The topic of how to perform social functions using museum methods and tools was addressed in detail in the MúzeumokMa 2020 research. In the quantitative phase of the research, the online questionnaire covered not only the perception of the museums’ social functions, but also the local embeddedness of museums, cooperations and equal opportunities. In the in-depth interviews, we also explored links with the service-oriented museum approach, while the focus group discussions with museum directors concentrated on the collaborations between larger museums and their communities.
Social engagement and communities
The fulfilment of social functions is a topical issue, and Hungarian museums have initiated positive changes in recent years. The social functions of museums are also defined in Hungary’s Act on Cultural Goods and Museums. The social dimension of the core activities of museums is not only an obvious, but for most managers it is also a strategic goal precisely defined in terms of tasks and activities.
In the online questionnaire, we asked whether the public perception of museums had changed between 2013 and 2019. 79% of senior and middle managers reported a positive change, 12% considered the situation to be unchanged, while only a few directors (general) of some larger institutions and 9% of middle managers perceived a decrease in the social prestige of the museum.
The research also looked at the importance of the museums’ social engagementaccording to museum staff. Senior and middle managers, as well as museum staff gave a score above 4 on a scale of 1 to 5 in response to this question. This topic scored 11th highest for senior managers, 12th highest for middle managers and staff, and also 12th highest out of the 17 categories in the aggregate average.
According to the responses to the online questionnaire from senior and middle managers, museums serve society mainly through their core activities. Based on the responses, the most prominent activities are the promotion of knowledge and culture (29%), the preservation of local and national traditions and cultural values (20%) and the open and accessible approach of the museum (16%).
According to museum managers, public access to the community is primarily provided through the availability of exhibitions and programmes (48%), the dissemination of collections through multiple channels (28%) and research services (15.41%). They actively engage with communities mainly by providing information (50%), providing access to culture (43%), and through networking and cooperation (29%).
According to 36% of respondents, museums enable broad and equal access to cultural goods by being open, cooperative and providing equal opportunities for all. 25% of the respondents also said that museums fulfil this function by offering exhibitions, events and museum education programmes to the general public based on their collections and research, and also by being accessible in every way (24%).
All phases of the MúzeumokMa 2020 research provided valuable insight into the concept of community and the ways in which museums work with communities. For museums in smaller towns or villages, working with their local communities is a basic, essential need. To work successfully with communities, the museum must be adapted to local
social conditions. "...the future of museums depends on their ability to connect with their communities."
In the online questionnaire, we asked senior and middle managers of museums about their five most important partners. According to the answers of the 272 respondents, the top of the ranking includes public education, higher education and educational institutions (599 mentions), followed by cultural institutions at home and abroad (380), then formal and non-formal communities (e.g. NGOs, museum volunteers, museumgoers’ circles, professional organisations related to museums, reenactors and metal detectorists) with 206 mentions.
The focus group discussions revealed many forms of cooperation between museums and communities. We have also heard stories of exhibitions offered by private collectors, an art memorial house established as a result of community cooperation, and museum renovations by volunteers. Museums are also important as inclusive community spaces, providing a meeting place for young people and a venue for meetings and other events for thematic communities.
Based on the responses to the online questionnaire from senior managers, larger museums tend to employ more volunteers, while more than half of smaller museums have no volunteers at all.
The focus group discussion revealed that although museums are open to working with communities, the initiatives are often haphazard and do not always originate from the museums.
The online questionnaire also asked about measures of the museum’s performance in working with communities. Based on the answers of 267 respondents (comprising senior and middle managers in museums), eight categories could be distinguished. 82% mentioned data on numbers of people (visitors, contributors or staff) and 38% mentioned the number of groups and collaborations. The number of programmes and events ranked third. According to 22% of respondents, the amount of feedback, the number of returning visitors and acknowledgements, as well as the demographics of visitors could be important indicators. Of the institutions interviewed, two national museums and four county-level city museums were found to have been awarded the Community Museum title in 2019 or 2020, which also means that they have also laid down a community approach in their founding documents.
In addition to a strategic approach, another key factor in strengthening cooperation with communities is the attitude of staff. Typically, only national museums employ volunteer coordinators. The attitude of senior and middle management is also important: “I expect every colleague who leads an institutional unit of any kind to have a community around them that they can rely on in every way.” The vision of the maintaining authority is also a factor.
Significant progress can also be seen in this area in Hungarian museum institutions. Positive examples and good practices were found during the research, but a coherent strategic approach with a way of implementation is still rare in institutions; these activities typically focus on knowledge transfer and accessibility.
Respondents rated on a scale of 1 to 5 how well the principle of equal opportunities has been adopted and how important they considered equal opportunities as a task in relation to their own museum. Out of 16 categories, it ranked last in importance for middle managers in museums and second to last for senior managers and staff. The gradual spread of this approach is indicated by the average score of 3.80 to 4.07 for all three groups of respondents.
72% of respondents to the online questionnaire reported that they work with specific target audiences and equal opportunities groups in their museum to ensure equal opportunities.
The group of people with physical or intellectual disabilities received the most mentions in the overall survey, in particular, the blind and partially sighted followed by people with reduced mobility and people with intellectual disabilities. Many museums welcome the deaf and the hard of hearing as well as people with difficulty understanding language.
They are less engaged with target groups that can be defined by social origin, and schoolchildren with (multiple) disadvantages. They mainly mentioned people in state care, foster care or in children’s homes, receivers of family support and child welfare services, and children with special educational needs.
In third place, groups defined by wealth (people living in poor financial circumstances, homeless, unemployed) were mentioned.
Regarding groups defined on the grounds of race, colour, nationality or mother tongue, respondents typically mentioned the Roma people, ethnic minority groups, and Hungarians living beyond the borders in the questionnaire. Special age groups are associated with the elderly —it was mainly the qualitative part of the research where we received a lot of information about what museums offer for them. There was only one mention of women as a target group in the context of gender discrimination.
Families are an important target group for museums, yet few respondents mentioned single-parent families, large families or families living in difficult circumstances as a target group for their museum.
Those belonging to other special social groups (e.g. hospital patients, people with dementia, people serving prison sentences, people living in urban periphery, people in abusive relationships) are also among the target audience of museums.
Among the measures and programmes provided for equal opportunities groups the most prominent is the transfer of “tailor-made” knowledge (events, lectures, guided tours). Respondents also mentioned special exhibitions for the target groups, discounts or free tickets, positive discrimination at check-in, professional training for front-line staff and taking into account the needs of the target groups in exhibition design.
Are museum staff sensitised to welcome disadvantaged social groups? 63% of the 125 senior and middle managers responded positively, mentioning meetings with stakeholders (44%), as well as internal (32%) and external trainings (20%). 21% say that staff awareness is only partially achieved and 16% say it is not. Apart from lack of capacity, resources, time and accessibility, it is the nature of exhibitions that is the main reason why museums do not cater for specific audiences and therefore do not sensitise their staff.
Success could be achieved mainly through interprofessional cooperation, by tailoring the museums’ equal opportunities offers to the needs of the target groups and by making it easier to reach the groups they want to involve. The five most important partners of museums listed by middle and senior managers also included, albeit in smaller numbers, social and healthcare institutions, minority self-governments and special education institutions.
Strengthening identity through museum tools
As museums are in possession of a significant part of the common cultural heritage of a nation, the MúzeumokMa 2020 research also looked into the issue of museums strengthening national identity: who regards it important, why and how much.
In the online survey, museum managers ranked strengthening national identity as the 6th most important mission of museums, while middle managers and staff ranked it 13th out of 16. Moving down the organisational hierarchy, a downward trend can be seen with museum staff ranking the strengthening of national identity as the least important task.
In the qualitative part of the research, in-depth interviews were conducted with 44 museum managers and senior managers to find out more about museum services that help strengthen national identity. Exhibitions linked to anniversaries or events boosting national pride were mentioned most often (11 times). Other frequent responses included: transfer/dissemination of knowledge, organising lectures, conferences or events, education, making national treasures digitally accessible and museum education activities to strengthen local identity (7 times each).
One fifth of the managers (8 people) considered this a core task and reported that all activities of their museum serve this purpose, and it is also included in their institutional strategy. However, some of them think that the concept of national identity should be clarified first, as well as its link to the museum sector. For some respondents, this question proved to be problematic, as they were not really able to report examples of such services in their own museums.
The things mentioned in the focus group discussions with museum managers was in line with the above, with most of them (12 out of 25 people) reporting good practices or intentions related not to national but rather to local identity.
In examining the role of museums in establishing or strengthening identity, it became clear that a multi-dimensional concept like identity, which is linked to personal, religious, ethnic, communal, local, national, and supra-regional aspects (Carpathian basin), and which is also intrinsically linked to community, there is a need to clarify the conceptual framework and to provide methodological assistance and good practices to enable museum institutions to respond to expectations coming from higher management in a more genuine way.
KAJÁRI, Gabi: A múzeumok társadalmi szerepvállalása a lokális és a nemzeti identitás erősítéséért (The social role of museums in strengthening local and national identity)
[date accessed: 23/09/2022]
SZU, Annamária: A múzeumok társadalmi és közösségi szemlélete (The social and community approach of museums)
[date accessed: 23/09/2022]
SZU, Annamária: A múzeumok esélyegyenlőségi szemlélete és tevékenységei (The equal opportunities approach and activities of museums)
[date accessed: 23/09/2022]
“A museum institution shall (a) be at the service of society, (b) be openly accessible to the community, (c) be in active contact with the communities and the town,
(d) not be established for the purpose of gaining economic profit as part of its core activities, (e) provide broad and equal access to cultural goods.”
Section 37/A (2) of Act CXL of 1997 on the protection of cultural goods, museum institutions, public library services, and the cultural education of the public http://njt.hu/cgi_bin/njt_doc.cgi?docid=30818.416645 [date accessed: 22/08/2022]
 on a scale from 1: not important to 5: very important
 on a scale from 1: not important to 5: very important