This week, we're tapping into a discussion that's been bubbling away over on the Great British Art Debate

Tate Debate Banner image

How far should the public get to decide on what gets shown in national museums and galleries? Does it differ depending on the remit of the museum? Do we think differently about art galleries than we do about history museums or museums of ideas? Here are some of the thoughts that have come up so far. Jim Richardson, founder of Sumo and MuseumNext says:

“I personally feel that we have seen a huge shift in the way the public interact with world around them because of the more interactive internet which has evolved over the past decade. Just as people no longer just see the internet as a place to find information, I think that the public no longer expect didactic experiences from museums, they instead want cultural institutions to be platforms for exchange, places that accept that anyone can have a valid point of view. One element is having a say what goes into museums, this could be by submitting work through an open call for entry, voting from a shortlist for what should appear in an exhibition or interacting with an exhibition in the gallery. Though I believe strongly in the public being given a voice, personally I feel that the majority of an exhibition programme should still be curated in a traditional manner.”

Read more on the Great British Art Debate site

Andrew Bryant, Online Editor of Artists Talking and freelance editor at Tate says:

“I think we do have a say, don’t we? If the public didn’t like what we saw we wouldn’t go and see it and galleries would have to close down. And what, or who, is the public anyway? Aren’t artists a part of the public too? I think there is some truth in this but it only makes sense if the gallery-going public is a true reflection of the whole of our society and it seems from some of the earlier questions that this is probably not the case. The national collection should be just that - a collection of artworks belonging to the nation - and this means all of us, when we go to see these artworks, should feel a sense of belonging, a sense that we can see our own lives represented there. If this is not the case then what can we do to change things?”

Martin Myrone, curator of the John Martin show at Tate Britain says:

“Almost certainly not. There’s a false democracy which I suspect the present government is only going to push forward - which pretends that ‘everyone’ should have a say. Problem is, who feels like they have the right to speak? The big issue with museums and galleries is that not everyone feels comfortable going to them (and I speak from my own experience rather than a ‘museologist’ - the people who speak most on this matter and have the least to say). Think about the proposed ‘free schools’ - the idea that everyone can set up schools and shape them according to their own need sounds nice, but who are the people who have the economic and social confidence to get moving with a project like that… Toby Young, that’s who! Guess it’s a predictable answer from someone who gets paid for doing this, but I think that museums need a ‘professional class’ to manage them, and deliver stuff, but that this professional class need to be informed and aware and responsible, and that means politically self-conscious, about what we do. I’m not pretending that’s the case, though, at least from what I’ve seen…”

What do you think? Should the public have a say in what goes into museums?

The Great British Art Debate is a partnership between Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield, supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by the MLA’s Renaissance programme.




I like what Emily says and believe that making museums and galleries more accessible to the public is a possible answer. Doing this would encourage more interaction from the public enabling them to voice their opinions about what they want more.



Lucy Carty

Have to agree with you Andrew, though a terrifying thought did occur to me... wasn't John Martin 'the people's choice' back in the day? Kincade's work might yet find it's way into the Tate..!

Dave L

The public already has a say - it votes with its feet. Put crap on display and people stay away.

Peter McGurk

I really cannot see the point of an organisation that tells the public what it has already known about to suggest that it be told about it - if you catch my drift.

Perhaps that's closer to the function of a museum, which a gallery is not.


but what about Raymond Williams and "Culture is Ordinary " then ?

Michael Birchmore

I should hope not. While I admit that galleries may not always show works I enjoy they are undoubtedly works I would not have seen as I did not know they exist? Anyway, every gallery can't ask all the public whatto exhibit? There can only ever be a select few. So at least let that few be those who know what they're doing.


When thinking about this, it reminded me of a quote that was highlighted in the reporting of Steve Jobs' death. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Jobs replied: "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want.”

Sometimes it takes a while to see things differently. Luckily the art world is big enough, and there are enough galleries, museums, web sites whathaveyou, where you can continue seeking out what you love, but hopefully are introduced to new things along the way.


A quote from the late Steve Jobs might apply here:

"You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.”

I feel that this is true.

You can't be tinkering with the engine , while the bus is already hurtling down the freeway. It's better to be the driver of a bus you've custom-built.

I would assume a talented curator would already be able to somewhat sense the impending zeitgeist of the populus, and then mine the field of art to raise up those artifacts and ideas which can make clear, and expand on, those prevailing ideas, challenging and inspiring the audience.

I loathe the idea of the common denominator.

I would rather hear what the best people in the field have to say, or (perhaps the exceptionally gifted youth, who still have their natural forces of intuition intact) , than to hear from every Dick and Jane.

I don't ask the public what's wrong when I have a medical problem. I ask the doctor.

Similarly, when I want an informed, visionary perspective on contemporary art and it's place in society, I go to the Tate, and I expect to hear from the very best experts.

Let's raise the bar, even if it means some people take that bar square in the forehead.


Sure, it's only fair that the public have a choice, seeing as they are the ones who go to view and enjoy the work. Even if it's just a section for public choice of art work.

Andrew Paul Wood

Heaven forbid that a public committee of citoyens should fill the museums with the works of Thomas Kincaid et al. I'm not ashamed to say art is elitist - so what? Should random members of the public be doing brain surgery, running football teams, major corporations, and the major NGOs and public services. Of course not. Like any specific niche, it requires a specific skill base and knowledge set, and - dare I say it - an educated and experienced eye.

Serhan Sahin

Based on what I believe the public need to have a say in what goes into museums. Change is everywhere, our society is changing, the way we see and interact with the world is changing. Thus as an inevitable result the way we interact with art is changing as well. Museums and galleries cannot go on with the attitude of putting themselves in the very centre and expect public would be circling around them. They are not the ivory towers of the high art or institutions to educate and normalise citizens as they originally thought to be.

Public has access to everything these days. People demand the change. As a student at MA in Cultural Management this is what I believe in. Museums, galleries or any other cultural institutions cannot be static. They have to dynamic, evolving institutions. They are not and will never be there to educate the public or taking people in and turn them into educated citizens who enjoy high art. Yes the existence of curators, scholars, experts cannot be denied and there is a whole group of people who studied and/or researched these subjects, they have experience of years and knowledge on the field cannot be compared to the ordinary public in many cases. However if the museums want to survive in these troubled times they should be open to public contribution, care what they demand and want to see. Public participation is a great tool for success and creating an atmosphere of sustainable development. Why do we need to wait and not to use it?

Michele Theberge

I, too, appreciate that curators bring to light for the public work that may not have been known. I appreciate that there are curators who have devoted their lives to the study of art past and contemporary and who put an enormous amount of thought and effort into assembling exhibitions.

I like the democratic idea of somehow involving the public more in curation of some exhibits.

I think there are unlimited ways to engage the public in exhibition programming in some way or other.

For instance, what if a group of young school children were invited into the painting vaults to curate an exhibition. Now THAT, I'd pay to see! How would they select, group and order pieces free of any art historical perspective or other agenda. What would they put next to other things?

Equally, I find it fascinating to hear my fellow artists select works and elements of visual culture that have inspired them. The range is so broad generally and often unexpected. Although I feel contemporary curation is moving in this direction. Bringing in a broad range of elements and perspectives that expand our notion of what "art" is.


This is a great question! I believe that museums should embrace a larger role as facilitator of social interaction and dialogue. I am uncertain if this means that the public should curate instead of the curators, but one step in a more transparent direction would be to offer the public insight into the process of selection. This opens the door to discussion. That being said, I can think one example of the public choosing artwork, which seems to work well: