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Image: Dr Maria Balshaw. Photo: Johnnie Shand Kydd.

The Future is Now: Developing the Museum in the 21st Century | Thoughts on Tate Director Maria Balshaw’s Address


Recently, our Communications Manager Esther Gyorki went to hear Dr. Maria Balshaw CBE, Director of the Tate Galleries in London, speak about the development of museums in the 21st century. Dr Balshaw spoke about connecting with an expanded and diverse audience, and how access to arts and culture has the ability to change the world. She challenged and questioned what a museum can be for and why people visit museums and arts spaces.

While Dr Balshaw spoke on an international level and with the resources and experiences of one of the largest museums in the world, many of her key points and learnings, outlined below, are relevant to regional arts organisations, not just museums and galleries, across Australia.

Connecting with audiences

How can we connect with an expanded and diverse audience? This needs to be addressed, or ignored to the detriment of organisations. Thinking about what art, artists and audiences both want and need is vital – art and society are interrelated. Consider planning projects with your audiences and the community, not for audiences and the community. In addition to this, consider the importance of youth engagement– in particular engaging meaningfully and again, plan projects with youth, not for them. (You can read more about the Tate’s project Circuit: A National Youth Network here.) As Dr. Balshaw put it, the Tate strives to support people to find ‘their Tate’.

Being Open

Museums must be open in every sense of the word. Art museums cannot be civic spaces if not everyone feels included, “it is important for visitors to see people like themselves represented on the walls of the spaces”. The space should feel like a place where everyone can be comfortable.

Part of the Conversation

Museums need to be part of the conversation – think about the global and local climate – what you do should be global but locally rooted and relevant, with the organisation shaping a diverse account of the area where you are. For example, the Tate sees itself as needing to be part of the conversations around housing, employment and other important issues that artists in London, and the UK, face. Galleries, museums and art spaces need to be talking about race, gender, mental health, homelessness and other issues that are important to society – we need to be willing to have difficult conversations.


Consider the museum as a space for education. Be adventurous and wild, and dumb down at your own peril. Galleries and museums should be places of entertainment and education and offer a wide spectrum of experiences. Assume that visitors come to the space to see things that they don’t know about.

Finally, think about changing the notion of what a museum can be to the public. Think about your audiences – museums have a responsibility towards and need to be relevant to a diverse audience.

Image: Dr Maria Balshaw. Photo: Johnnie Shand Kydd.