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This week, it’s time to celebrate the role of museums in society

International Museums Day takes place this week and to celebrate, museums around the UK – and the world – will be opening their doors at night. It’s a great time to celebrate the role of museums in society, says Robin Clarke of the University of Leicester.

A poster for Museums at Night

On 18 May, museums across the world mark International Museums Day. Launched in 1977, the day celebrates that “Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.”

Last year, according to ICOM (the International Council of Museums), almost 30,000 museums took part in more than 120 countries across the globe.

Museums at Night

Museums in the UK will celebrate this week with special Museums at Night events, which take place from 13 – 16 May. Many museums up and down the country will extend their opening hours long into the evening (or even night), to give people an extra special opportunity to visit museums as they perhaps haven’t seen them before.

But let’s come back to the purpose of International Museums Day, that celebration of the role of museums, that idea that museums can promote understanding, co-operation and peace amongst people.

This is something that museums are talking about more often and has been a key research theme for the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies for many years now.

Museums are active participants in society

Museums have evolved over the last few decades and now understand themselves as much more active participants in our society and our communities.

No longer do many museums see themselves as just a repository of history, an explainer of the past. Museums are increasingly considering how those stories of the past, those collections of historic (and contemporary) objects can be used to promote a fairer, more equal, more socially just society.

How can museums tackle today’s issues?

These are issues that our forthcoming course, “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum,” will focus upon.

We will explore how museums can help tackle issues such as human rights abuses, racism, trans- and homophobia. We will look at case studies that demonstrate how museums can participate in initiatives that aim to reduce hate-crime or promote positive discussion of (im)migration.

And, using the example of disability, we will explore how people who have been traditionally excluded can be better and positively represented in museums in order to encourage a more inclusive society.

These are important issues that we all face today and it is important that museums reflect these issues. But let’s go further than that: museums can be active participants and campaigners for the “mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples” that ICOM talks about.

In short, we believe that museums can embrace these values and can make a positive difference to our society.

To find out more, join the free online course, “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum,” or join the conversation using #FLmuseums.

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