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A future for the past

The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections By Julian Spalding. Prestel. 2002. 184pp. £24.95

In this highly personal book, Julian Spalding, drawing on nearly 30 years' experience at the coal-face of British museology, sets out his vision for the museums and galleries of the future. He argues passionately and persuasively that collections must remain at the heart of these institutions, which should concentrate on their role as storytellers and communicators of the world's past, while building interpretative centres of excellence to illuminate the future.

He first asks whether there should be new forms of collecting. Rather than the old taxonomic approach of the Enlightenment, he suggests a broader and looser strategy, building groups of items that develop themes and ideas. It is vital, he says, to reinterest the public in the actual objects of history; to make them live in a way that connects closely and intensely with the world around us.

Quite rightly he looks for a more creative use of technology - not just to produce animatronic dinosaurs, but to study visitor responses, monitor where people gather and gasp or turn away in boredom. Look at Disney, he suggests, which changes and develops its product in accordance with the patterns of visitor use. (At this point one can hear the hiss of in-drawn breath from museum traditionalists). He envisages multilingual headsets, programmed to enhance a visitor's progress round a collection. Such 'smart' technology could trigger video clips in display cases, raise and lower light levels around sensitive objects, or give enhanced light for the visually impaired.

Spalding's Utopian view is of a world of collaboration and change, in which the needs of all museum visitors become paramount. To allow institutions to develop and grow, he suggests that many of their archiving, storage and research functions be relocated to central 'collection depots' where the needs of the scholarly community can be properly met, and anyone can have controlled access to material they wish to study. Institutions would then be free to mount displays that would encourage visitors to explore across disciplines, or beyond the confines of different museum or gallery departments. Sadly, I cannot imagine any such scheme working in the real world.

This is a book written with conviction.

You are carried along by the author's passion and frustration, even though you want to answer back and pick holes in his arguments. It is a book the museum world needs to read because it needs to think about what it is actually trying to do. Spalding may not have the answers, but he is certainly asking some of the right questions.

Jo Walton is a freelance lecturer

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