Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

I am fortunate to be part of a cross-sectoral knowledge exchange project at the moment which looks at practices for working with new arrivals and minority populations [1]. We are five partners in total: two theatre companies (one from Britain, one from Italy), a business consultancy based in France, a university in Turkey and the municipal museums in Germany that I represent.


This mix of sectors and countries is such an asset. The project is still in its early stages, yet it is already becoming clear that each of us brings a different set of experiences and viewpoints to the table that are both determined by the respective discourses within which we locate ourselves professionally, and also by our native cultures.


This may seem an obvious point; and indeed it was for this reason that the partners were chosen [2]. However, the first training week in Turkey has already revealed that this will not be a simple and benign exchange. We may have expected that our different perspectives would just add up to something that the partners individually simply had not thought of yet. Instead, I am beginning to think that this project is as much about challenging each other’s certainties as it is about learning new methods from each other.


Take the fact that the German contingent and I didn’t actually attend the Turkey training. This was a decision based on fear: the then-German foreign minister had just warned all Germans not to travel to Turkey. Then I met the Turkish colleagues, and I quickly began to wonder about German media coverage. Yes, there seemed to be an issue. But was it really the kind of issue that they portrayed on German TV? Or was I being manipulated in the same way I was told the Turkish public were being misled?


The reports from participants of the training, and our subsequent discussion in the steering committee, also paint a picture of thought patterns clashing. The training was focused on a theoretical foundation for intercultural exchange. It seems that the Turkish colleagues presented a level of cultural categorisation that the other partners were uncomfortable with. Most of us have been striving to transcend cultural classifications and boundaries in our professional practices for years. We are motivated by the desire to see people first, not subjects defined by a supposedly distinct culture that more or less allows us to predict their expectations and behaviours. In other words, what was presented as a theory appears to have seemed, well, wrong, and somewhat outdated.


When we looked at this some more, there seemed to be a divide: the EU, or dare I say the ‘European’ partners on one hand, and the Turkish partner on the other. And some of us became uneasy: was it really ‘wrong’ and outdated what the Turkish colleagues had presented, or was this an expression of our own eurocentrism? And what does this mean in a project that looks at new arrivals, many of whom are precisely not from Europe, and therefore likely to arrive here with worldviews and values that may seem just as ‘wrong’ and outdated to us? What will our response be then?


Suddenly, the project is about much more than collecting good practices in working with refugees and migrants. The project is also and fundamentally about us. It has the potential to challenge and test the core of our beliefs, and thus develop a truly critical practice. For example, in my view, the discussion about the training in Turkey has already raised questions about the extent of our rejection of an assimilatory approach to the ‘integration’ of new arrivals. Our daily practice may be much more determined by our instinct to persuade someone else of what we think is right. We have already started to discuss democracy in response, and I think this will be a constant as we look at concrete practice for each of our sectors. I fully expect to be surprised and shocked in equal measure. And in all honesty: I can’t wait.





[1] The project is an Erasmus + experience exchange called ‘The Promised Land’. It builds on the work that three of the partners – myself included – did in 2016 during the EU Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the inclusion of refugees and migrants through culture. You can read the report from the dialogue here. During the project, each partner will host the other partners for a week of training. Inbetween, the steering committee meets to review progress and learning, with the aim of collating a booklet of good practice methods working with refugees and migrants.

[2] The lead partner is Border Crossings in the UK, with its ever-passionate director, Michael Walling. It was Michael and his colleague Lucy who initiated the project and approached everyone.


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Last month, I presented [1] a paper at the Re-Imagining Challenging History conference in Cardiff, Wales. It combined and developed two of the key things I’ve written about a lot on this blog recently: that museums’ silence is never neutral, and that objectivity, as an expression of ‘truth’ (including a ‘material’ truth), does not exist.


The paper became an example of when history overtakes us. As I was putting the finishing touches to it, Brexit had just happened. Suddenly, my suggestions in the paper about the negative impact on immigrants of the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in British media and politics [2] were superseded by actual xenophobic attacks on EU Citizens, which many argue were enabled by the tone of the EU referendum campaign. The fact that the overwhelming silence in society on this rhetoric was now pierced by outspoken support for EU citizens and a critique of how the campaign had been conducted, all of a sudden seemed to make my arguments in the paper self-evident. Obviously there had been an issue. Obviously museums, society – anyone – should have done more before now. There hadn’t even been a silent majority coming to the rescue just in time. There had only been silence.


The world has since moved on, the country seems to have come to terms with what has happened, and we’re back to politics that sees people as mere bargaining chips, and a media obsessed with focusing on what Brexit will do for immigration controls and ‘taking our country back’. In a sad way, perhaps, it has become worthwhile again that I did write the paper.


But this time, there is no excuse for museums. Silence is not neutral. If museums are silent, they are supporting the hate, the harassment that is happening now. As key institutions of social and cultural life, museums that are silent are enabling such actions by not opposing them. Opposing them is political, yes. But in remaining silent museums are not apolitical either: they are siding with someone. And it’s not the immigrants.


Of course, museums can choose to side with whoever they want. They choose their own values. They just need to stop thinking that others don’t notice. And when consequently those others choose not to visit, museums need to take ownership of the reasons for this, and stop subtly chastising them as ‘hard-to-reach’. They are not hard to reach. Some of them may just find museums’ socio-political messaging hard to swallow [3].


Part of that messaging, I would argue, is the way in which history and objects are deployed by museums. I’ve blogged about this several times: In this post I argued that the recourse to history is largely irrelevant and has little, if any impact on contemporary debate, while in this post I suggested that the way museums choose object-narratives avoids engaging with current events. None of this does anything for museums’ impact on society, as envisaged by Museums Change Lives, the British Museum Association’s (MA) vision for museums. It most definitely does not advance society, or support social inclusion, as the MA hoped. In fact, in the paper I suggested that with their current approach, museums in Britain have been allowing, if not promoting certain myths about the nation that cannot be reconciled with current realities. I’m not one for ‘busting’ myths just for the sake of it. However, when myths become a potentially dangerous source of complacency, as I would argue they have become in Britain, then I do think museums must mount a challenge if they are serious about being relevant to contemporary society. Not to preach, or to convert, or to persuade. But to make visible what we may otherwise not choose to see. As far as I’m concerned, anything else is quickly and simply becoming not good enough.


You can download the full paper I presented at the conference here: Silence is not neutral and objectivity does not exist.



[1] I presented the paper in absentia via audio recording. Sadly I could no longer attend in person as planned. Shame! It sounded like a great conference that prompted really good conversation, as seen under the conference’s hashtag #challhist.

[2] See for example Nikolaidis, A. 2015. ‘Immigration and the 2015 Election: The Banal, the Racist, and the Unspoken’. In UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign. Early Reflections from Leading UK Academics., edited by D. Jackson and E. Thorsen, 98. Bournemouth: Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/page-files/UK%20Election%20Analysis%202015%20-%20Jackson%20and%20Thorsen%20v1.pdf. For a comparative study of the years 2006 and 2013, see also Balch, A. and Balabanova, E., 2016. ‘Ethics, Politics and Migration: Public Debates on the Free Movement of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK, 2006 – 2013.’ Politics 36(1), p. 19-35.

[3] In the paper, I juxtaposed museums’ silence on the nastiness of the immigration debate and their enthusiastic support for the commemorations of the First World War. In both narratives, but uncommented by museums, many people will have recognised the same ‘us and them’ binarity. Britain is famously a country where the ‘Great War’ is solemnly commemorated year after year, and any refusal to participate in the accepted mode of reverence and gratitude is generally met with criticism. You can read about one of the  debates about the public wearing of the poppy here, and I would also recommend reading this paper about Britain’s relationship to Remembrance: Basham, V., 2015. ‘Gender, Race Militarism and Remembrance: The Everyday Geopolitics of the Poppy’. Gender, Place and Culture: a journal of feminist geography. Available from: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/17371. [Accessed 11.06.2016].


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I have tried for a week now to pen a dispassionate response to the British Museums Association’s (MA) article in this month’s Museums Journal relating to Britain’s EU Referendum [1]. I can’t. However, I still think that my experiences and views, and my bitterness, can offer something of value not only to British colleagues, but hopefully to others also.


This is a deeply personal and subjective post. I make no apology for it.


Just take a stand already

I don’t actually think the MA needs to take a stand for or against remaining in the EU. But there is a stand to take for an organisation that is fundamentally about culture and society (all of society!) and an organisation too, which, according to its own account, seeks to make a positive social impact for everyone. We’re getting the economic argument everywhere in the current debate, and that is already immensely frustrating to someone like me [2]. I would have liked to see the MA move beyond the question of the financial impact of leaving the EU on museums, and pick up on those things most others leave out. Listening to museums discourse at any other time, we’re led to believe that museums work with groups outside the mainstream, that they are about social cohesion, inclusion, and justice, about providing space for safe debates and engagement with views other than our own. So at the very least I would have liked to see the MA comment on where they stand for example on the one-sided way EU Citizens are being portrayed as mostly a drain on the UK’s social services.


This is not being neutral

I cannot help but feel that most likely, despite declaring that ‘museums are not neutral’, this lack of a clear stand by the MA is meant to be just that: neutral. They probably don’t want to be seen as trying to influence members, and alienate those who might disagree. But this complete silence on those very issues (above) that normally museums claim as their natural territory for making an impact is anything but neutral. This assessment by an associate professor at the London School of Economics expresses eloquently what it feels like to live in Britain at the moment as an EU Citizen, and the questions quite a few of us are asking ourselves right now about this country. By not highlighting and responding to these far-reaching social and political concerns that are raised here, the MA and museums are not only leaving unoccupied a space that in my opinion they should claim, they also suggest that they’re okay with the current state of affairs.


How about something like this?

I’ll make a quick excursion to Germany. Only this week, cultural institutions including museums (!) in Saxony-Anhalt, a state that has been particularly plagued by Pegida and recent gains in the state assembly by the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland party, came together to take a stand. They had the perception that ‘in recent months the political climate in the state has changed and public discussions have taken on an ever sharper tone. During the course of this, callous statements have found their way into these social debates that are unacceptable.’ [3] And so they are displaying banners, visible for everyone, declaring their belief in Article 1 of the German constitution: ‘Human dignity is inviolable.’ To this institutions add their own values that are most important to them, for example, ‘the right to asylum’. This is not mainstream. The refugees for example are not the majority in Saxony-Anhalt. But these institutions stand by them, and they make it known, which is likely to annoy quite a few people in the state. The institutions are happy to have a discussion with them. But they state clearly what values they want to see upheld, and which ones they will defend.


Context, you say?

In the two short paragraphs that end the MA article that set off this outburst, the MA’s policy officer is quoted as saying that the EU referendum provides an opportunity for museums to ‘give the debate a historical and social context’. Now, in the same issue of the journal, there is an interesting exchange on dealing with the legacy of empire [4]. Here, a – to me – very peculiar attitude emerges toward what museums can explore and how [5]. I may be unfair in thinking that this type of approach might be used also by others (the majority) to give context to the EU referendum. And if you come across an exhibition that does more than give a history of the EU and Britain’s relationship with it, go beyond some form of ‘fact-check’ of the arguments put forth by other players, and add more challenge to the mainstream view than an ‘I am an Immigrant’[6] style of display about the contribution of EU citizens to Britain, then do let me know. If, however, this type of exhibition is all that we’re getting, then I do not find this a context worth having. It’s not inclusive, it’s not representative, and it’s not contributing to the critical development of society. This is a mainstream narrative with the most tame of interventions (that would be the ‘I am an Immigrant’ element).


Let’s assume there is a future for us

But let’s imagine Britain stays in the EU, and EU Citizens can continue to live here without having to go through Britain’s famously hostile immigration system. What then? Are we just going to pretend that none of this ever happened? Is the MA suddenly going to become ‘my’ organisation again even though it too was content to ignore how EU Citizens in Britain were treated and represented? Or has instead a veil been irreversibly ripped off Britain’s face and my illusion of belonging? All I know is that silence, ‘neutrality’ and exhibitions like those I described above are not going to heal the wounds [7].




[1] The article focuses on funding: Steel, P., 2016. ‘What would leaving the EU mean for the cultural sector?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 7. The editorial of the journal includes a reference to the referendum around the broad questions of identity, but mostly in terms of what Britain’s identity is. The existence of non-Brits in this country is not reflected.

[2] I’m first and foremost a European (and YES, that is in an ‘EU’ sense, not a loosely and near-meaninglessly defined historical Europe). For me, Europe is about social integration, shared histories, shared culture, and most importantly, a shared present experience. I realised that most forcefully when I lived in the United States. I am reminded of it every time I go across to what Britons call ‘Europe’: the Belgians, the Poles, the French, these are my people. I know that Brits don’t see the EU like that. But I do.

[3] ‘…in den vergangenen Monaten [hat sich] das politische Klima im Land verändert […] und die öffentlichen Auseinandersetzungen [haben] an Schärfe zugenommen […]. Dabei haben sich auch menschenverachtende Töne in die gesellschaftlichen Debatten gemischt, die nicht hinnehmbar sind.’ (my translation)

[4] Mohammad, A. and Smith, A., 2016. ‘The conversation: Are museums doing enough to portray the legacy of British empire?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 17.

[5] An art curator writes that ‘museums are fundamentally concerned with the details of history, as represented by specific objects’, and therefore, ‘we are perhaps placing too heavy a burden of responsibility on these institutions expecting them to address such a contentious subject [like empire] through individual artworks’. The curator continues that, ‘The challenge is how to address empire in a way that engages with, rather than alienates, the public. There is no point in mounting worthy projects in empty rooms (my emphasis).’

[6] I do in no way mean to belittle this campaign – when it first came around, I was really rather grateful that someone wanted to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric. I do have a slight issue with the fact though that it focuses on immigrants, and suggests that we have to prove we’re ‘good’ immigrants. I firmly believe in integration, but I also believe in host societies questioning their own values and actions. And the fact that this campaign had to be launched in the first place says something.

[7] And again, I apologise to all my so-called ‘BAME’ colleagues, which, let’s be honest here, mostly means ‘non-whites’/’non-European’. I know you’ve known this for a long time. I’m actually thankful, in a really angry sort of way, for this experience I’m having. It’s making me a better museum professional, and a better person, as long as I will remember what this feels like. And I’m determined never to forget.

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I am really intrigued by how German cultural institutions, including museums, appear to be contributing to the efforts of integrating refugees into German civic society.

This announcement of an upcoming exhibition about 14 projects in Berlin notes what seems to be a conscious shift away from narrowly focusing on refugees’ stories toward integrative projects that focus on topics shared by young people instead – whether or not they’re refugees. The objective is to support the Miteinander, the being, living, working together.

This project received an award in 2014, the Mixed Up Preis, for being a great example of using the arts to tackle contemporary socio-political issues. Pupils from a German school and from several refugee organisations came together to use three different art forms – theatre, film and applied arts – to look at ideas of home, identity, and the experience of adjusting both in a new place. You can see the documentary film about the project here (in German). Importantly, this wasn’t just about the refugees; the impact evidently went both ways, not only because the whole project started with the German school pupils visiting their nearby refugee home.

This objective of integrating refugees as quickly as possible is really strong in everything that I read these days from Germany. Die Bundesvereinigung Kulturelle Kinder- und Jugendbildung, short BKJ (roughly translated the Federal Association of Cultural Education for children and young people) issued a statement that noted that young refugees ‘have the same rights as all young people’ – therefore, they should be provided access to the same provision, and for the same strategic reason: ‘It makes possible and requires social and cultural participation’ [1].

Participation, Teilhabe, is a key word these days in German cultural policy, I’ve noticed. It’s very much used, at least on the policy level, to suggest an active contribution that also changes society. As the Berlin exhibition announcement states, the projects presented show how refugees can be supported in shaping the future together with those that have lived here longer [2]. Note that it’s not ‘their future’; it’s ‘future’. Shared. Together.

I’m really excited about this. Not just because it reflects a more global vision of diverse people living and shaping the future together, but because it shows cultural institutions actively responding to the challenges faced by the society they’re part of as they happen, without ‘targeting’ and framing ‘the other’. This is relevant. This truly does contribute. It makes a difference. It changes lives.

It also takes a stand. The BKJ is clear in their statement that they demand of their society the acknowledgement of the human right to asylum. They do not want Germany, and Europe, to isolate themselves. They want widespread acceptance of the fact that Germany is a country of immigration. They want to support an intercultural society through practical measures. They want to make a positive impact through their work as cultural institutions.

Maybe that’s easily said and done when broadly speaking, the society your institution is part of shares your values. Perhaps. But for now, I feel reinvigorated by what’s happening in Germany. Maybe museums as cultural organisations and players in society need not be irrelevant after all [3].


[1] The sentence in German reads: ‘Dies ermöglicht und erfordert gesellschaftliche und kulturelle Teilhabe.’

[2] In German: ‘…wie Kinder und Jugendliche mit Fluchthintergrund unterstützt werden können… gemeinsam mit den bereits länger hier Lebenden Zukunft zu gestalten.’

[3] As ever, my caveat with the project examples is that I don’t know what their actual, long-term impact is.  Hopefully the German colleagues will do proper evaluation and analysis, and we’ll find out. I’m just excited at this point that they do more than be silent, and that they don’t appear to still perpetuate the myth of target audiences being about inclusion.

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Last week’s #museumsrespondtoferguson discussion was on inclusion policies and their implementation in recruitment practice (you can read the Storify story here). At one point, one of the hosts of the chat, Adrianne Russell, shared, ‘I can’t count how many times black visitors told me “I’m so glad to see you here”’, which just floored me. Other observations that contributors made apply to the UK, and my own experience in museums as well:

  • ‘Sitting in museum cafe with almost all white patrons, almost all African American servers’
  • ‘Many museums I interned for had a homogenous (white) staff.’
  • ‘I’ve worked in predominantly white museums.’

And this is despite the UK’s fairly good track record with equality policies and standards. So what is going wrong?

The Twitter chat noted a few things, on which I’d like to expand and to which I’d like to add here:


The chat was focused on recruitment, but it did make me think about the impact of our offer to visitors as well. In addition to not finding yourself represented among museums staff, I think it is fair to say that in many instances, under-represented groups will also not find themselves represented in museum narratives. And where they are, these representations are usually through someone else’s prism. We need more studies here to show the real impact these practices have on visitors, but my assessment is that they can be as easily patronizing and exclusive as they may be inclusive [1]. If this is indeed the case (as I think it is), then visiting a museum currently is unlikely to make under-represented groups feel like this is a place for them.


The point on representation makes outreach that much more important. This is not outreach of the educational kind; this is outreach where museum professionals participate for example in careers fairs, and chat to pupils from under-represented groups about the roles available in the sector. It would be helpful if the staff going there were from the community itself, and a certain added element of ‘representation’ may just have to become a part of the role of staff members from under-represented groups [2]. Otherwise, if you send me, I may just inadvertently give the same message as what these pupils may be getting already: If you work in this sector, you get to work with more white folks like me. Hurrah! (or not).

Unpaid internships

This is not just a matter of dubious practice bordering on exploitation. It’s also a matter of exclusion, and this cannot be stressed enough: only those able to afford to gain unpaid experience are able to take up these internships. Make internships and experience a central stepping stone to get into the museums sector, and we’re excluding people before we’ve even invited them to apply.

Qualifications, Skills, and Knowledge

This didn’t come up in the chat, but in my own practice I’ve observed that particularly in the museums sector, we seem to have very odd notions of what qualifications, skills and knowledge are required for certain roles. I argue that it is sometimes the wrong qualifications and experience we’re looking for (see for example this post). Community involvement, community connectedness, facilitation and creativity are far more relevant to many community-facing roles than say, art history. And these may be exactly the qualifications that currently under-represented groups may have. If we’re asking for the wrong qualifications, we will get the wrong people, and we will continue to perpetuate under-representation amongst our staff.

Advertising Roles

Museums seem to have their usual ‘go-to’ channels to recruit staff. In the UK, that’s generally the Museum Association’s job section, and large newspapers (I’ve found all but one of all my jobs via large newspapers). The problem is that these are not necessarily the channels where really well-qualified people from groups other than the usual suspects may be looking for jobs. We’re properly entering the vicious cycle here that started with the points above. And yet, identifying alternative channels might just mean we find the perfect candidate amongst those under-represented groups we’d like to join our team.


A few of the chat contributors noted that there was a lack of support in the sector for in-job professional development. I can’t say that this is true for the UK as I have experienced it, from Local Authority museums to a national charity. However, with budget cuts going ever deeper, this may well become an issue here as well. It is certainly true that much can be achieved through professional development, although in order for these benefits to kick in, we first need to take down the barriers that prevent people from entering the sector in the first place. I honestly believe that change could be much more quickly achieved, if the sector recruited on different criteria, and then invested in people to get them up to speed on things it still considers important – such as knowledge of collections. Or even a teaching qualification, if you must.

And finally, the biggy: Our Own Underlying Prejudice

I’ve added this on just before I added this post, because as if on cue, I found this depressing experiment in my Facebook feed. I’ve tried to highlight the impact of our own personal flaws/issues/horizons in my last blog post, and I’ve noted it in other posts previously. But it’s not something I hear widely discussed. And I suppose that’s because it’s not making us ‘in power’ look too good. It’s darn uncomfortable. It suggests that despite our policies and inspirational vision papers, and despite our efforts to be good people, we may actually do stuff that under scrutiny turns out to be pretty appalling. But if those findings apply more widely – that an ‘ethnic’ name makes a person less likely to get invited for an inverview – then we better start examining honestly and systematically what our own subconscious prejudices might be.


[1] For a related post you may find this one interesting. The comment discussion on this post may also be of interest.

[2] I’m uncomfortably conscious of the fact that this is making the ‘under-represented’ attribute yet again a focus, when really all we want is for people to just be people, and treated as such. I honestly don’t know how to overcome that as yet. My good intentions as a white woman from Germany just probably won’t communicate to a black teenager from central London that really, s/he is exactly the person I want to see directing our museums in a few years’ time.

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A couple of weeks ago, the German Museums Association (Deutscher Museumsbund) published recommendations for museums on how to include and represent migration and cultural diversity in their work.

I was really impressed by two key concepts that frame the entire document:

Migration is the Norm

This is a fact that is evident when we burst open a fear-infused discourse about migration. The recommendations make brief reference to the history of migration through the ages, and conclude early on: ‘Migration is thus the norm in history’ [1]. There appears to be an acute awareness and acknowledgement of fears of migration too. The document takes a clear position: ‘To recognize this diversity as the norm is a task that we must perform daily and long-term in our society.’ [2]

The recommendations also highlight that there are various forms of migration: migration can be within one country, it can be temporary or long-term, it can be motivated by the economy or a desire to experience new cultures, it can be voluntary or forced. In other words, no two migrants are the same, and that’s not just because they may come from two different countries of origin.

Migrants and Non-Migrants are Alike

The recommendations place centre-stage an audience segmentation model that I had never heard of, but which seems eminently adopt-worthy after an admittedly casual read: the Sinus-Milieumodel (or Model of Milieus) [3]. The model identifies milieus on the basis of similarities in values, lifestyle/taste, and socioeconomic circumstances. According to the Museumsbund document, subsequent studies have shown that milieus are not determined by people’s migrant status. Rather, they cut across populations (i.e. migrant and non-migrant) which seems self-evident, but now we also (apparently) have empirical proof. And thus the recommendations state, ‘”People with migration background” do not exist as a homogenous target audience…They are represented in all social milieus.’ [4] They further make it clear that any orientation toward a target audience should therefore not be based on migration (p. 23).

I have previously questioned the usefulness of the concept of target audiences. It’s not something that I find discussed often in the UK, so this unambiguous statement regarding migrant groups (part of the British BAME concept [5]) is very refreshing.

The remainder of the document contains practical suggestions on how to start introducing migration as a ‘norm’ into a museum’s work. Some will be familiar to those of us in the UK and the US, around participation and community engagement. And where there might be the danger of slipping into tokenism, the document includes further really good points: For example, when reviewing collections, ‘collecting practices should be reconstructed and deconstructed’ [6], in other words, not just inviting source communities to comment (although this is recommended too), but to contextualize how collections came about in the first place, and what this says about historical (West/Not-West) world views – something that isn’t as often talked about over here in the UK. The aim is to cease the ‘dichotomy of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’’ (p. 14), which is a really important point to highlight.

From a British/US perspective, some underlying structures may seem slightly odd in the document [7] but overall, this is a really helpful guide that gets museums thinking about migration and how to reflect it in their practices. Now that I’ve come to identify myself as a migrant in Britain, I really appreciate the integrative approach this document reflects. This is not about ‘targeting the other’: the document makes clear that integration is a reciprocal process [8]. And that’s so true.


[1] Migration ist also der Normalfall in der Geschichte. (p.8)

[2] ‘Diese Diversitaet als Normalitaet zu erkennen, ist eine Aufgabe, die sich im gesellschaftlichen Miteinander taeglich und langfristig stellt.’ (p. 7)

[3] You can read the study that first introduced this model here (in German). It was developed through a narrative enquiry/hermeneutic exploration of lifeworlds methodology, so there were no preemptive categorizations that jumped out at me – but again, I’ve not thoroughly analysed it yet.

[4] ‘”Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” gibt es nicht al seine homogene Zielgruppe… Sie sind in allen sozialen Milieus vertreten. (p. 11)

[5] For non-British readers, the acronym stands for Black Asian Minority Ethnic, and generally covers colour, nationality, and ethnic/national origin. In theory, it would be split before it is used to define a target audience, but in practice it generally serves as a catch-all for a variety of museum offers. The issue is obvious: the concept and general application clouds the diversity of the groups clustered under the term, and thus hampers the way we discuss each group, their needs/interests/barriers, and the offer we put together to engage (with) them.

[6] ‘…die urspruenglichen Sammlungskontexte zu rekonstruieren und zu dekonstruieren…’ (p.13)

[7] For example, it too suffers – in my opinion – from the lack of the integrative power of interpretation as the discipline of (loosely defined) facilitating engagement, be that through exhibitions or public programmes. The continued split between ‘exhibitions’ (Ausstellungen) and ‘presentation’ (Vermittlung) is hindering, but at least there are signs that it’s starting to get addressed.

[8] p. 7. I’ve been thinking about how integration goes both ways quite a bit over recent months. I used to feel firmly integrated into British society and culture. This was my home, I knew more about Britain than I knew about my native Germany (which I left nearly 20 years ago). Since I’ve been cast as ‘the migrant’ in British media and public discourse, with comments permeating even into my personal and professional life, I can honestly say that I no longer feel integrated. I’m daily retreating further into my European-ness (first) and German-ness (second), and while other migrants may feel inclined to fight this negative discourse, I find myself wondering more and more whether I have a future here. That’s not just a sad thing to have happened to me as a person, but also, in my opinion, to Britain.

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In her latest blog post ‘Following up on Ferguson’, Gretchen Jennings mentions that several museum people told her that they had been specifically forbidden from answering visitor questions or commenting on social media about Ferguson [1]. Having worked in local authority museums in the UK and knowing from my work here as a consultant the constraints that many organisations work under politically, I expect that this is in fact the case for most museums. In the UK, it will not be Ferguson that museums are forbidden to engage with, but you can take your pick of any of the pressing issues that we are facing over here and which will no doubt be deemed ‘too hot’ by decision makers.

Contrast this with the drive to make museums more ‘democratic’, with ‘co-production’ and ‘community engagement’, with ‘audience development’ and ‘Museums Change Lives’. These are all eminently worthy and truly important initiatives. But are we deluding ourselves by not facing up to a fundamental hypocrisy here? If Ferguson, to stick with the American example, is on communities’ minds, then what on earth are we doing avoiding the issue? I am beginning to wonder whether museums are becoming irrelevant even as they’re trying, at least nominally, to become more people-focused. Here are a few questions that I’ve been asking myself:

Is this really what museums are for?
A couple of weeks ago, the UK Museums Association (MA) published case studies for its Museums Change Lives campaign [2]. And what these museums have done is all great: the Tank Museum has taught young offenders engineering and basic skills qualifications; Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service have engaged homeless people, and Glasgow Museums have created memory walls off-site to help people with dementia. But is this really what museums are for? Aren’t there other organisations, dare I suggest perhaps even the state, who should be tackling the underlying issues here? And what about actually discussing these issues? Who is asking the question about what makes young people so disillusioned that they just don’t seem to care anymore? Why do we live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and yet people have to go to foodbanks?

Is it really about collections?
In her post, Gretchen also mentions that several colleagues had commented that museums should always be first and foremost about mission and collections [3]. I know I keep writing this on this blog, but I really feel that in light of this continued insistence on the importance above all of material collections one has to keep saying it: collections are dead. And let’s face it: the majority of local history museums are full of stuff that’s neither local [4] nor particularly interesting [5]. By focusing our energies, resources, and our professional self-concept primarily on collections, we spectacularly fail to actually connect with what makes our communities go around. Yes, good practice is to find the angle that will ‘connect’ ‘the public’ with our collections. But like it or not, you will always and forever be limited by what that collection item is if that is how you set the parameters of your ‘connection’ with your community. And they just might genuinely not care, because when it’s between debating what can be done about institutional racism that rakes their lives, and talking to you about their cultural connections to an African kora, they might just deem the former far more relevant and pressing than the latter.

Are we too self-absorbed?
At the start of this year, the MA wondered what was around the corner for museums. This was the day before Charlie Hebdo, but many months after Ferguson and UKIP’s victories in Britain. And around the corner were concerns about budget cuts, the impact of the election on culture policy, and tucked away at the bottom, the current consultation on a new code of ethics [6]. Now, obviously budget cuts have an impact. Without money you won’t do much. But it does seem to me that certainly in the UK the focus has been on cuts, and relaying the impact of cuts, and gathering evidence of why cuts in museum budgets are wrong because museums contribute to society – see the Museums Change Lives case studies. And that’s all valid, but when there are people leaving our societies to join terrorists on the other side of the world, and a political climate sweeps the country in which the Prime Minister suggests that Britain would be a ‘better, stronger country’ if there were fewer migrants, then museums talking primarily about cuts in their budgets just sound a bit out of touch.

However, the question does, I suppose, come back to what service museums are meant to bring to society. Is it engaging the ‘hard to reach’ with collections? Is it using collections to support the health agenda? Or:

Should museums be something different altogether?

Last week I was struck by Richard Wendorf’s description of museums as ‘the chapels and cathedrals of an increasingly secularised society” in his comment on the MA website. Setting aside the Christian and religious connotations, and the inherent elevation of collections as objects of reverence [7], I did feel it expressed well a need that does exist in a secular society for a space that is special, that does hold society’s respect, and that does provide sanctuary to discuss, debate, grieve and celebrate together in safety. One could argue that perhaps there are many institutions that could provide this space: the local community centre perhaps, or the library, or maybe just even the town square. Like many others have done, however, I too would argue that if there is any relevance and purpose left for museums, then this is it. There is a need for places where we can encounter, share and further develop our collective memories and our collective aspirations – in many ways, museums are already set up as that. I think if museums really are serious about reflecting their communities, and providing a service to them, then we need this radical rethink that builds on and expands what museums are – both from museum professionals, but also crucially from decision makers. Museums need the political autonomy to explore and respond to the issues that are of concern to their communities. There cannot be any external, or internal censorship. If we are serious about being of service and use to our community, then this is what we need to do. Museums may well survive, drawing on the same white, educated, over 55 audience that lobbies for their funding as they’ve done for decades. But should they?


[1] You’ll know all about Ferguson, no doubt, but just in case you might want to read this. And for museum responses, check out Twitter #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[2] That’s the ‘MA’s vision for the impact museums can have on individuals, communities and society’ (see link).

[3] The joint statement by museum bloggers on Ferguson suggested otherwise: ‘As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.’

[4] How many ethnographic collections are there in local history museums just because a notable citizen brought these back. Let’s not probe too deeply into where and how they got those items in the first place, or ask those ethical questions whether they should be on show at all.

[5] My colleague Adam Ditchburn has eloquently said it in August last year in this post: “I get that the ‘Coming of the Railways’ was a big deal, but for goodness sake, let it go, or tell me something new about it, or ask me to tell you something, just don’t make me read another panel about it.”

[6] I dismissed this at the time, assuming that it would be concerned only with acquisition and particularly disposal, as it seemed this is all that’s been in the MA news over recent months. However, laudably, the code of ethics does raise questions about museums’ role in society, and public access etc. Well worth responding to! You’ve got until Friday this week (13th Feb).

[7] I can’t embrace either of these – I think all religions at times in their history have a questionable track record of giving and deserving respect, and I’ve already made it clear that I do not hold objects in particular esteem for their own sake.

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