Next week, I will take up a new post and in doing so, I will formally be leaving the heritage and museum sectors that I have worked in over the past years. From now on, I will be working in the further education and socio-cultural sector.
I will admit that when I first read the job advert for my new role, I paused to do some soul-searching. What would I be leaving behind? Would this include the very thing that I am passionate about – (cultural) heritage and its interpretation? Would I lose my own professional identity?
Somewhat to my surprise, the research into the sector and the institution that I would be joining brought me renewed clarity concerning my values in heritage and interpretation. It also gave me an immense sense of excitement. It started with the organising premise and raison d’être – enshrined in law, no less – of the German Volkshochschulen: to provide access to education for all. Breaking down barriers to access, inclusion, diversity: these are all principles that underpin the work of the sector. And not just on paper either. There are annual statistics, baselines and monitoring on the basis of which the claims are checked and the work is further developed. For example, I was thrilled to see courses offered in Turkish, and the number of collaborations that the Volkshochschule I will join is already doing – and has been doing for quite some time. Even ‘education’, which is a term I am not particularly fond of , is explicitly understood and described as the ability to acquire knowledge, to make an informed judgment about information provided, and to participate in and contribute to society. In fact, the overriding aim of the sector, and Volkshochschulen in particular, is to enable everyone’s participation in our democracy, not just understood politically, but culturally and socially as well.
All of that is what has been motivating me in my work at cultural heritage sites and in museums. I have never been focused on a site’s material or evidential values, and this goes for museum collections as well. On the contrary, I have spent the better part of my professional career arguing that sites and museums must be more than places for the presentation of expert knowledge, in the sense that it continues to be overwhelmingly defined, which is material or historical knowledge. I have supported the view that such expert knowledge too often not only exerts an undemocratic hegemony over heritage, but also misses the very values that turn something into heritage in the first place. My own focus has consequently always been on supporting (and understanding) people’s heritage work on the basis of my own and other’s research, particularly, but not exclusively from within critical heritage studies.
Engaging with the legal framework, strategies and practices for the further education and sociocultural sector in Germany has made me realise – somewhat ironically, considering my long-held stance – that I do not need to be working at a cultural heritage site or in a museum in order to maintain my focus on facilitating and understanding heritage work. Power over the management of the materiality on site is all that I will be losing in changing sectors. I believe I can live with that loss.
In fact, after the last three years, I feel a distinct sense of liberation. Particularly in Germany, there is still a long way to go before these values of participation, democratization and inclusion will be widely shared in the museum and heritage sectors. There are initiatives aplenty, but merely looking for example at the heated discussions at conferences about using simpler language in interpretive texts, or the need for the federal association to persuade museums to undertake visitor studies (!!) reveals that the institutional impact of these initiatives often remains rather limited.
Like I said, my focus is, always has been and always will be on people. I have never been in this to garner prestige for myself. The fact that some people are now telling me that in leaving a museum post I am losing status and ‘taking a step downwards’ just reassures me: I have made the right decision. Now I can focus on the work that I consider important and right, without having to endlessly defend it.
 The reason is that while even in formal pedagogy, the concept has evolved, in practice I find that there is still a hint of a one-way-street of (expert) instruction in quantifiable knowledge.