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Posts Tagged ‘impact’

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘culture’ on one hand, and ‘the cultural sector’ on the other. The two are not the same, although many in the cultural sector seem inclined to claim they are. I am going to call that hybris. And I wonder if such hybris will cause – and may already be causing – the cultural sector’s fall. I’m cynical about the cultural sector, yes, but I would nonetheless argue that such a fall would be detrimental to all of society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

The cultural sector is not the whole of culture

In a rather scathing review [1] of the European Commission’s brainstorming session as part of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants Through Culture, this fellow participant wondered, “Why is it always culture that has to make excuses? Why, despite all examples of good practices, should culture still be substantiating to its funders its importance and its role in major issues, such as the issue of refugees and migrants?” To me, this is a prime example of ‘culture’ being conflated with ‘the cultural sector’. ‘Culture’ exists without funders. ‘Culture’ is you and I going about our business on a daily basis, relating to others, expressing ourselves, making sense of our world. ‘The cultural sector’, on the other hand, is primarily made up of professionals and their initiatives asking wider society for funding. It is structured and organised, and made up of institutions such as the museums the author of the review refers to.

 

Why the equation ‘cultural sector = culture’ is hybris

It seems obvious to me, but perhaps it needs stating that it is hybris for the cultural sector to claim sole ownership of ‘culture’. Not only that: it is also a questionable hegemonic attitude that dismisses the cultural practices of everyone else. We might want to explore whether this attitude isn’t also a reason for the diversity issues the sector continues to struggle with. And there is a democratic problem here too: noone has elected us ‘cultural professionals’ as the spokespeople or architects of culture. We may have been granted a greater voice and clout in the larger (social, political, economic) system we live in, but that is also the very reason for the following:

 

Yes, ‘the cultural sector’ is accountable to the rest of society

It is becoming tiresome to hear cultural professionals bemoan the fact that wider society is asking us to ‘prove’ our impact and worth [2]. After all, we’re taking their money, and in quite considerable sums, too. ‘All the examples of good practices’ that we heard at the brainstorming session had not in fact been evaluated, so we can hardly be surprised to be asked about the basis for the cultural sector’s claims, especially with such grave social challenges as those we currently face regards integration of large numbers of people. The fact that cultural impacts are hard to measure is not an excuse; it is a call to us ‘professionals’ to use our professional skills to assess what we are doing, and to do so critically. How else can we develop our practice? Furthermore, we claim not to act within the sanctuary of ivory towers, and yet this does make it seem a bit like we are. We’re basically asking funders – and society – to just accept that what we do is great and worthy of their money. However, not being untouchable and above everyone else also means answering to uncomfortable questions. That’s the reality of being on eye-level with others [3].

 

Or are we still living in ivory towers after all?

At the actual dialogue meeting with representatives from the European Commission in mid-September, a British colleague whose work and intellect I highly value expressed what I’ve heard from other cultural sector people in the UK: how shocked he and colleagues were by the Brexit vote, and how all of them had supported staying in the EU. And I felt and still feel for them, but I also pointed out during the debate [4] that not even the UK’s professional representative body for museums was making a positive case for staying in the EU, nor managed to speak up against the rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric of the debate. I cannot quite arrive at an explanation as to why the cultural sector in the UK now should be so shocked – unless I resort to the image of that ivory tower from where the cultural sector simply did not see what was going on elsewhere. As if the sector believed that people would naturally share its (unspoken) belief in the EU and follow its (invisible) lead. As if the debate was just too nasty for something as civilised as ‘the cultural sector’ to get down and dirty.

 

This hybris is dangerous

I won’t claim that this is objectively what happened in the UK, I’m merely stating my personal observations and thoughts. To me, they are a call to action: not only is it dangerously arrogant for ‘cultural professionals’ to see ourselves as above the rest of culture. It also undermines even the potential for the very impact we claim to have. The UK has shown us what happens if a country’s cultural sector remains so painfully quiet, and we need not wonder when funders ask whether we are indeed equipped to make a difference in the key issues that face our societies today. Now that I live in Germany, my greatest fear is to find myself, as a ‘cultural professional’, in a context where the AfD dictates what culture we may have, and our own europhobes further undermine the EU until we lose it altogether. While thinking we’re too obviously important to be ignored, the cultural sector may well find itself sleepwalking into oblivion, abandoning society to its fate [5].

 

 

Notes

[1] This is not the place to respond in full to the review. However, true to my new determination to speak up politically, I feel obliged to point out that the European Commission, by its very constitutional nature, cannot but act as a facilitator making suggestions to EU member states. It cannot, on its own, act. To criticise the Commission for pointing this out in an introductory session simply emphasises the need for this very introduction in the first place. To criticise the Commission for the treaty that limits its powers is to undermine the European Union in the ways we have seen during the EU referendum debate in the UK. Here, half-truths and flat out lies supported so-called arguments. If we as EU citizens want a stroger European Commission that can act on such initiatives as the Voices of Culture dialogues – initiatives which I find laudable! – then we must argue for it within our national borders. If we don’t like how the European Union acts, we must first take our national governments to task, for they make the EU, even more so than the European Parliament.

[2] It should also be noted that the European Commission, in the Voices of Culture process, specifically invited representatives of organisations with large networks, in other words, people within the organised cultural sector who are part of the ‘official’ system within which the EC acts.

[3] I ought to make it clear that I do think the cultural sector plays an important role, precisely because it is part of that official system and machinery in ways that regular ‘culture’ often is not. But that also means it plays by different rules than ‘culture’, including the rule of being accountable for the money and position we are given. It’s not a benign distinction we earn by our very existence; we earn it by our contribution and service to society. Mind, ‘culture’ would not die out if ‘the cultural sector’ didn’t exist. But it may be less visible, play less of a role at a higher, ‘official’ level, at least in the systems we live in today.

[4] For new readers of my blog I should point out that I lived through the whole sad EU referendum debate in the UK, and what an unpleasant experience it’s been.

[5] Although of course in Germany  institutions have in the past taken a stand very publicly. My task will be to do likewise.

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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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