Social inclusion, integration: Too big a task for interpretation?

Two days ago, I was told by someone calling himself ‘an Englishman’ that I should ‘go back to my own country’.  This has left me deeply shaken on several levels, and it is also making me ask some uncomfortable questions about my own assertions and beliefs about the potential of interpretation [1].

Only a few posts ago I asserted that in my opinion, interpretation can do a lot to support social justice. And although I fully agreed with Emma Waterton’s assessment that social inclusion was often proclaimed and pursued in simplistic and ultimately hegemonic terms within the sector, I did feel that if only interpreters were smart and insightful enough about it, they could still achieve a lot. After all, I would never have simply introduced the slave story at Monticello in the belief that the lack thereof was all the reason why African Americans weren’t visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home.  [2]

After what happened to me, I’m not that sure anymore. First of all, our current discourse about social inclusion, integration, and anything else that is aimed at bringing people together in a diverse society, are exclusively aimed at the newcomers, or other ‘excluded groups’. I may be making a shamefully discriminatory statement myself here when I observe that the gentleman who said these things to me isn’t someone that I would normally expect to visit a museum or heritage site.  So what does our inclusive programming do for him?  I also daresay that anyone who feels it is acceptable to racially abuse someone will not be enticed into ‘an English’ museum, in my case, by an exhibition on the culture and traditions of the immigrants to ‘his country’.

The other side of the coin, as Emma Waterton has already made clear, is also not that simple.  We may get a few more people through the door by putting on exhibitions that reflect their migrant or ‘excluded’ cultures [3], but I’m no longer convinced that such interventions actually achieve more than boost our figures.  Do they really promote inclusion and integration?  No.  Because this approach is still one-sided.  It doesn’t address the underlying causes of ‘exclusion’, or racism, or whatever social challenge it tries to tackle.

I can see a variety of reasons for this: our existing audiences may not appreciate having to see their society in such a harsh light, and feeling like they’re expected to take a stance.  And taking a stance is what it is ultimately all about: the museum, or indeed the whole heritage sector, is only a part of a wider social system that churns over these issues on a daily basis.  Our sector alone can’t tackle it: it may not even be the best place for it, as I expressed in my response to the Museums 2020 report.  Social inclusion, integration, racism, these are all political and social issues that are part of the daily negotiations and explorations of a diverse society.  In fact, they drip into our own conversations: in various workplaces I had staff call visitors ‘foreigners’, or advise strongly against portraying for example something as commonplace (in my opinion) as a lesbian relationship in our programmes. In Britain at the moment the talk is of benefit caps and limits on immigration, and there are reprisals against immigrants after a soldier was brutally killed in London three weeks ago.  These are just some of the daily factors that shape how a society grapples with the challenges brought on by a global world (and don’t get me wrong – I’m all for a discussion of any issue).

I don’t know what the answer is.  But when the – in the grand scheme of things – minor incident of racism that I experienced completely threw me to the ground, I didn’t think of my local museum as the place to go to. I relied on my friends, many abroad, but some, thankfully, in Britain, to tell me that they didn’t approve of this, that I have a right to be here, as a German, without the need to forego who I am.  I needed the police to tell me that they were here for me, and my neighbours to pop around to see if I was okay. And I sought refuge in my own German-ness, defiantly listening to German music, watching German films, phoning my friends in Germany – and all of this as someone who thinks, writes, dreams in English, and knows more about the United States and Britain than she does about her native Germany.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that if interpretation and heritage really can help with integration, social inclusion, and racism, then we need to do a lot more reading into the research in those areas. It’s not an easy matter, especially not for those ‘excluded’ groups as we so simplistically label them.  As for me – I don’t know yet what will come of this, both with regards to my interpretive practice, and my personal life. I certainly have a lot to think about now.


[1] I would like to take this opportunity to say to everyone who experiences more substantial racism than the stupid comment and rant that I got how deeply, deeply I now empathize with you.  My outrage against all discrimination and racism that I had before was simplistic; I did not appreciate how hurtful it is, and what an impact it has.

[2] Please see my response to a comment in this post.

[3] I hasten to add that at no place where I’ve been responsible for interpretation have we ever used this approach.  I prefer a project approach, that brings people together, and the outcome lies in the process, rather than any output.  That way, what they do is up to them – I’m not going to prescribe what the participants have to talk about, or how they want to express themselves.  If they want to have a heated argument, then I’m happy to provide the platform for it.


4 thoughts on “Social inclusion, integration: Too big a task for interpretation?

  1. Nicole, I am delighted that you are in my country and in my profession and would like to publically acknowldge the valuable contribution you have made to both. I would like you to feel deeply at home here. Please balance this view against that of my compatriot and feel it as deeply. We are of course a very mixed gathering on these islands and include******s (sorry, all the words I want to use here would besmirch your measured and well spoken blog and would have to be deleted.)

    Your thoughts on what inclusion means are in my view quite correct.

    1. Thank you, Susan, for your wonderful words. I’m still grappling with how I can use this experience to make my own interpretive practice in the areas of inclusion, integration and racism more relevant and effective, and hopefully something valuable will come of this in the end. It just makes me feel very humble and inadequate when it comes to really addressing what other people must be experiencing.

  2. Dear Nicole,
    What an interesting blog! The same happened to me when I was in the United States, Virginia. I was told by an African American woman that I was not a citizen and that I should go back to my own country. So that was said to a blond Dutch girl (me) who had actually never experienced racism before. Later in Boston I talked with some black guys on the street and they asked me whether I knew the Dutch brought slavery? Of course I knew, but being sort of accused of that on the middle of the street by strangers, just because I was Dutch really surprised me. I was working that year in Colonial Williamsburg, actually being very much involved in the program the Revolutionary City, and critically analysing and comparing the way they had changed their programming to be more inclusive, telling the story of Becoming American from different points of view in society, including the male, female, black, and white perspective. Then, I decided I should always show inclusive stories in my own projects of interpretation, but during the years I’ve found out that most of my projects involve the rich (counterbalanced by the stories of the servants), female and male perspectives, but I don’t do really much on excluded groups (who-ever they exactly may be, referring to your point of easy labelling them). For schools I developed a program about slavery and dance, that until today is not put into action yet, whereas a Roman soldier stays ever popular to order. The client seems more interested in nice costumes and a light experience of history, then going into complicated topics. What the visitor really wants is another story, but that’s what makes your blog so interesting. We make programs that are eventually taking into consideration so many different factors that it is difficult to be inclusive and worthwhile for everybody. Nevertheless I always prepare the character scores for my actors with as many different points of view as possible, posing them as protagonists and antagonists on different topics, so that they can discuss with the visitors, and make them think critically about the theme that is put forward so the visitor can form his own opinion and experience the richness of history.

    1. Dear Martine,
      Thank you for sharing your experiences in the US. You raise a very interesting point here about history and its resonance in the present. It’s a real challenge to talk about history without it feeling like you are being accused of the outrages of the past (don’t I just know it as a German). At the same time, and difficult as it is, I think it’s also an opportunity to perhaps get a step closer to mutual understanding – by exploring what we each feel. That’s completely impossible if the other isn’t willing to engage (as would have been the case with the gentleman in my case), but if they are, then it can be great.
      I’m always discouraged when I hear about clients who have a simplistic view of what visitors are interested in. Whitewashing history and only presenting the easy stories is deeply unsatisfying to visitors. They’re not stupid, they know you’ve left something out. So good on you for including as many viewpoints as possible, even if the clients don’t use them. They will hopefully come around at some point.
      Good luck,

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