displays of Power at UCL was the best decolonisation exhibition I have seen. It started by asking the simple question, how did all this stuff get here? It helped explain the issues because it was asking the right question.  It was simple and complex. It was just brilliantly done.

The vast majority of people working in museums are not from diverse backgrounds so there is a hesitancy around decolonisation.  But there are models of museums working with consultants, community groups, campaigners and organisations that bring experts in. The Past is Now at Birmingham Museum and Gallery worked on that model, acknowledging the need for expertise in areas they did not have it.  Museums are also working with contemporary artists to reflect on the collection, even though that can be challenging and subvert the norm. I hope this is an area of practice that we will continue to work on and research after the current crisis is over.

Does the Museums Association have a sense of what audiences want and need from a museum or heritage space and how this compares with what is on offer?

There are barriers to museum and heritage spaces for some audiences, such as the history of the institution, or thinking that a space is not for the likes of me, or it could also be financial barriers, so it would be good to understand that through detailed and granular research.

In what way do you think a museum can become an active agent of social justice and why is that important?

We have seen an interesting development in activism in museums. I contributed a chapter to an academic book and I based it on a series of interviews I did with activists in museums in the sector.  I asked if they considered themselves activists and initially most of them said no.  Either because they said that activism was when people dedicate their life to changing something or that it was too strong a term to describe their work.

About two years later I went back and asked them about it again and almost all of them chose to define themselves as activists in the museum sphere.  I think that is a response to what’s happening in society and an increase in campaigning in general.  It is a progression from social and participatory engagement, which has led to questions about what is next and how you use activism to create positive change.

There has also been a real burgeoning of networks in the sector. Ten years ago, there were subject specialists and the federations and not much else but now a whole host of networks have manifested in different ways that are issue or geographic specific.  Quite often I have observed that they have evolved and have come together to give peer support and have quite quickly become a campaigning network that wants to bring about change, such as Museum Detox.

Activism also manifests itself in new museums such as The Museum of Homelessness, Queer BritainQueerseum and the Vagina Museum. They have all explicitly set out to change people’s perceptions and change policy and have delivered because they were conceived to do that.

The Museum of Homelessness collaborates with other projects to bring about changes in policy.  It has campaigned recently for hotels to be opened up for the homeless with no access to social distancing spaces and it is also involved in direct delivery of food to people sleeping rough and in temporary accommodation.  It is what the museum has always tried to do – change public perception, work with the community and tell the stories of those with lived experiences.

There are museums trying to make positive changes working with their communities and there are individuals that are trying to make change.  Manchester Museum is seeking to bring about positive change around the climate, sustainability, repatriation, decolonisation and relationships with source communities. A lot of museums have also responded to the pandemic, for example donating stock from their cafes to food banks and museum staff have volunteered with community services and the NHS.  Others have donated conservation equipment for PPE use. Museums are responding to the big issues in society and thinking about the role they can play.

Can you recommend a book, documentary or article that you think everyone in the museum sector should read?

Museum Activism edited by Robert R. Janes, Richard Sandell is a good collection of different essays and chapters about activist approaches so I would recommend that.

I was also just rewatching a video of Lemn Sissay, the poet, when he spoke at our conference a few years ago on our homepage because it is joyous so if you need a moment of joy then that’s a really nice one. He is a great raconteur and an all round good bloke.

Interview by Sam Allen