One of the exhibits in the Mary Queen of Scots exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland is a collection of a gold necklace, locket and pendant, known as the Penicuik jewels, thought to have belonged to the executed monarch. These jewels are believed to have been given to the Queen when she was held captive. They were gifts of loyalty – much more than mere decoration – to bind supporters to the Crown.
I have always found jewellery to be humanising objects. That they touched her skin, wafted scent and were, no doubt, worn with pride brings the story of Mary Queen of Scots to life. That is what museums can do. Through the display of objects they can open up the past.
Unfortunately this is not how many in the museum sector now understand their role, as demonstrated by the launch this week of the campaign: “Museums Change Lives” which looks at how museums impact on individuals, communities, society and the environment. The Museums Association – the UK wide professional body for the sector – has asked museums to “raise their ambitions” and “commit to improving [their] impact on society”. The association’s report cites projects with unemployed and homeless people, the isolated elderly and children in care.
Reinventing museums as arms of social and welfare support risks losing sight completely of their true worth.