A different kind of aim

My organisation is currently in a joint project with a museum. In our funding application, we were very specific about our aim: to engage culturally diverse people with the Roman sites in our area. This is not with a close focus on the sites’ history but rather on people’s own current experiences in the environment of which those sites are part.  

We collaborated with three external experts who took that aim and came up with a multiple-part project that centres on inviting people to be in the historic space and observe. This mass observation is as much about observing (read: reflecting on) the site as it is about observing one’s own place within our society. This may take people back in time or it may take them into the present. Either way, I am thoroughly excited [1].

Some of the museum interpreters who followed our recent invitation to meet our experts and hear more about the project and the method we wanted to use seemed markedly less excited. They had come with specific issues: school classes that were disinterested, visitors that lacked even the most basic knowledge of history… As one interpreter put it, ‘They need to know this!’ They seemed to expect that in our session, they would learn an innovative and guaranteed way to impart that knowledge.

In hindsight, I really wish we had interrupted the session right then and there. There was a fundamental difference in the two approaches to audiences. Our starting point had been Third Space. I will at some future point write more about my current thinking on Third Space; however, for the purposes of this post let me just say that one key element of Third Space is critical self-reflection on the part of those in power (e.g. interpreters or course tutors). This critical self-reflection in turn is the foundation from which to achieve the aim of Third Space, which is to facilitate truly open or indeed co-creative interpretive and/or learning opportunities [2].

In other words, it is the polar opposite of imparting any set knowledge in a more or less one-way fashion. There is no need to in Third Space, as in ‘They need to know this.’ Third Space is more interested in what they bring and what new knowledge may be created subsequently.

However, we didn’t interrupt the session. Instead, we ended up having numerous short discussions about the relevance of recognising our own privilege and the validity of ‘visitor’ feedback on what they felt were barriers, to name a few. On top of this, I was told a few days after the session that those same museum interpreters had missed a clear learning outcome (for the project) and concrete and assured instructions on how to get (visitors) there.

Interrupting the session would not have made any difference on this latter point. The crux is that openness is the very characteristic of Third Space. While we did explain our aim and method (see above) it cannot be any more prescriptive than that. Otherwise, it ceases to be open, co-creative and a Third Space. Third Space can and must still be evaluated in its effectiveness, but success is defined differently from the kind of knowledge transfer that the museum interpreters implied.  

However, I do believe that interrupting the session would have made something else possible: an honest discussion about our fundamental beliefs about the role of museums and in consequence, about audiences. It is one thing to talk about knowledge that one person has and the other person should gain. What this discussion obscures, however, are the more crucial questions that lie beneath its surface, such as why other people’s interests are given less importance in this approach. It is the answer to those questions that would make a lot of other discussions unnecessary.

For example, if a museum isn’t actually interested in sharing power [3], then yes, it is unnecessary to do exercises on recognising museum interpreters’ privileges. If a museum does not truly value diversity [4] then there is no point discussing methods for audience development [5].

Having that transparency about the fundamental beliefs behind our arguments would enable a wider and more meaningful conversation within our society about culture and heritage, which of course itself would have a democratizing effect (which I imagine some also do not want). At the very least, it would make visible what cultural (and social) aims decision makers pursue as they fund public institutions. I think we have come to the point where such transparency can no longer be avoided in Germany. It is vitally important in a society that becomes ever more diverse on a daily basis. At the end of the day, this is about the accountability of publicly funded institutions.

Notes

[1] I will write more about the project in a later post around the time it kicks off in late September.

[2] There is an interesting discussion to be had over other aims of Third Space both as method and as occasion, as it were. Some argue that since Third Space is about co-creation and openness, it cannot have any additional aims. In its truest sense, this may be so. However, if Third Space is to have relevance in contemporary cultural practice, I believe that at least for now, it does need to have additional aims so as not to become arbitrary. These aims may sometimes best be understood as context, or impulse, or reason for the Third Space to be applied – but more on that another time.

[3] This could be, for example, because they use a narrow definition of academic ‘subject’ knowledge, which they consider superior to all other knowledge on the matter.

[4] For example, because they don’t actually want the families with the noisy children, or those who don’t behave according to the ‘code’.  

[5] Audience development programmes that are not based in true beliefs are prone to fail anyway. The true beliefs will always shine through, for example in language. One discussion we had during the session was about the use of the term Ausländer, or foreigner. Many, if not the majority of people without German passports do not like the term Ausländer. And yet here we were, arguing over whether that should matter.

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One thought on “A different kind of aim

  1. Really interesting Nicole. I really believe all organisations who exist to serve or represent the public (past, present or future) need to explore what they are more deeply. In doing so, identifying what they fundamentally stand for.

    I’m not suggesting this can’t be flexible and up for debate, but if having diversity or equal access as part of a ‘mission statement’ is all they plan to do to increase diversity and access, what’s the point of it being in the statement? Too often I fear it’s a tickbox exercise and the people at the decision making level don’t make it as important as it should be to the organisational vision, this filters down to all staff, volunteers and ultimately potential visitors.

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