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Posts Tagged ‘hard-to-reach’

The ‘Extremism’ speech delivered this week by Britain’s Prime Minister made me ponder again that concept of ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences, especially what we call ‘BAME’ groups, and how the museums sector is using it to shape its practice. To me, what has been happening to Muslims in the UK over the last decade illustrates very eloquently what is wrong (and it is very wrong in my opinion) with this.

What we’ve been witnessing, what we are witnessing, is a systematic exclusion of people from society, and a complete misrepresentation of who they are. As this comment on the experiences of Muslims since London’s 7/7 bombings painfully explains, Muslims have been made to feel that they are suspect, ‘other’, and have to constantly prove their ‘Britishness’. In her comment on the PM’s speech, this woman notes how, effectively, she was dragged from being just another regular Brit to being a ‘Muslim’. Her religion has become the focus for society, a focus that has also taken a truly nasty turn: ‘Muslim’, she observes, is equated to ‘terrorist’. And government initiatives meant to tackle ‘extremism’ are targeted almost exclusively at Muslims, and the woman wonders: would she ever even want to participate, given how unpredictable the consequences of such participation are. As she writes, ‘just talking about certain aspects of Islam is now considered extremist’.

One of the government’s targeted measures is the PREVENT programme, and the changes that came into effect at the start of July. It requires all sorts of institutions, including universities to, in short, get better at spotting ‘radicalisation’ of their [Muslim] students. The Conversation UK posted a great analysis of this here, with this sobering quote in response to Islamophobic graffiti at the University of Birmingham:

‘As a Muslim student at the University of Birmingham and a born-and-bred Brummie, am I surprised by these attacks on my community? The short answer: No.’

And yet the measures are targeted at the student, their religion: not at the attacks from the rest of society. In fact, in his speech, the Prime Minister went as far as calling it ‘paranoia’ when people, including Muslims, criticise PREVENT for singling them out. He refuses to engage with the idea that society’s actions may be the bigger problem than people’s [Muslim] religion. And so the questions the woman in her comment asks, about what the government will do to curb the increasingly negative media coverage of Muslims, or the rise in Islamophopbic attacks, will probably remain ignored.

And what has all this led to? The woman writes that she feels ‘isolated’ and ‘scared’ by Islamophobia and ‘double standards’. In The Conversation piece on PREVENT, another student is quoted saying,

‘…it’s that nagging thought in the back of your head that keeps coming back … do I belong here?’

So the journey of exclusion was not one that started with these people’s religion. It is not that which made them, initially, feel isolated, excluded, as if they did not belong. It was a process that was initiated by wider society, through focusing on one attribute about who they are, and denying the validity of all others – as if compared to our being a ‘Brummie’, this attribute in them was somehow less, or different, or overshadowed by being a Muslim. Society then continued with targeted measures, targeted, again, at this one attribute. Society created the exclusion. And society expects them to ‘fix’ it, to ‘integrate’, as the Prime Minister said. The woman commentator noted how she has started to dread and avoid altogether news coverage. Perhaps, she has also started to disengage with other aspects of public life – because she may  not know what to expect. People may be tired of the mainstream narrative that goes unchallenged. They do not want to be singled out again. They just want to be a Brit, a student, a football fan.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know where my argument is going here [1]. For one, museums and their audiences do not live in a bubble. I’ve already seen the well-meaning programmes targeted at Muslims, and they completely and utterly fail to even acknowledge the wider issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims – they ignore those issues, just like the Prime Minister does. They also perpetuate the exclusion: once again, we’re defining people by their religion, as if the fact that they were ‘born and bred’ here suddenly no longer had the same, or possibly stronger meaning for all of us together. Instead of providing a platform that says, ‘We are all the same’, museums’ targeted programmes reaffirm otherness: for example the ‘otherness’ of Muslims recontextualising ‘our’ local history collections so that ‘we’ can better understand ‘Islam’. Targeted programmes ignore the fact that Muslims, in this example (and you could take immigrants too these days) have been actively excluded and demonized, and they reiterate subtly that this institution too thinks the issue lies with ‘them’. Like the government’s measures, programmes target ‘them’, not the rest of society. We ignore the source of the problem, and target the ‘symptom’ – in our case, under-representation in our audience profiles.

For as long as we insist on talking about ‘hard-to-reach’ and ‘BAME’ groups, and a practice of ‘targeting’ them, we will continue a discourse that emphasises ‘otherness’ and ignores how we as institutions may be part of the problem. It prevents us from developing a different way of thinking, one that is about genuine tackling of barriers that we as institutions and societies create, and of inventing practices that are about honest integration of everyone. As this commentator wrote, ‘Integration is a two-way process’. It really is.

Notes

[1] I’ve thought long about whether I should even post this. I’ve started feeling like a broken record, and yet the discourse of ‘hard-to-reach’ groups continues, as do the practices of targeting audiences. Over recent weeks, the British Association for Heritage Interpretation’s re-launched awards celebrated the practice again, and a client of ours was told by Heritage Lottery Fund to more specifically ‘target’ the ‘hard-to-reach’. There is some merit to some elements of these practices, but by and large, the uncritical way it’s bandished about does more harm than good, in my opinion.

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Over recent months, living as an immigrant in Britain [1], I have gone through a process that leaves me feeling increasingly alienated from museums and heritage sites in this country. In still-used museum discourse terms, I’m probably becoming one of the ‘hard-to-reach’.

I feel let down by British museums. You see, these days, I daily feel in the firing line. Today, I am the other, the unwanted, even the enemy, if we go by some of the language used in the increasingly hostile discourse on immigration [2]. The UK Independence Party may have tried to soften the suggestion that upon a British exit from the EU people like myself will be deported (yellow stars anyone?), but when Radio 4 [3] not only fails to question the implications of such a notion, but actually appears to defend it, it’s no longer something I can ignore. This has become personal. This is my future that’s been threatened. This is my presence in this country that is being criticised, misrepresented and undervalued.

And while all this is going on, the First World War-dominated outputs from many museums are also spinning an inward looking narrative of ‘Britain’s just war’ against an enemy, and ‘heroes’ that will ‘not be forgotten’. Suddenly, I find myself thinking that I really don’t care to see yet another exhibition telling me the story of Britain’s sacrifices and battles. That’s not because I am no longer interested in Britain’s war stories, or British history in general. Rather, in combination with the current public discourse on immigration this has become the extension of an exclusive story that makes me uncomfortable. I neither feel safe at the prospect of visiting such exhibitions, nor happy.

If nothing else, I would have liked to see balanced stories that show the not-so-glorious aspects of history, to give a counter-weight to the current portrayals of Britain as a country once again under threat, fighting against injustice – this time from the EU and its migrants. But really, if British museums and heritage sites are serious about policy aspirations of mutual understanding, integration, and diversity, or even just the Museum Association’s vision that museums change lives, then they should be taking a stance. I’ve previously blogged that I think museums have a moral obligation to be the final line of defence, to hold a mirror up to society as a challenge to be better, and to be humble in the face of the tragedies its actions have caused in the past. Well, I think the time to hold up that mirror is now.

Crucially, that’s not a mirror that reflects me. I don’t need, nor am I interested in, an exhibition or programme about Germany. I don’t live in Britain to connect with Germany. I’m here because I want to live in Britain. If I’m beginning to be less inclined to visit museums and heritage sites here it’s not because they don’t ‘relate’ to my being German. Frankly, my heritage isn’t the issue here. The issue is a social and political environment that is casting me out, and which appears to be uncritically, if not intentionally, supported by museum and heritage narratives. That’s the problem. And I suspect that my experience as an immigrant at the moment, which leads me to feel this way, pales into utter insignificance compared to the experience of those who maybe were born here, but who happen to not be white, or straight, or middle-class, or well-educated, or whatever else classes one as ‘hard-to-reach’. Maybe their experience too is that it’s society as a whole that misrepresents them and turns them into ‘the other’, and they simply don’t care to get yet more of this by coming to a museum or heritage site. The exclusion does not lie in an excluded narrative about ‘the other’. The exclusion is the exclusion of a challenge to the mainstream, of a critical perspective not on the other, but the ‘majority’, and quite probably the very structure of the museum itself. I quite agree with the MA’s vision for museums to have an impact on social change: changing this societal context will tackle ‘exclusion’. Let’s get to it.

Notes

[1] Now here’s a label I never felt had any relevance for me. I was always simply a person who had moved from where she was born to elsewhere. And always because ‘elsewhere’ was a place I loved and wanted to spend more time in.
[2] A month ago a cabinet minister (!) talked about British towns being ‘under siege’ from immigrants, and ‘swamped’. He had to tone down his language, but ironically not over the siege part, but over ‘swamped’. ‘Under pressure’ was the expression sanctioned by Downing Street. It’s really not any better in my ears.
[3] For those of you not living in the UK: Radio 4 is the ‘serious’, publicly funded news outlet of the UK. For the US, think NPR. For Germany, think Deutschlandfunk. So having them not question the other side of this coin to me is nothing short of astonishing. I want my TV license money back that funds these guys. Which by the way is just one of the many (financial, as that is all that seems to count these days) contributions I make to British society. Just sayin’.  Because no-one else is.

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