Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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’.

[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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I’m three-thirds through my interviews with visitors at Battle Abbey [1], and this seemed a good time to stop for a moment and reflect.


Firstly, and as always, it is just humbling to talk to visitors. Every time I have the luxury of actually spending time with them, I am reminded that in the field of heritage, no amount of specialist knowledge can ever surmount the importance of people’s own connections with heritage. And don’t they know it: where heritage professionals fail, visitors’ judgment is swift and crushing.  They make it quite plain that they don’t need us, at least not beyond making sure they can come to the place when they want.  Where the work is good, like it seems to be at Battle Abbey, visitors make use of it, but never without suspending that awareness and expectation.


Visitors are really smart.  I can count on one hand the number of people out of the 100+ that I’ve interviewed so far [2] who have given me simple answers.  Most people have challenged my assumptions, provided insights I’d never even dreamt of, and engaged me in conversations that have left me feeling inspired and invigorated.


The primary purpose of these interviews is to establish whether the benefits that visitors gain from heritage are the same as those proposed in legislation (and to some degree literature).  And some are.  Historic interest is something that visitors cite quite often as a reason for visiting.  Upon further enquiry, this generally seems to split into a thirst for acquiring historical knowledge for its own sake and a desire to imagine the past [3].  The latter is also a benefit cited on its own: to see what it was like to live in past times, sometimes simply in order to better understand and compare it to the present, and sometimes as a sort of mediated time travel to experience a life that is desirable, perhaps as an adventure, perhaps as a missed destiny [4].


Imagining the past is also connected to another benefit cited on its own, which is the need to locate oneself in a long chain of events in the history of mankind, both nationally and internationally – a benefit emphasised in legislation.  Many have described this as providing a sense of anchor, of understanding how humankind have arrived at this particular place in time, and to feel prepared for the future (although the latter was rarely expressed without further requests for clarification).  In legislation, this is often related to larger concepts such as ‘peace’ and ‘mutual understanding’, which interestingly is a point that only one couple have made, but not with regard to visiting sites in England, but rather in relation to visiting sites abroad.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, many visitors also cited having been taught about the Battle of Hastings in school as their motivation for visiting.  When I prompted them to explain why it was important to come on site, rather than watch a documentary about the battle, for example, two things emerged.  The first will make every heritage educator’s heart sing: heritage sites, visitors explained, provided different and more interesting opportunities to learn and engage than those offered in classrooms and through books.  Being in the place itself was the second point that many emphasised, and some even raised this as a point in its own right.   This also relates back to imagining the past – people spoke about standing on the battlefield, imagining the battle unfold, soldiers dying.  This experience of being in the place itself, more than any other, seemed to make the event real to them, and to allow them to connect with it.


I will confess that I expected visitors to connect with the site on an identity-level, and a few did as far as national identity goes.  However, the importance of the site, and the need to come, really related mostly to having learnt about it at school – an interesting point to ponder when it comes to national narratives, and the (manipulative?) impact of school curricula [5].  Nevertheless, visitors’ attachment was very strong – when suggesting (hypothetically) that the site might be redeveloped for something else, everyone without exception expressed the need for preserving it.  Place, the physical connection to an event, was of the utmost importance.


The above are just some reflections on what visitors have told me so far, not an actual analysis.  For that, I will have to wait until the end.  But I do feel reassured on one thing: almost nobody left it at saying, ‘It’s just a good day out’ (although it is that too).  Phew.




[1] This is part of my PhD research into the public benefits of heritage, and whether or not we are delivering these through interpretation.

[2] I’m doing group interviews, so these were 100+ people in 34 groups.

[3] The latter point – imagining the past – is not mentioned in legislation, and mostly frowned upon as a reason by academic writers.

[4] Destiny might be an unexpected term here, but I’m reluctant to dismiss it as nostalgia.  Most people that have cited this ‘benefit’ have been absolutely clear about their awareness of and even deep respect for the hardships that people experienced in the past.  Nevertheless, this was a life with particular values and a clarity of fate that they felt would have suited them better than their current lives.

[5] My initial reaction to this was to reconsider my rejection of public (or national) narratives arbitrarily determined by states, as clearly the selection of topics for the school curriculum has a big impact.  However, having worked in Scotland and Wales I am aware that official narratives are rejected, and popular ones, seemingly suppressed by the state, survive and prove to be powerful heritage motivators.  It would be interesting to look into this in particular – if you know of any studies, do let me know.

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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.



[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 have recently read the Arts Council England ‘Review of Research and Literature on Museums and Libraries’, compiled in September last year just before the Arts Council took over the responsibilities of the now-disbanded Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.  The review was part of an endeavour to ‘understand the needs and priorities of the sectors’ by the Arts Council.

It made quite interesting reading for two reasons.  Firstly, I had my doubts about how easily museums would sit within the fold of what continues to be called the ‘ARTS’ Council.  The review is very much written from an arts perspective, using ‘us and them’ style language that is slightly unsettling for ‘us’ on the museums side.  There is an evident and welcome willingness to engage with and represent the museum sector also, and yet I still wonder how much the continued and predominant use of the term ‘arts’ in the council’s strategic and even grant documents might over time privilege practices that are not necessarily best suited to museums.

On the other hand, the review highlights parallels in the aims and approaches of the previously distinct sectors, which are celebrated as promising starting points to bring them all under one roof.  Here the report becomes interesting for its outsider scrutiny of some of our practices and the ways in which they are – or are not – backed up by research.  The area I was particularly intrigued by was the reflections on stakeholder engagement.

The review acknowledges the fact that museums have responded to the ‘growing community engagement agenda’ (10), but notes that this has been primarily through consultation, rather than engaging stakeholders in interpretation, and giving them control (25).  Most crushingly, in my opinion, the report comes to the conclusion that while there is a lot of quantitative evidence about visitor or participant numbers, there is far less qualitative data (44).  In fact, the review notes a series of substantial methodological flaws in many evaluation studies, ranging from premature study completion (i.e. surveys finish before the project has come to an end) to ‘self-reported accounts of the difference made’ (45).  They also highlight that a large percentage of studies focus on one-off projects, producing data that cannot be generalized, and which thus cannot be used to inform practice on a day-to-day basis (45).

The report hints at the fact that funders are probably partially to blame for this state of affairs (9).  It suggests a commitment to changing evaluation criteria from numbers to capturing return on investment [1], which will certainly have a major impact on how museums will do things in the future.

Overall, the review didn’t really surprise me.  I have for a while now lamented the fact that especially within interpretation there is a lot of feel-good sharing of projects with very little critical analysis.  Practitioners say they are ‘of course’ involving communities and stakeholders, but this review confirms what Bella Dicks found in her study of Rhondda Heritage Park – that stakeholders are consulted and mined for content, but not granted any meaningful input.  The good thing of the current economic crisis and the dwindling funding is that increasingly, we will be asked to really involve stakeholders, and to prove qualitatively what difference we’re making – not in our own opinion, but in the opinion of our stakeholders: this review makes this very clear.  It’ll be a challenge, not merely because of the fact that we don’t know yet what methods to use.  It’s something I’m grappling with at the moment as I seek to measure public benefit delivery through interpretation.  But at last we’re starting to move (or be pushed) in the right direction.  No doubt there will be a few casualties in the shape of long-cherished beliefs and many bruised egos along the way, but in the end it’ll be an immensely good thing for our profession and the sectors we serve.


[1] The report specifically mentions contingent valuation, which is basically a method to reveal the monetary value of something that doesn’t have a price per se on the market (such as the environment).  Personally, I don’t think this is the way forward to capturing impact, but it is undoubtedly the method that most easily fits with how everything else is captured and decided upon in our current political and economic system.

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