By Dr. Jess Castellote
Director, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art.
Traditionally, the preservation, documentation, and display of their collection have been at the centre of the mission and activity of most art museums. This was the concept of a museum left for us in Nigeria by our colonial legacy. While, in the view of most museum professionals, these functions remain valid, the social function of museums is increasingly taking centre stage since the advent, in the 1970s, of the so-called “new museology” and more recently with “critical museology”. The question is, what are art museums for? What do we want to achieve in our museum? has been present in the minds of many of us involved in the governance or management of a museum in Nigeria.
If we look back at the history of museums, we see after the initial emphasis on the documentation and display of a collection there was a shift toward engagement. Since then, museums have tried to do more than simply collect and display objects. First came a change in their self-understanding, in their view of what their mission and function were. Little by little, through a long process of self-interrogation they came to see themselves not only as places for study and enjoyment but also as places for education. Eventually, most museums included in their mission a desire to become agents for something bigger than the collections they held. They conceived themselves as agents for human development and societal change. In postcolonial societies in Africa and other parts of the world, there is already an expectation that museums can’t be only repositories of heritage or places for experimentation of new artistic forms. Society expects them also to have an impact on their communities. This is a matter of social relevance.
At the museum where I work, the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA), questions about the social role of our museum are inextricably linked to questions about our mission as an institution within a larger institution, Pan-Atlantic University and about our commitment to preserving the artworks in the museum coming mainly from the extraordinary collection of Prince Shyllon. Why are we here for? What is our mission? The question about what museums are for can have multiple possible answers. The answer to these questions is complex but, at the same time, in our case, it is simple: we are here to offer a service. The complexity surges when we delve into the multiple meanings and nuances of the concept of service. Whom do we want to serve? everybody? How do we intend to serve our audiences? The missions and the functions of different museums and the role they play in the societies where they are inserted can be substantially different. Even the same museum can change the view of itself under the impact of the democratization of access to art or the politics of decolonization. The understanding of what a museum is meant to differ strongly from one cultural and social context to another, from one museum to another.
Then, there is the issue of responsibility, of duty. Do we, as a museum, have a responsibility—an obligation—to offer something of value to audiences who can’t or will not think of visiting a museum? Do we have a mission to fulfil outside the walls of the museum? Is it within our remit to, as it were, “change the world” from the little corner of our institution? Or is our mission much more humble and circumscribed? We want to offer more people the possibility of experiencing and enjoying wonderful pieces of art. We also want our audiences to learn about the rich variety of cultures in our country. But we want them not only to experience, but also enjoy, and learn. We want the artworks they come in contact with become like the catalysers of personal and collective thinking about issues that go beyond the physical aesthetic and historical qualities of the artworks. For the YSMA and other museums, this social mission is part of our institutional DNA, an essential element of what we are and of what we are here for.
Defining well the mission of any organization, institution or business is, therefore, crucial for its success. If we are not clear about what we want to be and what we want to achieve, it will only be by coincidence that we achieve that mission. At YSMA, we have been asking ourselves since our opening a couple of years ago, whether in addition to these functions I mentioned earlier, we also want to be active, direct agents of social change. An example of this dilemma is the issue of inclusion. Obviously, at YSMA, we want to be an inclusive museum where visitors are not excluded from participation in the cultural goods offered by the museum simply because of physical, social, cultural, or economic barriers. But there could be more to this issue. Access to culture is hindered by systemic economic, social, and cultural inequalities. It is a fact that people living in rural communities and urban peripheries have fewer opportunities than those in more affluent areas.
One thing is to have a clear idea of the museum’s mission of service, another matter is the formulation of the conceptual framework to guide the strategic direction and specific programming of the museum. For us at YSMA, this framework is based on the concept of integral human development. This means, aiming at promoting the good of every person, without discrimination, and of the whole person, in all its dimensions. This is a duty and a responsibility that, as a unit of a university with a well-defined Christian identity and a clear mission of service to all, we have towards our audiences and the people we serve. As a museum, we want to place integral human development into the museum’s agenda. In order to achieve that we need to design strategies and initiatives that will contribute towards that goal.
Many of us think that the museum, as a cultural stakeholder, can help in building connections between culture, communities and persons. By facilitating encounters with culture, the museum can help those it reaches become more active social agents in their communities. But, access to culture needs to be expanded into the incorporation of and participation in culture and eventually into the creation of culture. Museums in the country can act as cultural mediators. That is why the work of the museum must reach the community but also artists. At YSMA we are designing and implementing art projects with a clear and positive societal impact. We aim at creating spaces for dialogue between the arts and the community, ultimately facilitating change in the way our audiences think and act on the issues explored by these initiatives.
I believe that museums are cultural projects that must include community participation. The challenge now is how to develop participatory strategies that facilitate links between cultural objects and individuals. We have a danger of falling into complacency. In our case, we have an extraordinary collection, we have the support of many people, we are part of the excellent Pan-Atlantic University… But all that is not enough if we, like other art museums in the country, want to be agents of change, even if small. Our museum is very much aligned with the pledge of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: “Leave no one behind”. We believe that as museums, we have a responsibility, and multiple opportunities, to contribute towards the achievement of this goal.
Large segments of the population in the communities surrounding the museum do not have access to cultural goods and services. This is particularly grave in the case of the youth. We would like to reach more of those “left behind”. We want to contribute to the effort to address problems of inequalities and cultural exclusion in our society. The challenge now is how to make this commitment an effective operational reality. Comprehensive solutions to problems of cultural exclusion are, obviously, far beyond the means and resources of a young and small university museum, but our commitment to positive social impact is firm. The same thing can hopefully be said of all other museums in the country. We are here to offer a service that will last.
(Originally written for This Day, The Sunday Newspaper. March 26, 2023)