In one of my jobs, emails from our security guards about incidents were a regular occurrence, usually involving large groups of youngsters trespassing and getting drunk. One day, I was feeling rather depressed about this and I told my friend, ‘I feel I need to be a social worker in this job, not a heritage manager.’
The recent Culture and Poverty report by Baroness Kay Andrews reminded me of that day. Decision makers expect a lot of heritage and museums professionals, especially in such challenging and demanding environments as can be found in Wales . However, I’m neither sure that we have the training to meet the particular challenges of these environments, nor that we should be the people (and sector) expected to do so.
Take community engagement for example, which is one of the key foci of the report. It should of course be part of the skills-set of any heritage manager or museum professional. But there is quite a difference between engaging with a community that ‘just’ may not visit your museum, and engaging with a community that struggles to survive. It is one thing showing young people what the museum has to offer them, and quite another discouraging them from burning down a historical structure in the first place (and I mean literally).
I certainly wasn’t prepared for the latter when I first started. My team and I did a lot of the reaching out and networking that the report calls for, but throughout, the above feeling stayed with me. It was exhausting.
So while I fully support the view that heritage, culture and the arts have a lot to contribute to all sorts of social initiatives, I’m not sure we can or should place the core burden on heritage and museums professionals. Yes, they should be open and willing to engage with all kinds of partners, such as Community Safety, Youth Workers and Social Care. And yes, they should certainly actively reach out to them all. But if decision makers expect heritage and museums professionals to deliver these programmes as the lead, then they will need to provide the necessary training and support. They will also need to provide better funding, which doesn’t constantly threaten museums and heritage professionals with losing their jobs, so that skills can not only be gained, but also retained long-term. The same goes for those carefully nurtured relationships not only with partners, but also with (let’s call them) users – one-offs or constantly changing staff undermine and actually damage work that has already been done.
Decision-makers also need to take responsibility for the, well, decisions that they make which affect society at large. Benefit cuts and immigration caps, and the rhetoric that goes with these, probably all have a greater detrimental impact on social exclusion and deprivation than any community engagement efforts by museums and heritage professionals can alleviate. If families can’t afford to travel to our sites, then making them more attractive won’t provide a solution – it’s the government that needs to do something. And so on.
I am not suggesting that the report ignores the above entirely – it doesn’t . But having worked in the South Wales Valleys, and seen the excellent efforts of so many museums, heritage and social work people there, I’m just a little bit worried about recommendations to a government and the cultural sector as a whole that focus so much on what the sector should do and should achieve. I’m beginning to get worried that this is just setting heritage up for failure, by shifting responsibilities and creating unrealistic expectations in a context that is itself becoming increasingly damaging to social inclusion, positive empowerment, and opportunities for all.
 The report writes that Wales has the highest rate of child poverty outside London. Wales has some of the most deprived areas in the UK. (p. 12) 24% of the population in Wales live in Communities First clusters. (p.13)
 Recommendation 2, for example, at least suggests the creation of a task force to the Welsh Government, which would ‘identify solutions to barriers around transport’ (p. 4), although it doesn’t outright suggest funding be made available.