I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers happily declared ‘We are all experts’. I have heard this said a few times, but feel it misunderstands what an expert is, devalues expertise and misses out the joy and benefits of learning new things.
Maybe I would say this wouldn’t I? After all, I am employed as an expert in my field as Curator of Earth Sciences at Manchester Museum and am a NatSCA committee member. But there are good reasons why experts are important and are vital to museums being relevant to society and changing people’s lives for the better.
Everyone brings their opinions, feelings, and ideas about collections, and experts are no exception but crucially experts also bring the knowledge, ideas and understanding of those who have gone before, many of which have been rigorously scientifically tested and challenged.
I absolutely think we should be seeking out and valuing the opinions, feelings, ideas and responses of everyone. Museum staff do not have all the answers. For example, it is easy to forget to celebrate the sheer joy in looking at beautiful collections. Anyone can appreciate beauty and an expert doesn’t need to give permission for this. Historically, many museums have been bad at valuing opinions, feelings and ideas, have failed to be relevant and meaningful, and have given little sense of ownership to their visitors. We are missing something very important if we don’t value our visitors and communities, after all, the museum belongs to everyone.
The reality of the current museums sector, particularly local authority museums, means that on-staff (employed by the institution) expertise is on the decline. There are some great examples of really inspiring museums who have developed exhibitions and programs without on-staff experts. For example, Derby co-produced a stunningly beautiful gallery; Notice Nature, Feel Joy with no in-house scientific experts. As a result, the gallery has a strong sense of community ownership. Outside expertise was sought from their local community as well as input from NatSCA members. Derby is a great example of an alternative model of working, but I would argue that without on-staff expertise, museums are limiting the scope of their impact and limiting their sustainability.
Here’s why I think experts are so important:
- We need to celebrate facts – experts link facts to the real world and bring understanding that has been tested and challenged by others
- Experts are needed to use collections, understand their context and use them as a call to action. Whether it’s action on climate change or understanding the complexities and historical context of the migration crisis, expert input is essential
- Experts are essential to preserving collections and maintaining access e.g. expertise is needed to spot pest problems in collections before they destroy the specimens
- It is very difficult to get collections used without expertise to find what people want to look at or make suggestions of other things that might be of interest
- Experts are important in telling stories about collections, bringing meaning and retelling the stories of others
- It can be difficult to get a sense of place from collections without expert interpretation
- Experts are essential to answer public enquiries, often inspiring a life-long passion for nature
I am the first to admit that museums have a long and sometimes damaging history of using their ‘expertise’ to, for example, acquire collections they shouldn’t have done or justify the British Empire. But how can we engage our visitors with action on climate change without having an understanding of the Carbon cycle, or talk about the conservation of Darwin’s orchid without the understanding of it’s relationship to it’s pollinator?