A Story of Exclusion, Or: Why I still think targeting audiences keeps museums on the wrong path

The ‘Extremism’ speech delivered this week by Britain’s Prime Minister made me ponder again that concept of ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences, especially what we call ‘BAME’ groups, and how the museums sector is using it to shape its practice. To me, what has been happening to Muslims in the UK over the last decade illustrates very eloquently what is wrong (and it is very wrong in my opinion) with this.

What we’ve been witnessing, what we are witnessing, is a systematic exclusion of people from society, and a complete misrepresentation of who they are. As this comment on the experiences of Muslims since London’s 7/7 bombings painfully explains, Muslims have been made to feel that they are suspect, ‘other’, and have to constantly prove their ‘Britishness’. In her comment on the PM’s speech, this woman notes how, effectively, she was dragged from being just another regular Brit to being a ‘Muslim’. Her religion has become the focus for society, a focus that has also taken a truly nasty turn: ‘Muslim’, she observes, is equated to ‘terrorist’. And government initiatives meant to tackle ‘extremism’ are targeted almost exclusively at Muslims, and the woman wonders: would she ever even want to participate, given how unpredictable the consequences of such participation are. As she writes, ‘just talking about certain aspects of Islam is now considered extremist’.

One of the government’s targeted measures is the PREVENT programme, and the changes that came into effect at the start of July. It requires all sorts of institutions, including universities to, in short, get better at spotting ‘radicalisation’ of their [Muslim] students. The Conversation UK posted a great analysis of this here, with this sobering quote in response to Islamophobic graffiti at the University of Birmingham:

‘As a Muslim student at the University of Birmingham and a born-and-bred Brummie, am I surprised by these attacks on my community? The short answer: No.’

And yet the measures are targeted at the student, their religion: not at the attacks from the rest of society. In fact, in his speech, the Prime Minister went as far as calling it ‘paranoia’ when people, including Muslims, criticise PREVENT for singling them out. He refuses to engage with the idea that society’s actions may be the bigger problem than people’s [Muslim] religion. And so the questions the woman in her comment asks, about what the government will do to curb the increasingly negative media coverage of Muslims, or the rise in Islamophopbic attacks, will probably remain ignored.

And what has all this led to? The woman writes that she feels ‘isolated’ and ‘scared’ by Islamophobia and ‘double standards’. In The Conversation piece on PREVENT, another student is quoted saying,

‘…it’s that nagging thought in the back of your head that keeps coming back … do I belong here?’

So the journey of exclusion was not one that started with these people’s religion. It is not that which made them, initially, feel isolated, excluded, as if they did not belong. It was a process that was initiated by wider society, through focusing on one attribute about who they are, and denying the validity of all others – as if compared to our being a ‘Brummie’, this attribute in them was somehow less, or different, or overshadowed by being a Muslim. Society then continued with targeted measures, targeted, again, at this one attribute. Society created the exclusion. And society expects them to ‘fix’ it, to ‘integrate’, as the Prime Minister said. The woman commentator noted how she has started to dread and avoid altogether news coverage. Perhaps, she has also started to disengage with other aspects of public life – because she may  not know what to expect. People may be tired of the mainstream narrative that goes unchallenged. They do not want to be singled out again. They just want to be a Brit, a student, a football fan.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know where my argument is going here [1]. For one, museums and their audiences do not live in a bubble. I’ve already seen the well-meaning programmes targeted at Muslims, and they completely and utterly fail to even acknowledge the wider issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims – they ignore those issues, just like the Prime Minister does. They also perpetuate the exclusion: once again, we’re defining people by their religion, as if the fact that they were ‘born and bred’ here suddenly no longer had the same, or possibly stronger meaning for all of us together. Instead of providing a platform that says, ‘We are all the same’, museums’ targeted programmes reaffirm otherness: for example the ‘otherness’ of Muslims recontextualising ‘our’ local history collections so that ‘we’ can better understand ‘Islam’. Targeted programmes ignore the fact that Muslims, in this example (and you could take immigrants too these days) have been actively excluded and demonized, and they reiterate subtly that this institution too thinks the issue lies with ‘them’. Like the government’s measures, programmes target ‘them’, not the rest of society. We ignore the source of the problem, and target the ‘symptom’ – in our case, under-representation in our audience profiles.

For as long as we insist on talking about ‘hard-to-reach’ and ‘BAME’ groups, and a practice of ‘targeting’ them, we will continue a discourse that emphasises ‘otherness’ and ignores how we as institutions may be part of the problem. It prevents us from developing a different way of thinking, one that is about genuine tackling of barriers that we as institutions and societies create, and of inventing practices that are about honest integration of everyone. As this commentator wrote, ‘Integration is a two-way process’. It really is.

Notes

[1] I’ve thought long about whether I should even post this. I’ve started feeling like a broken record, and yet the discourse of ‘hard-to-reach’ groups continues, as do the practices of targeting audiences. Over recent weeks, the British Association for Heritage Interpretation’s re-launched awards celebrated the practice again, and a client of ours was told by Heritage Lottery Fund to more specifically ‘target’ the ‘hard-to-reach’. There is some merit to some elements of these practices, but by and large, the uncritical way it’s bandished about does more harm than good, in my opinion.

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