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Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

In Britain, we’re experiencing interesting social and political times at the moment [1], which raises the question again what role museums, heritage sites and by extension, interpretation should play in response to this [2] – if any.

I’ve argued previously that it is a dangerous myth to think especially of museums as apolitical spaces – and this goes for interpretation and heritage sites as well [3]. By that I mean that we need to acknowledge that everything that happens within museums is in fact a selection done by people who are themselves governed by a variety of experiences and political views. It is the suggestion that museums ‘tell the truth’ or ‘are objective’ by virtue of the professionalization of their staff that has contributed to the exclusion of vast segments of the public from heritage and decision-making about it.   So that’s clearly not the way to go.

At the same time, audience research shows over and over again the faith that visitors have in museums’ integrity and authority. Social and cultural strategies too place high expectations on museums to deliver a ‘good’ for everyone: to bring integration, cohesion, and lots and lots of wider benefits. This suggests that while acknowledging our limitations as human beings, museums and heritage professionals, and interpreters in particular, have what I’m going to call a moral obligation [4].

To me, that obligation lies in a several things. First of all, it lies in holding up a mirror to society. I think it would be great practice for museums to look for example at current debate and put on exhibitions that seek to illustrate either a more balanced or indeed the opposite point of view. So for example, in Britain we would have exhibitions up and down the country right now talking about migration and immigration throughout history: what it has achieved and contributed, what has worked, what hasn’t, who says so etc.

Secondly, the moral obligation is to tell a balanced story: to present both sides with equal care and respect. And I do here mean both sides: even the side that makes us cringe. We must not censor, but we must test and question as much as we can in a respectful way.

Thirdly, we must openly acknowledge that we are not infallible. We do get it wrong and we must constantly look at our own words, actions and practices, even in the little things. So for example, a constant reference to ‘foreigners’, as I’ve experienced in one of my jobs, just doesn’t speak of an inclusive, welcoming culture. We must acknowledge that, and work hard to change where change is needed.

And finally, at least for this list here: I do think that museums and heritage sites are ultimately part of the final line of moral defence not only of our individual societies, but also of humanity at large. At the conference I recently attended, a colleague questioned one of the keynote speakers on where we draw the line: when does tolerance become sanction of the intolerable? I think that’s a fair question. And listening to some of the discourse in Britain at the moment, for example, I think museums are called upon – not to dictate what society should think, but to take a stance based on their purpose and the role that government allegedly wants us to play [5]. This, I believe, can be achieved when done with humility.

 

Notes

[1] Start here to explore the issues. I find it frightening.

[2] For example in this discussion on LinkedIn.

[3] From here on in this post, when I write ‘museums’ I include heritage sites and interpretation as well.

[4] If you prefer, you can substitute ‘moral’ with political or social – either are equally valid.

[5] On a side note, in this I disagree with the BBC’s approach to the coverage of the European elections. According to BBC Radio 4 Feedback, there were 1400 individual complaints about the extensive coverage of UKIP, to which Ric Bailey, the Chief Political Adviser (I think it was) said that the amount of coverage they got just matches how many people support UKIP. Now, I didn’t mind so much that the BBC gave UKIP so much airtime. What I did object to was and is the lack of critical coverage. What I expect of the media here is the same as what I expect of museums, heritage sites and interpretation: balance and proper questioning of ‘the facts’, not something catering to the (supposed) masses.

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I’ve recently read English Heritage’s consultation on under-represented heritages [1] and it got me thinking, yet again, about target audiences. Here are some of the points that struck a chord with me:

We don’t want [insert under-represented heritage here] sites
In fact, one respondent called this idea ‘horrible’ (p. 10).  In other words, they didn’t suddenly want a load of sites that were designated as Black, Muslim, LGBT, whatever.  And there were a couple of reasons why:

The groups aren’t separate
It was actually in the disabled group that they pointed out that disabled people are also lesbian, gay, black, Muslim…But that’s not all:

Groups don’t like to have their marginalisation constantly reinforced
This was specifically said with regard to the language used by organisations: how are the groups represented?  They didn’t want to be represented as always different.

Don’t we all have an ethnicity?
…asked one participant when it came to judging categories for searching heritage lists, such as the category ‘Ethnic History’ – which, alas, doesn’t mean ethnic at all, it means non-White, non-European, non-Western.  But the point that touched me the most was this one:

It is ‘very dangerous’ to address [insert under-represented heritage here] history only to members of that community
This came out of the LGBT group, where they felt that for their ‘political safety’ (p. 25) everyone needed to understand why their history was important.

For me what emerges from the above is one key point: these people don’t want to be singled out and ‘targeted’.  They’re just part of our whole wide wonderful and diverse world.  The moment we focus in on one attribute of a person (“gay”) and then target a programme at that, mostly what we’re signalling is that we, too, see difference, exclusion and marginalisation.  We’re effectively reinforcing that segregation by addressing, as they said, members of that community alone, when the real need may lie somewhere else entirely – for example in addressing our own and society’s focus on just one attribute.  That’s an uncomfortable thought, I know.  But the reality is that there are museums, as mentioned in this report, that simply ignore for example the homosexual attraction their key historic figures may have felt.  And that, more than any lack of targeted programming, may be the reason why people feel our museum is not for them.

So do let’s search our visitor data for under-represented audiences, but let’s understand that what it tells us is not something about those that don’t come.  First and foremost it tells us something about our own organisation.  If there is a black strand to the story of our site, then let’s tell it.  But let’s not set out to tell it ‘for black people’, let’s tell it for people.  Let’s include that ‘ethnic’, LGBT, disabled imagery in our children’s activities as a matter of course, not because we’re doing a programme specifically for these groups.  If there are barriers that may prevent people from coming, be that cultural barriers or physical, then let’s address those barriers – let’s not address the people, as if they were the issue.  That’s what is the underlying principle of equalities legislation and practices, and it’s what museums should apply too.  Once we normalise what we consider an attribute that makes someone hard to reach, our place will become more welcoming to them.  And we may just find that they visit without a single targeted programme on the schedule.

And I will no longer have to use language that talks of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Notes
[1] As an aside, the selection of those consulted is quite interesting: Participants were shortlisted based on whether they had published a major body of research in one of the areas identified as under-represented.  Bless the LGBT expert who noted that it would be more relevant to speak to the local community.  If English Heritage is truly committed to giving equal consideration to communal value then this approach to currently under-represented heritage is unlikely to reach those communities.

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This Monday past I went to the launch of the UK Museums Association’s ‘Museums Change Lives’ vision document.  And I will say that as ever, it is nice to hear and read a good few confident assertions of why our work as (museums) professionals actually matters.   And it is good to have a large organisation such as the Museums Association put themselves out there and say, Yes! This is what we think we (can) contribute to society.  I’ve already referenced the document in a grant application.  The next step, David Anderson, President of the MA, and Maurice Davies, their Head of Policy, explained will be for the MA to engage in-depth with funders and decision-makers, do some lobbying, get the doubters behind the vision.  And that’s great.

The thing is, despite the above, the document leaves me a bit cold.  It starts off with a set of ten principles, of which some seem rather commonplace [1] – especially to someone with a background in interpretation.  Museums offer ‘excellent experiences that meet public needs’, the principles say for example, and museums ‘engage with contemporary issues’, and are ‘rooted in places’.  Read (and I can’t believe I’m quoting Freeman Tilden here): relate, reveal, and sense of place.  So my first reaction to the principles was to think, but we know this already.  This is not the issue.

The document then makes further statements under the three headings of Museums Enhance Wellbeing, Museums Create Better Places, and Museums Inspire People and Ideas. My concern here is that the statements made are not actually supported by any research.  Of course, this is a vision document – it doesn’t need to be supported by research.  However, as we’re talking about impact here (the document is ‘The MA’s vision for the impact of museums’) I had hoped for something more reflective of the discussions and research already going on around impact.  Museums and the heritage sector have for a long time asserted their positive impact on, or contribution to society.  What researchers and policy-makers have been grappling with for years is how to measure this impact.  ‘Museums Change Lives’ doesn’t reflect that at all.

There are also a few assumptions in the document that I think would benefit from a more critical elaboration.  The one that jumped out at me is the work that museums should do with ‘disaffected people and those from marginalised sections of the community’ (under Museums Enhance Wellbeing).  As I’ve reported here, this is still an essentially hegemonic view of ‘the other’ that needs to be brought into the fold of the majority.  But do they?  Again, I appreciate that this is a vision document, and yet, as so many critical discussions are already taking place around these issues, I just can’t help but feel that in including these assumptions without at least a nod of acknowledgement to the associated issues, the document opens itself up to easy dismissal by those not converted to the cause in question.

Finally, and I am sorry if I sound too critical of what in the end is still a very worthwhile effort: the document really feels as if it was already decided on before the research into public attitudes was completed.  Select findings from the research are included, but they are blatantly reinterpreted: While research participants ‘strongly rejected’ [2] the purpose of promoting social justice, and merely felt that museums should be ‘accessible and inclusive to all’ in terms of free entry and aids for the disabled [3], the vision document states that the public’s support for accessibility [4] is intrinsically connected to social justice, thus reiterating that promoting social justice is a purpose museums should pursue.

I applaud the MA for having started a really good discussion.  Museums 2020 was a great stimulus, and the research into public attitudes (while perhaps not as comprehensive as one might have wished) was still very, very useful.  Museums Change Lives is bound to be quoted often, and hopefully as it is put out there now it will encourage further conversations – maybe also of the issues that I’ve highlighted.  I’m supporting it, but I’ll also continue to look for that research, that critical analysis that doesn’t contend itself with stating beliefs and giving examples of work we think fits the bill.

Notes

[1] Let me immediately qualify this: The feeling behind the document, and one borne out to some extent by the sectors’ responses to the MA’s Museums 2020 discussion paper, is that many museums aren’t actually implementing these principles yet.  And although it doesn’t feel to me that this applies to very many museums, I was at a workshop yesterday where participants confessed to having a ‘conservative attitude’ about museum curatorship.  Of course, they were at a workshop on co-production, so their commitment to change is obvious.

[2] BritainThinks, 2013. Public perceptions of – and attitudes to- the purposes of museum sin society. A report prepared by BritainThinks for Museums Association, p.20

[3] ibid.

[4] On a side note, accessibility really shouldn’t have to even be mentioned anymore at this stage.  Any person responsible for interpretation/presentation/management in museums who is not considering access should not hold their job.  Yes, that’s how strongly I feel about this.  This is like telling an archaeologist not to use a digger when excavating Richard III’s body.

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Last week, the UK Museums Association published the research report into what the public think are the purposes of museums. I’ve blogged about the announcement of the research, and especially the brief for it, here.

 

I was particularly interested in their methodology [1].  My concerns were that the framework established in the brief would limit the range of responses participants could make.  I still think that might have been an issue: the method used was a workshop format that guided participants through set exercises in order to answer the research questions.  The report doesn’t say much about the segmentation put forward in the brief, but it does mention that participants were evenly split between museum visitors and non-visitors (it doesn’t specify recruitment methods).  Perhaps most crucially, while it gathered unmediated views on museum purposes at the start, participants were then presented with purposes discussed by museum professionals.  In this, it appears that their ability to explore their own new purposes was indeed limited.

 

The findings, however, are nevertheless interesting.  Most notably, ‘the public’ [2] fundamentally rejected two purposes that have been heavily discussed in the museums sector: Promoting social justice and human rights, and providing a place for public debate.  Even the purpose of providing a sense of community was half-heartedly supported as a ‘can do’ purpose (as opposed to ‘must do’), and there was no real support for museums playing a greater role in the community overall. Helping the vulnerable, another purpose cherished by museums professionals, also ranked very low in the public’s estimation, being a ‘can do’ purpose to which they were not willing to give much funding.

 

The purposes of museums that they identified without prompting were very traditional: to collect and care for historic objects, to make them accessible to the public, to promote economic growth, to facilitate personal development, and to promote well-being (read: provide enjoyment).

 

So what does this mean for the museums sector?  I first come back to methodology: I’m just not sure how much one can get from ‘the public’ by asking them about something so conceptual and vague as ‘the purpose’ of an institution.  It may have been more fruitful to really explore with them why they do or don’t go to museums, what they expect, what they think about them, etc.  The report did note that there were several participants that changed their attitude from never, ever wanting to go visit a museum to stating their surprise at the diverse offer modern museums provide.

 

The latter may be an argument for dismissing ‘the public’s views altogether as just not very imaginative.  And perhaps it’s true that ‘the public’ simply do not have the necessary overview or in-depth understanding of the potential of museums.  However, I hope that’s not what the sector’s response will be.  There may have been limitations to uncovering what ‘the public’ really think off their own back, but there is clearly something to be said about their informed rejection of the purposes we proposed to them.

 

I cannot emphasise enough how telling I find it that the sector has spent such considerable time engaging in a debate that has been viewed as ground-breaking and visionary, only to find its key proposals dashed by the public.  To me, this signifies a continued lack of public focus – even in the UK.  How can it be that we so grossly differ from what the public think about the future purposes of museums?

 

In some ways perhaps this report also points to an underlying truth that we may find hard to accept: museums and other institutions have a specific purpose, and just because this purpose no longer produces the (economic, quantitative) outcomes we want from it doesn’t mean we can change the purpose without changing the nature of the institution itself.  By that I mean quite literally what the research respondents have said themselves about, for example, the sample purpose of helping the vulnerable: There are other institutions that are better placed to do that.  This could also mean looking at alternatives where financial pressures limit museums’ ability to fulfil a traditional purpose.  Universities, for example, may be the collections stores of the future.

 

Maybe we also need to review our responses to a changing environment.  I have been wondering, even before reading this report, whether in some ways our drive to be all and everything is a knee-jerk reaction to a looming fear of becoming obsolete.  The report suggests that ‘the public’ aren’t all that worried about that.  Maybe what the report tells us is that we should refocus on why the public already come to museums – and see how we can improve our offer in this area.

 

Finally, and I’m not just writing this because I’m an interpreter: I do think that museums (or heritage sites) can contribute a lot to modern societies’ needs, like social justice.  The thing is, ‘the public’ don’t want to be hit over the head with it. They don’t want a ‘social justice’ theme.  But they will be open to great interpretation that just so happens to also get them to think about social justice.

 

Notes

[1] Since embarking on my doctoral studies, I have noticed first my own increasing interest in methodology, and then many practitioner colleagues’ exasperated response to my examining methodology before I say anything about content. This is one example where I now feel strongly that practitioners need to review academic working methods more regularly.  It does not do to manipulate surveys (unconsciously) to obtain the desired results, or to blindly accept others’ findings when they happily fit our own agendas. Methodology can be boring to some, I suppose, but it’s the spine of any valuable study.

[2] The study had 90 participants over six day-long workshops.

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I spent today at the British Museum’s ‘Encountering the Sacred in Museums’ Study Day.

Museums: Spiritual or Secular?

Johnathan Williams, Director of Collections at the British Museum, started the day by making much of the original collector’s intentions, which were apparently to show the divine as captured in objects and to challenge disbelievers by showing these objects [1].  It was also with reference to this origin that he disputed one participant’s portrayal of the museum as a ‘secular’ institution. I found this both interesting and disturbing: interesting because I think there are few who would associate the British Museum with religious motivations, and disturbing because for me, this sense of identity based on religious origins seriously puts in question the claim to benign objectivity that permeates so much of the museum’s public persona [2].

 

What is sacred?

Karen Armstrong then spoke about the meaning of ‘the sacred’.  This wasn’t limited to religion: sacred values are non-negotiable values, such as free speech in Western society.  The most interesting part of Armstrong’s talk for me was the concept of the ‘science of compassion’: to really inhabit someone else’s experience and in a scholarly way pursue the question of why they feel this way. Objects now come into play as an important focus: they embody the interconnectedness of all cultures, and thus can serve as a common ground from which mutual understanding can be built.  Museums thus are important as places where these objects can be encountered in a compassionate manner.  I’m not sure I entirely buy into this view of objects; it seems to me that there are plenty of examples also of fiercely contested objects and sites. Perhaps, however, ‘compassionate interpretation’ is what’s needed here.  This may upon further reflection (which I’ve not done yet) turn out to be rather similar to Uzzel and Ballantyne’s ‘hot’ interpretation, but at the moment my feeling is that it goes beyond the basic ‘courage to show emotion and conflict’ approach to truly and respectfully encompass and give voice to conflicting views.

 

Interactive = sharing spiritual experience?

The next presentation was about the Jewish Museum London.  It described the museum’s aims and redevelopment in 2010, but sadly did not discuss visitors’ reactions to or uses of the exhibits (if any).  I’ve never been to the Jewish Museum, but judging from the talk an effort has been made to give visitors an opportunity to explore the objects on display via interactives, and to experience at least in part Jewish traditions such as the Shabbat. I would have been interested in hearing whether such engagement actually enhances understanding.  Do non-Jews walk away feeling they have shared in some of the spiritual experiences of Judaism?  And what about Jews themselves?  Do they feel they’ve encountered ‘especially sacred’ objects? Does the museum do them justice?

 

Encountering the sacred: use or consumption?

On this point, the talk by Steph Berns was very interesting.  Berns did qualitative research with visitors to the 2011 exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum, an exhibition mainly exploring Catholicism and Medieval relics.  There were many who felt the museums display obscured the sacred nature of the objects, and inhibited meaningful engagement.  Others made joking comments about what they saw, engaging with the content on a purely intellectual level without any connection to or empathy for the people whose heritage or beliefs this content represented.  But most interestingly to me, Berns also observed visitors praying before relics, and bringing their own talismans in to bless them by touching them to the glass cases.  I’d be interested in reading her full report, to see in detail what impact individual interpretive methods had on all these different responses and uses.

 

Consultation, and then what actually happens

It would also be interesting to explore in further detail the relationship between the responses that were obtained in the initial consultations for the exhibition, and those that Berns found. Stuart Frost, Head of Interpretation at the British Museum, suggested that the consultations pushed the interpretation away from an overtly religious feel and toward juxtapositions with other religions and modern imagery.  One of these was an exit video that showed both images of Catholic reverence of saints as well as the shrine to Elvis at Graceland. Berns received at least one comment that was negative about this video, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the overwhelming majority of visitors (67%) identified as Christian.  I wonder what the original, more religious approach would have changed.

 

Interpretation of a different belief

John Troyer of the University of Bath then explored the interpretation at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.  Creationism is of course in itself a very interesting perspective on life, and I fear that the audience’s (and presenter’s?) general dismissiveness of this point of view somewhat hindered a full exploration of what the museum did for and with visitors.  Personally, and this is admittedly an expression of my own arrogance toward creationism, I was really struck by just how slick the interpretation and presentation of the content is.  I’ve often argued with other interpreters that interpretation can really be used for anything – it doesn’t in itself have any intrinsic truth-claim or morality, like so many seem to assume.  Interpretation is communication, and communication can be used for anything.  In this case, it was used with great professionalism and effect to present creationism as at least one possible truth. The museum also didn’t miss a trick in presenting their version of natural history in just the same way as the most modern of natural history museums, using animatronics and lifelike dinosaurs that surely delight any family audience.  Troyer didn’t say much about the visitors – the data, he reported, is either not there or the museum doesn’t want to share it.  His own feeling was that the Creationist audiences that do come, come not on a pilgrimage, but for validation of their views.  This, I think, is an oft-ignored purpose of museums: to validate our point of view and reaffirm our place in the world.

 

Undoubtedly spiritual

In many ways, one might suspect a similar motivation behind the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, which Fiona Candlin reported on.  The most interesting contrast here was that the interpretation and presentation has a decidedly home-made feel.  But this isn’t to the detriment of the museum, Candlin feels: it is evident that the staff are all practicing witches themselves, and that for them the objects have power.  In fact, Candlin became interested in researching the museum further because so many non-believers were also persuaded of the magical powers of the objects on display – something that wasn’t reported by Berns of the ‘Treasures of Heaven’ exhibition.  That is quite an achievement. Part of it might be the use of language on labels: staff conversationally weave in their own practice and knowledge (‘we’, ‘I’) and address the visitor either in the role of interested party, potential future practitioner or fellow witch, depending on the subject and section in the museum.  Also, staff belief in the potency of the objects naturally requires counter-spells, which are unapologetically placed around the museum without further explanation: the line between display and ‘life’ blurs. There is no question about the spiritual motivation here: this is a museum of the tradition still practiced by the people that run it [3].

 

So all in all, what have I learnt today about encountering the sacred in a museum?  Well firstly that this is actually possible: I must confess that I doubted museums’ institutional ability to facilitate worship.  What it has also pointed out to me is the need for interpretation to really take a stance: do we approach something in a religious manner, or will we try for secular ‘objectivity’?  Along the same lines, I also feel that interpreters need to think carefully about juxtapositions: who are they to serve?  Are we falling back into a humanist educational trap whereby we want to force-compare and contrast where this really has little benefit for visitors, or might indeed offend? And lastly, I really want to explore what compassionate interpretation could be.

Notes

[1] There was a third and forth aspect, which now escape me. Also, the ‘divine’ here is presumably an Anglican-Christian divine, as the Trustees of the museum originally had to be Anglicans, according to Williams.

[2] The little leaflet outlining the museum’s stance in the debate surrounding the Parthenon Marbles is a good case in point: the argument is unsubtly based on the BM collecting ‘humanity’s heritage’ and making it accessible ‘free of charge’ to anyone for personal pleasure and scholarly research.  The tone is decidedly one of selfless science and public service, which is completely at odds with a view of the museum as a religiously motivated institution.  Should we suspect deception?

[3] Apparently, the Museum of Witchcraft was denied accreditation because their labels aren’t ‘anthropological’ and because of their subject matter.  If true, I think this gives cause for serious concern.

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Last week, UK’s Channel 4 aired a documentary about an archaeological dig in search of Richard III.  I found the show really illuminating.  Not because of its intended content – I actually thought the way they presented everything was neither here (archaeology) nor there (history). No, what I found fascinating was what the documentary revealed, rather unintentionally, about how little understanding some professionals have of people’s sense of heritage, and how unprepared they are for dealing with it.

Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society was the driver behind the project (the society funded it).  She was clearly deeply and emotionally connected to Richard III as a man and a king whose memory had been mutilated.  Everything about the dig had a meaning to her: the ‘R’ written on the parking space under which (apparently) they found Richard III’s body.  The rain clouds that drew up when they came upon his bones.  As she watched the bones being carefully freed of earth, she started to cry and practically hyperventilate.

The presenter, Simon Farnaby, a comedian and writer, clearly did not know what to do with this reaction or Langley’s emotional connection to Richard III in general.  Gazing down into the pit alongside Langley, he talked of how ‘weird’ it was to be ‘digging up a dead body’.  His choice of words said it all: while she talked about ‘finding him’ and ‘Richard’, to Farnaby this was something rather more remote and barely connected to an actual human life.

The scientists of course didn’t make this connection either.  To Dr Jo Appleby, the osteologist (bone expert), this was clearly neither about ‘Richard’ nor ‘dead bodies’.  This was a matter of an object to be scientifically examined in order to make a statement based on statistical probability about whether or not this was indeed the remains of a historically documented person (phew).  No humanity left in there at all. At first, this amused me – I thought of my own careful language when I write anything about my research.  Quickly, however, I became uncomfortable.  I could not help but feel that Appleby’s attitude toward Langley was downright patronising, never mind devoid of any understanding. A scene that highlighted this for me in stark contrasts was when Langley suggested that Appleby wrap the bones in Richard III’s colours for removal from site.  Appleby refused: ‘I’m not sure I’m very happy about doing that’, she said, allegedly because she felt it would be an inappropriate action if DNA testing later showed this was not Richard III (it didn’t and it was).

I have no issue with Appleby’s refusal per se.  What I did take issue with was how she made no effort to understand or show respect for Langley’s feelings throughout the documentary. Later, Appleby and a colleague told Langley that Richard III did have a ‘hunchback’, thus using a term to which it was clear Langley would take objection, it being at the heart of the defamation of Richard III’s character (they later qualified the ‘hunchback’ to have been a slight curvature of the spine that would have been hard to spot under clothes).  When Langley spoke of Richard III’s reputation as an able military leader, Appleby brought up a ‘source she could not now remember’, but which described Richard III as ‘effeminate’. Why?

For me, the documentary highlighted several points.  Neither Farnaby nor Appleby are likely to consider themselves heritage professionals, and yet here they were dealing with heritage and being confronted directly with the person holding a heritage belief.  Farnaby seemed merely befuddled, well-meaning but lacking depth.  Appleby on the other hand acted in a manner that seemed very arrogant, considering her own ‘evidence’ as above Langley’s heritage belief.

In reality, science and heritage aren’t even in competition.  They can, actually, live peacefully side by side, if it weren’t for the ‘specialist’s efforts to put all the facts straight.  There is a way of sharing evidence, and you can do it respectfully and without missionary zeal.  That is where the ‘heritage’ in ‘professional’ comes in – it does take training and learning to get it right.

As for Langley –  I don’t share her heritage belief, and I’m really not that fussed about Richard III.  But I thought it a poignant fact that if it hadn’t been for her and her heritage belief, the dig, and the celebrated discovery, and the documentary and Leicester’s (or York’s) future visitor attraction would never have happened.

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Last week I attended an excellent workshop on ‘Visitor Experiences of Co-produced Exhibitions’.  Co-production is a central theme in museums at the moment, and participants were encouraged to bring their own experiences of co-production to the workshop for discussion.  I came away with a few good points to ponder, which you might find interesting as well.

 

Process vs Product

Call me naïve, but it surprised me that all but one of the examples given by other participants were actually of co-producing an end product, usually an exhibition.  This is not what I do in my practice, where we are much more process focussed.  We do in general have a clear idea of the outcomes we hope for (e.g. understanding people’s heritage values as in our current Stake Your Claim project), and we are committed to doing something with whatever outputs are created.  But what that will be is decided in a second step, usually upon completion of the process.  My rationale for this is twofold: 1. Until the process is completed we won’t know what we’ll get from it – that’s the nature of truly handing over authority, as we try to do.  2. Creating a product for other visitors requires following best practice interpretation, which is a process governed by its own, and rather tight rules.  This is actually something that came out strongly in participants’ evaluations:

 

Just because it’s co-produced doesn’t mean other visitors like it

Over and over, participants reported this as an experience with their co-produced exhibitions: visitors’ reactions were either lukewarm or downright negative.  One project reported something very interesting: visitors didn’t like the co-produced exhibition – until they were told that it was co-produced.  They still didn’t seem to take more from it, relatively speaking, but they approved. This sense of moral approval came through quite strongly for other projects as well, but the question is of course whether moral approval is a good enough outcome for co-produced exhibitions.  Those in the discussion group that I was in agreed that it wasn’t.  A lady from Glasgow Museums raised the very interesting point that perhaps we feel that by selecting a group for co-production, say young people, we speak to all young people.  Interestingly, one of the projects actually found that the exhibition co-produced by young people was in fact rejected by other young people, who were more interested in the ‘expert’ voice.  Why?  Because they felt that if they wanted to hear what young people thought they could talk to them all day long outside the museum! Which brings me to another point we discussed:

 

How do you select groups for co-production?

I wish I could share the conviction put forward by one participant from a university: that selecting target groups by demographics is ‘no longer how museums do it’.  Well, it’s certainly how all of the projects we heard about at the workshop seemed to have selected the groups that they worked with (usually ‘young people’), never mind the local authority matrix that I continue to have to work toward, or the ever-present HLF identifications [1]. The colleague is right, however, that these group classifications are of limited if any use, especially if we expect the outputs (e.g. an exhibition) to have relevance for other groups.  This, in fact, is the crux of the matter: can co-production with one particular group ever be relevant to other groups? As we’ve seen with young people above, even such a seemingly clear-cut group doesn’t produce an exhibition relevant to the same group.  I don’t have the answer to this one, except that this is less of an issue when looking at ‘co-production’ as a process rather than end product.  Also, in my own practice I’m dreadfully reluctant to identify any specific target groups (by motivation or otherwise), so we just widen it out to as many people as possible.  It seems to work for us.

 

What, actually, do we mean by co-production?

In the end, this was one of the questions we were left with.  Some of us, myself included, argued that narrow parameters, such as providing objects for group interpretation, don’t actually make co-production.  The whole concept of co-produced end products also seemed generally flawed, and co-production thus a misleading term.  We agreed that further examination of concepts was required, not the least to provide a shared language between departments.  After all, without proper understanding of terms there cannot be proper implementation.

 

What next?

The workshop ended with some discussion on what the next steps should be.  In my opinion, we need to establish proper criteria that identify ‘successful’ co-production (whatever we decide this to mean).  Is this success for the museum? For participants? For visitors? We also need researchers that can spend time on identifying factors that impact the success of co-production.  This goes beyond the usual evaluative studies that we can do on our own, even those that go that one step further and ask, why did this work (because who answers the question will bias your results)?  Finally, I would also like to move beyond co-produced end products and look into how visitors can contribute to exhibitions while they’re up.  That to me is true co-production: on-going, dynamic, and democratic.  Here’s to the new challenge.

 

Happy New Year to all of you!

 

Notes

[1] Allow me an entirely personal rant here: 1. As a practitioner, I rely on university researchers to challenge me and to provide me with solid insights.  This requires that researchers actually examine existing practices on the ground, rather than build their argument on what I can only describe as wishful thinking.  The latter looks great on paper, but there may be a reason why it’s not being implemented in practice – and it is understanding these very reasons that can improve my practice. 2. As a researcher, I am expected to critically examine assertions and provide data to support my claims.  I am deeply worried by the many so-called researchers that are given a voice in our field who do not abide by this most basic of research principles.  It is absolutely acceptable to be a theorist, but let’s not treat theorists as researchers, please.  Apologies if I sound harsh, and no personal attack is intended on the colleague in question.

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I was quite intrigued by the lead article in the current edition of the Museums Journal [1].  In essence, the article asks whether we should move away from permanent exhibitions, using the number of visitors, and of repeat visits in particular, as the yardstick by which to measure value for money when it comes to investing in exhibitions.  At our museums service we’re currently looking at relocating and redeveloping one of our museums, so the question is hot on my mind.

The Museum Association’s own standpoint seems quite clear.  Their Head of Policy and Communications, Maurice Davies, compares current permanent exhibitions to ‘feature films’, suggesting that what museums should produce instead is news programmes.  The implication is that temporary exhibitions are the way to go: Kelvingrove Art Gallery’s manager Neil Ballantyne feels that the public really only register temporary exhibitions and full-blown gallery changes, while Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Collection, places his bets with the rapid advances of technology, which in his opinion will ‘make the delineation between permanent and temporary displays obsolete’ – presumably because content would be fluid and to a large extent selected by the user (think library reading room).

The article doesn’t sway me in favour of ditching permanent exhibitions though, and here is why. Firstly, the article doesn’t refer to any visitor research that examines the relationship between repeat visits and temporary/permanent exhibitions.  There are plenty of ‘professional’ opinions offered on the matter, but no one seems to have asked the visitors themselves.  This suggests the kind of patronizing attitude that defined museums a hundred years ago, where objects had value simply because the professionals said so, and where visitors had to contend themselves with whatever mode of consumption the professionals allowed.

As chance would have it, the day after I read the article, I came across a reference to a visitor survey done in the East Midlands in 1994/5 that found that changing exhibitions would only encourage 9% of visitors to return [2]. In contrast, children’s activities would bring 14% of visitors back.  This highlights that the issue is much more complex than permanent vs temporary exhibition, and yet the article doesn’t explore what else – if anything – is offered in museums.  There is one reference to events, but it is immediately undermined by the statement that ‘we are not a theatre’.

This highlights another concern that I have about the article: its tone is still dominated by ‘objects’ and ‘communicating history’.  I’m not getting the sense that museums have really engaged with key concepts of our times: the heritage autonomy of individuals, the invalidity of the idea of intrinsic value of objects, stakeholder engagement, and visitor creator-ship. There is a lot of talk about technology and self-curation, but what’s presented as the answer to all our permanent exhibition issues still confines visitors to rearranging content prepared for them by the professionals.  This is neither participation, nor co-creation, nor does it step away from the one idea that actually may be ‘outmoded’: that museums are about the presentation of objects, permanently or otherwise.

And finally, as Jonathan Griffin, director of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall rightly points out: there is also the matter of the ‘big picture’ or, as a lady at one of our museum’s recent stakeholder engagement events said, the ‘core story’ that she wants to find out about.  You simply cannot tell that story in ever-changing news flashes.  The story doesn’t change: it is the essence that visitors come for.

So what am I proposing for our museum redevelopment?  Well, first of all, we’re doing a lot of visitor surveys and public engagement work.  I definitely want us to have a permanent exhibition, but one that is based on the stories that are truly important to residents and visitors.  I also want our permanent exhibition to offer plenty of opportunities for visitors to participate (not just interact!), comment, and contribute.  And we will have an on-going programme of interventions, activities, and events inside and outside of the museum to share that core story, and to transform the museum into an intrinsic part of the social fabric of our local community.  But we will also have a reasonably sized temporary exhibition space, alongside spaces for doing projects and events.  At the heart of this will not be the objects in our collection, but the stories that make our community [3].

Notes:

[1] Rob Sharp, Flexible Thinking: Should museums and galleries be looking at radical new ways to present their permanent exhibitions? Museums Journal, October 2012, pp. 24-29

[2] Black, G., 2005. The Engaging Museum.  Developing Museums for visitor involvement. London and New York: Routledge, p. 23

[3] This particular museum is the district museum, but the concept also applies to our Roman museum – it’s not the archaeological artefacts that will take centre stage in the future, but the stories that these artefacts can help us to tell.

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I don’t know about you, but I usually prefer heritage sites to museums for a visit.  Partially this may be a result of poor interpretation encountered once too often at museums.   Labels listing cataloguing information do very little for me and, I expect, many other visitors.  Such ‘interpretation’ fails to make that elusive connection, and yet I wonder how much interpretation could achieve in the first place when perhaps the underlying concept –taking objects out of their context and isolate them from their use – is flawed to begin with.

The argument is not new.  ‘Museumification’ springs to mind, which argues that putting an object of daily use into a museum alters its status and, sometimes artificially, turns it into ‘heritage’.  Of course, I am one of those who see heritage as a social process and as such this point doesn’t apply.  What I do believe, however, is that ‘museumification’ renders an object impotent.  Deprived of its application to human life it becomes just that – dead matter.

And yet, the two colleagues with whom I recently unwrapped objects for our own exhibition felt entirely differently.  While I wrinkled my nose at what I proceeded to call quite blasphemously ‘the stench of time’, their eyes lit up in appreciation of the objects’ age and material integrity.  I jumped at the opportunity to find out more about such conservationist enthusiasm.  I thought that perhaps something had been eluding me that provided meaning for them where I only saw materiality.  Was age, authenticity, integrity really all they cared about?

I was astonished to find that their answer was primarily, yes.  They did feel that objects also served as a springboard for people’s memories but they proceeded to defend these objects vehemently against any human use and interference.  When I brought up the practice of many post-colonial museums who are giving back indigenous objects to their source communities, many of whom proceed to destroy them as part of their heritage practice, their views were even more surprising to me.  One of my colleagues argued that they wouldn’t give the objects back because they deserved a priori ‘protection’, while the other denied the claim of ownership altogether.  The crux of the latter argument was that the passage of time gave these objects universal value, which for me placed the criteria of universality in the World Heritage List into a completely, and unsettling new light.

I can’t say whether the many museum curators here and elsewhere share my colleagues’ views.  However, interpretation I encounter in many museums does make me wonder whether similar foci on material age and integrity, as opposed to human use, are responsible for the overwhelming lack of meaningful connections between objects and visitors.  I would never dismiss the benefit of preserving and displaying objects for their age and integrity in museums, however, I still remain firm in my conviction that the actual worth of these objects lies in their use by humans.   If nothing else, museums and the interpretation they provide should aim at making this use as clear as possible, for example by allowing visitors to handle replicas in order to get a feel for the practice that centred on these objects.   I believe that it is in this (mediated) interaction that regular folk like myself will find some appreciation of age and integrity.  I’m reminded of the research that I did at Newgrange, where age and setting were the values that visitors associated with the site after having walked it (not after having read about it in the exhibition!).

Either way, it was very interesting to have this discussion with people who were just on the opposite end from me on this issue.  Perhaps one day someone will do some research on how many curators share my colleagues’ convictions, and more importantly, how many visitors do so.  The results should be enlightening.

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Recently, Britain’s Prime Minister once again tried to enthuse people for his ‘Big Society’ idea.  In the words of the Big Society Network:

‘The Big Society is a society in which individual citizens feel big: big in terms of being supported and enabled; having real and regular influence; being capable of creating change in their neighbourhood.’

Or to put it simply, Mr Cameron wants people to volunteer.  His vision is indeed big: volunteers should run post offices, even transport services, and… museums.

Of course, at the same time as volunteers are called upon to take over what used to be the state’s responsibility, the British Government has introduced the most severe budget cuts in decades.  Especially museums, always vulnerable to decreasing funding streams, soon will no longer have a choice but replace paid staff with volunteers.  In the eyes of the Government, that seems to be a good thing.

But is it?  Are museums really best run by volunteers?  Is our heritage best looked after by volunteers?

Many museums already rely on volunteers to deliver their services.  The volunteers they get, of course, tend to be predominantly retired, professional white women, with the occasional retired, professional white man put into the mix – and this is after dedicated paid staff spent considerable time on recruiting volunteers.

The issue with this is obvious.  Unless these volunteers have the necessary training in interpretation, museum management and audience development, to name but a few, they are unlikely to present programmes that are relevant to other sectors of the community, or to attract other volunteers from different backgrounds.

This highlights the next point: getting volunteers with the right skills set can be a challenge.  Most museums are happy to train their volunteers, usually – because of budget constraints – through on the job training provided by paid staff who have years of knowledge and experience.  Imagine the kinds of highly skilled roles volunteers will be asked to fulfill if they have to run a museum or heritage site on their own: conservation, commercial management, interpretation… Mostly these are specialist roles that require specialist education.  The people that have these skills will want to get paid, not volunteer for the job they were trained for.

And then of course there is the challenge of retaining volunteers.  The above described average volunteer will not be around forever, and younger volunteers tend to move on as their lives change (for example by finding a paid job).  Commitment is also an issue, for the more crucial volunteers are to the running of a museum, the more time will be required of them.  People who work, and especially younger people who tend to have young families, are not able to give the amount of time needed for long-term planning and managing for success.

So where does this leave us?  Personally, I don’t think that volunteers are the best people to take on the responsibility for our heritage.  Our heritage is too precious – it requires people who know what they’re doing, people who have the education and the experience to ensure our heritage is protected and kept relevant to the widest possible audience.

We mustn’t confuse volunteering with best practice community and stakeholder engagement.  We, as heritage professionals and especially as interpreters, must absolutely do all in our power to work with communities.  Volunteering is just one way in which to do that, but it is us who need to manage the volunteers, for example, to enable them to contribute in a meaningful way.  By taking away the professional, paid staff, the Government takes away the enabling structure.  No one in their right mind would ever suggest that we replace Mr Cameron with a volunteer, who runs the country in their spare time after, say, having worked in a garage.  It’s just not possible.  The responsibility is too great, as are the consequences of failure.

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