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Next week, I will take up a new post and in doing so, I will formally be leaving the heritage and museum sectors that I have worked in over the past years. From now on, I will be working in the further education and socio-cultural sector.

 

I will admit that when I first read the job advert for my new role, I paused to do some soul-searching. What would I be leaving behind? Would this include the very thing that I am passionate about – (cultural) heritage and its interpretation? Would I lose my own professional identity?

 

Somewhat to my surprise, the research into the sector and the institution that I would be joining brought me renewed clarity concerning my values in heritage and interpretation. It also gave me an immense sense of excitement. It started with the organising premise and raison d’être – enshrined in law, no less – of the German Volkshochschulen: to provide access to education for all. Breaking down barriers to access, inclusion, diversity: these are all principles that underpin the work of the sector. And not just on paper either. There are annual statistics, baselines and monitoring on the basis of which the claims are checked and the work is further developed. For example, I was thrilled to see courses offered in Turkish, and the number of collaborations that the Volkshochschule I will join is already doing – and has been doing for quite some time. Even ‘education’, which is a term I am not particularly fond of [1], is explicitly understood and described as the ability to acquire knowledge, to make an informed judgment about information provided, and to participate in and contribute to society. In fact, the overriding aim of the sector, and Volkshochschulen in particular, is to enable everyone’s participation in our democracy, not just understood politically, but culturally and socially as well.

 

All of that is what has been motivating me in my work at cultural heritage sites and in museums. I have never been focused on a site’s material or evidential values, and this goes for museum collections as well. On the contrary, I have spent the better part of my professional career arguing that sites and museums must be more than places for the presentation of expert knowledge, in the sense that it continues to be overwhelmingly defined, which is material or historical knowledge. I have supported the view that such expert knowledge too often not only exerts an undemocratic hegemony over heritage, but also misses the very values that turn something into heritage in the first place. My own focus has consequently always been on supporting (and understanding) people’s heritage work on the basis of my own and other’s research, particularly, but not exclusively from within critical heritage studies.

 

Engaging with the legal framework, strategies and practices for the further education and sociocultural sector in Germany has made me realise – somewhat ironically, considering my long-held stance – that I do not need to be working at a cultural heritage site or in a museum in order to maintain my focus on facilitating and understanding heritage work. Power over the management of the materiality on site is all that I will be losing in changing sectors. I believe I can live with that loss.

 

In fact, after the last three years, I feel a distinct sense of liberation. Particularly in Germany, there is still a long way to go before these values of participation, democratization and inclusion will be widely shared in the museum and heritage sectors. There are initiatives aplenty, but merely looking for example at the heated discussions at conferences about using simpler language in interpretive texts, or the need for the federal association to persuade museums to undertake visitor studies (!!) reveals that the institutional impact of these initiatives often remains rather limited.

 

Like I said, my focus is, always has been and always will be on people. I have never been in this to garner prestige for myself. The fact that some people are now telling me that in leaving a museum post I am losing status and ‘taking a step downwards’ just reassures me: I have made the right decision. Now I can focus on the work that I consider important and right, without having to endlessly defend it.

 

 

[1] The reason is that while even in formal pedagogy, the concept has evolved, in practice I find that there is still a hint of a one-way-street of (expert) instruction in quantifiable knowledge.

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The Promised Land project that I have been writing about on this blog on several occasions is nearing its conclusion. We are now finalising the ebook that captures our experiences, and for this, I have recently written a statement from the point of view of us as the German museum partner in the project. The following is adapted from that statement.

 

In Germany, there are still those who consider museums part of ‘high culture’. This is a powerful discourse that shapes and determines what museums, their makers and their audiences can acceptably be. Museums as high culture are temples of special knowledge and refined taste. They are encoded spaces to which one gains access through a certain type of sanctioned understanding. Working at, or visiting the high culture museum is as much about the sharing and gaining of knowledge as it is about expressing a certain identity [1]: it is a statement of distinction and a deliberate disassociation from ‘the Other’ and the masses. The philosophy of the museum as high culture consequently rejects and derides practices that are aimed at accessibility and inclusion. As Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf claimed at the art KARLSRUHE convention in 2018, such practices ‘infantilise’ audiences and force (art) museums to do less than their best. In other words, in the discourse of the museum as high culture, inclusion and accessibility are thought to lower the quality of the museum’s work. The implication, although rarely owned, is obvious: those audiences that might benefit from accessible and inclusive practices are ultimately not welcome. In order for these audiences to become acceptable, they must first acquire the knowledge, tastes and understanding necessary to decode the museum as is. In this fashion, the museum becomes the enclave of a specific and select group in society and, by extension, serves to maintain that group’s cultural hegemony. Museums as high culture therefore are prone to preserve the status quo rather than make possible (social) change.

 

In contrast, the German state and German civic society have, particularly since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe of 2015, increased efforts to support the integration [2] of new arrivals into German society. This we were able to see for ourselves during The Promised Land training week in Oldenburg. In a presentation on the German asylum system, we learnt that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) defines the aim of integration as including into German society all people who live in Germany long-term and legally. Specifically, immigrants are to have comprehensive and equal rights to participate in all aspects of society. BAMF therefore sponsors German language and orientation courses for asylum applicants who have good prospects to remain. We visited IBIS e.V., an association that was founded in 1994 to promote a peaceful society of diverse groups. In 2015, several service clubs joined to establish another association we got to know, pro:connect, which provides language courses and support in finding work for new arrivals. What these initiatives, and their political framework, have in common is the desire to promote inclusion of refugees and migrants into mainstream German society.

 

Museums (especially, but not solely those that are publicly funded) have a duty to participate in this effort [3]. They must become a social actor in the way that the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s MASS project envisions, with practices that serve to promote equity and inclusion in museums outside of the limited scope of working with collections. Museums as social actors cannot content themselves with using their collections to look primarily into the past. While history can of course provide examples and serve as a case study for certain topics, it cannot make up for engagement with the present day. Furthermore, museum as social actors must re-examine their sociocultural representations. They must take their impact on people’s realities seriously and, more importantly, change it were needed.

 

None of the above is to suggest that initiatives and projects do not already exist in Germany that have responded to the issues raised. Not all museum professionals and their audiences in Germany view museums as ‘high culture’. Decolonisation of collections and restitution to origin societies is a topic in the German museum sector today also, albeit one that is hotly debated. Projects such as Multaka by four museums in Berlin include refugees in providing guided exhibition tours to others, an initiative that is certainly a laudable first step, despite criticism on the extent to which the refugees’ critical questions are allowed to inform the presentation of the collection [4]. The German Museum Association issued guidance for museum practice on migration and diversity, and stressed that migration is the norm and even a necessity in modern industrial nations.

 

However, through The Promised Land project, and in comparing museum practice in Germany and elsewhere particularly to the theatre practice of our project partners from Italy and the United Kingdom, it has become clear that museums must and can do much more to provide inclusive spaces for all. The notion of the museum as ‘high culture’ is still too pervasive to allow a similar success to develop as that which has been enjoyed by our partners, and to make such practices more broadly accepted as good museum practice. Museums in Germany must actively reject the separation between ‘high culture’ and low culture, or Soziokultur, for it undermines the importance of inclusion and inclusive practices. We are said to live in an age of migrations. Successful immigrant, or post-migrant societies are those that are inclusive. Museums as centres of the nation’s culture and development are at the heart of this. Here, new arrivals can find orientation about their new home. In museum spaces, ‘native’ populations and new arrivals can meet and engage with each other’s perspectives on history, art and culture. In museums, heritage work [5] can be undertaken, that is, heritage is performed and reinforced, but new heritage is also negotiated and created. This important function of museums can only be realised if museums actively strive to become open and inclusive spaces. This requires more of museums than a selective and isolated offer of inclusive projects that are not intrinsically embedded in the museum’s work. To become inclusive spaces, museums must make inclusion a core element of their entire approach, from collecting to presentation to staffing. It requires opening up narratives and providing opportunities throughout for people – newcomers and natives alike – to enter into a constructive dialogue. Museums, like the theatre practice we were able to witness during The Promised Land project, must become more process-oriented than is currently the case. While collections will undoubtedly remain important in museum work, museums must recognise that they need to be so much more than mere places for collection display in order to maintain their relevance and make a contribution to post-migrant societies such as modern-day Germany. It is to be hoped that the ICOM definition of museums, which is currently under review, in the future enables and supports such an approach and makes it commonplace to expect museums to be lively spaces of social action.

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A couple of weeks back I visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Historic Art) in Vienna. Interpretation of art is not my specialism, and I’m always intrigued by what art museums do. You get anything from, well, nothing, to rather tediously specific texts that try to explain every dot of paint on the canvas. Sometimes I’m inspired, and rather more often, I want to pull my hair out.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum did both to me. The Egyptian Gallery was a blast just for the decorations. Firstly, it incorporated actual Egyptian columns into the architecture of the suite of rooms, which let you subtly appreciate what these beautiful things were actually meant to do. Secondly, on the walls were reproductions from wall paintings found in Egyptian tombs, which created a kind of artistic-mock authentic experience that I thought gave more depth to the objects [1].

The gallery with Greek busts was one of the best-lit galleries I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t tell you anything about who created the busts, where exactly they came from, or who they were of – which, in terms of interpretation’s usually proclaimed outcome of learning would suggest the interpretation was very poor indeed [2]. But the drama of the light was spectacular, and combined with the arrangement of the busts on high plinths I felt I was looking at them with much greater attention than anywhere else before.

And then there was room after room of objects in cases. I will say that the cases, which looked like they dated from the 19th century, when the museum was originally built, were actually rather pleasing. But as was wont to happen, I was quickly overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff there was to see. I suppose I craved some guidance, and found it, to some extent, in some interactives that allowed you to zoom into high resolution images of highlight objects. What was a bit frustrating was that once I’d done that, the interpretation didn’t tell me where to go to see the thing for myself.

And finally: the galleries of historic paintings. The display was of the cramped kind, the mother of all multi-hangs reaching all the way up to the already triple-height ceiling. Needless to say, in order to see the paintings on top you had to find just the right spot in the room, and then they were still too far removed to properly view them. The rooms had different interpretive approaches; in some there were railings in front of the walls, which had interpretive text in German and English: about the artist, the motif, and a bit of contextual background. Those were nice; I’m the kind of visitor who needs and likes a bit of info about the story that’s depicted in historic art. But in other rooms there literally was nothing but the dreaded (poshly) laminated sheets of photographs of each wall, that numbered the paintings and then gave you naught but the artist’s name, the title of the painting, and the date. What was even more frustrating was that you had to hunt for the right sheet – after all, there were four walls, four different sheets, lots of people, and lots of pockets where the sheets might be kept. Needless to say, I didn’t find the sheets I was after, nor could I be bothered to look extensively for them.

What was interesting was that I had similar experiences as what has emerged in audience research that for several months now, I’ve been involved in at one of the main art museums in the UK. Visitors criticized multi-hangs, they appeared to want introductory information, and they didn’t make the connection between art and culture – or the insights that art can give into culture. Knowing the art on display also made a difference to their experience, which holds a lot of clues about how art might be promoted, and displayed so visitors can become familiar with it.

At least, that’s what I thought when at Belvedere Palace I walked into a gallery of Gustav Klimt paintings. I’m not a Klimt expert, but I’ve also not lived under a rock: I knew these paintings, and I was excited to be able to properly, up close, look at them. This was the purist approach to a gallery hang, with lots of space between paintings, and I cherished it. And you know what? I bought tons of Klimt postcards just because of that positive experience – and nothing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Notes

[1] Just for the record (again), I am not convinced we have sufficient justification to rob anyone’s grave of anything and then display it as art. But that’s just by the by.

[2] There were labels, some of which described the obvious: ‘Bust of a young man.’ And nothing else. Others did state who was depicted, where known – but nothing further.

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Early in December last year, the British Museums Association issued an exciting research brief.  They want to find out what the public think of the present and potential purposes of museums, and their roles in society.

I am really looking forward to this research report, which is due at the end of March.  Crucially, the research isn’t about what professionals think – the MA’s Museums 2020 campaign has already given us plenty of that.  This research finally goes out to the public directly and asks them what they think [1]. The brief asks for a ‘detailed, qualitative exploration’, and it will be interesting to see what methodology the researchers will apply (I understand they haven’t been appointed yet). 

The research questions are really intriguing for museums and heritage professionals:

  • What do the public think are, and should be, the fundamental purposes of publicly funded museum services?
  • Which purposes (if any) would they prioritise in times of limited funding
  • What principles do they believe should underpin public museums services; and
  • What should museums be trying to achieve now, and over the next decade.

It might be a real eye-opener for the sector to hear what the public think about the purposes, priorities, and principles that we have established for museums (and heritage sites).  My only concern is that these questions are very conceptual.  The brief suggests that these questions are further refined by the researchers, but answers to these questions is what the brief demands.  The brief acknowledges that this will require what it calls ‘deliberation’ on the part of respondents, and it expects that they will be given background information and time to ‘debate’ issues raised in Museums 2020 so far.  However, unless the methodology is radically different from the (traditional) focus groups and interviews anticipated by the brief, this will seriously limit the diversity of respondents and responses. The prospect of having to read through dry, specialist museums and heritage discourse will be intimidating for many, not the least for the underrepresented, hard-to-reach groups that are at the core for example of our social inclusion agendas – social inclusion being of course one of our self-identified ‘purposes’.  The irony is obvious. 

Another worry that I have is that the questions are also very much predetermined by our own professional framings.  The brief specifically requests that responses are sought to the existing professional discourse, including Museums 2020.  The underlying desire is clear.  However, we might limit respondents’ creativity and overwhelm them with our own learned conceptions.  I hope the researchers find a methodology to approach this whereby they truly enable respondents to develop their own discourse and free them from having to use our own thinking as their starting point.  What we don’t want is ‘our usual suspects’ to simply confirm what we think.  This might be comforting, but really wouldn’t be helpful.

The research will focus on publicly funded museums and those run as charities.  The brief consequently makes a distinction between ‘the public’ as visitors, and ‘the public’ as tax-payers and citizen/funders, the latter being the research subject.  Personally, I wish the MA hadn’t made that distinction. It artificially slices the whole person into separate roles, and asking someone a question about purpose on a funding and societal level might produce an entirely different response from one based on personal motivation/benefit [2].  My argument would be that it’s that personal motivation that determines the public view of a museum, practically expressed through visitor numbers and impact, for example.  I would say it is therefore that personal response that will give us the insights that the research seeks: how to make museums ‘more responsive and more sustainable’.  

Finally, it’s notable that when specifying the sample requirements, the brief uses demographic segmentation.  I’ve recently had conversations online and offline about how widespread the implementation of non-demographic audience segmentation is in the (British) museums and heritage sector.  My experience has been that it isn’t widespread at all, and the Museums Association’s brief seems another case in point.  I would be really interested to know why they’ve chosen this demographic approach, for I know that motivation for example is a key category in their current thinking on audience development.  It would seem that when researching the public’s views on the purposes and roles of museums it is particularly important to ensure a sample that is representative of the different motivations that bring visitors to museums, and that make the public care about heritage.  However, in practical terms the challenge is of course that motivation itself is far more difficult to establish as a distinguishing attribute than are demographic categories – you would basically need to do a piece of research first to identify your (potential) sample.

Either way, the research will be interesting when it comes out, both for its methodology and its findings.  I can’t wait.   

 

Notes

[1] Why research doesn’t do this as a matter of course in our sector remains a mystery to me.  Only yesterday I read through a book-length study of the continued relevance – or not – of (heritage) myth and symbolism in society, and the study had not spoken to a single visitor or member of the public.

[2] This is similar to issues around economic valuation, where studies have shown how willingness to pay changes in response to questions framed on a personal and political level.  

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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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