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Posts Tagged ‘museums’

Last month, I presented [1] a paper at the Re-Imagining Challenging History conference in Cardiff, Wales. It combined and developed two of the key things I’ve written about a lot on this blog recently: that museums’ silence is never neutral, and that objectivity, as an expression of ‘truth’ (including a ‘material’ truth), does not exist.

 

The paper became an example of when history overtakes us. As I was putting the finishing touches to it, Brexit had just happened. Suddenly, my suggestions in the paper about the negative impact on immigrants of the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in British media and politics [2] were superseded by actual xenophobic attacks on EU Citizens, which many argue were enabled by the tone of the EU referendum campaign. The fact that the overwhelming silence in society on this rhetoric was now pierced by outspoken support for EU citizens and a critique of how the campaign had been conducted, all of a sudden seemed to make my arguments in the paper self-evident. Obviously there had been an issue. Obviously museums, society – anyone – should have done more before now. There hadn’t even been a silent majority coming to the rescue just in time. There had only been silence.

 

The world has since moved on, the country seems to have come to terms with what has happened, and we’re back to politics that sees people as mere bargaining chips, and a media obsessed with focusing on what Brexit will do for immigration controls and ‘taking our country back’. In a sad way, perhaps, it has become worthwhile again that I did write the paper.

 

But this time, there is no excuse for museums. Silence is not neutral. If museums are silent, they are supporting the hate, the harassment that is happening now. As key institutions of social and cultural life, museums that are silent are enabling such actions by not opposing them. Opposing them is political, yes. But in remaining silent museums are not apolitical either: they are siding with someone. And it’s not the immigrants.

 

Of course, museums can choose to side with whoever they want. They choose their own values. They just need to stop thinking that others don’t notice. And when consequently those others choose not to visit, museums need to take ownership of the reasons for this, and stop subtly chastising them as ‘hard-to-reach’. They are not hard to reach. Some of them may just find museums’ socio-political messaging hard to swallow [3].

 

Part of that messaging, I would argue, is the way in which history and objects are deployed by museums. I’ve blogged about this several times: In this post I argued that the recourse to history is largely irrelevant and has little, if any impact on contemporary debate, while in this post I suggested that the way museums choose object-narratives avoids engaging with current events. None of this does anything for museums’ impact on society, as envisaged by Museums Change Lives, the British Museum Association’s (MA) vision for museums. It most definitely does not advance society, or support social inclusion, as the MA hoped. In fact, in the paper I suggested that with their current approach, museums in Britain have been allowing, if not promoting certain myths about the nation that cannot be reconciled with current realities. I’m not one for ‘busting’ myths just for the sake of it. However, when myths become a potentially dangerous source of complacency, as I would argue they have become in Britain, then I do think museums must mount a challenge if they are serious about being relevant to contemporary society. Not to preach, or to convert, or to persuade. But to make visible what we may otherwise not choose to see. As far as I’m concerned, anything else is quickly and simply becoming not good enough.

 

You can download the full paper I presented at the conference here: Silence is not neutral and objectivity does not exist.

 

Notes

[1] I presented the paper in absentia via audio recording. Sadly I could no longer attend in person as planned. Shame! It sounded like a great conference that prompted really good conversation, as seen under the conference’s hashtag #challhist.

[2] See for example Nikolaidis, A. 2015. ‘Immigration and the 2015 Election: The Banal, the Racist, and the Unspoken’. In UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign. Early Reflections from Leading UK Academics., edited by D. Jackson and E. Thorsen, 98. Bournemouth: Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/page-files/UK%20Election%20Analysis%202015%20-%20Jackson%20and%20Thorsen%20v1.pdf. For a comparative study of the years 2006 and 2013, see also Balch, A. and Balabanova, E., 2016. ‘Ethics, Politics and Migration: Public Debates on the Free Movement of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK, 2006 – 2013.’ Politics 36(1), p. 19-35.

[3] In the paper, I juxtaposed museums’ silence on the nastiness of the immigration debate and their enthusiastic support for the commemorations of the First World War. In both narratives, but uncommented by museums, many people will have recognised the same ‘us and them’ binarity. Britain is famously a country where the ‘Great War’ is solemnly commemorated year after year, and any refusal to participate in the accepted mode of reverence and gratitude is generally met with criticism. You can read about one of the  debates about the public wearing of the poppy here, and I would also recommend reading this paper about Britain’s relationship to Remembrance: Basham, V., 2015. ‘Gender, Race Militarism and Remembrance: The Everyday Geopolitics of the Poppy’. Gender, Place and Culture: a journal of feminist geography. Available from: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/17371. [Accessed 11.06.2016].

 

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A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on ‘Understanding Museums’ in Germany. It was about researching museums and researching audiences, with a particular focus on new and innovative methods [1].

In the final plenary session, the organiser for the museum research aspect of the conference expressed his hope that the focus on researching audiences would not overshadow research of museums. I understand his desire to research collections, and displays more or less in isolation, and I will say that the session on provenance research was quite interesting.

However, the organiser’s comment was also a bit curious in my ears, as someone who passionately believes that museums are there not just for people, but because of people. Therefore, in my universe, audience research is the start and the end of all museums or heritage work. And please note that audience research here isn’t just research with those people that come through the door of the museum: it includes non-visitor as well. Audience research examines what they value about the heritage in our professional care, how they want to use it, engage with it – or not. It seeks to establish the barriers, the perceptions, anything that the museum is (apparently) doing wrong. But also what it is doing well: What do people value about it? What works? Why? In addition to this qualitative stuff, there’s the quantitative bit that can also give you an idea of how your museum works – and how it fails: the numbers, the stats, the visitor demographics. All of these things together are the basic foundation from which to do professional museum work.

‘Professional’ is quite important here. You would not believe the number of audience research I see in my work as a consultant that is frankly useless. People seem to think they can save money on this and just send the poor intern out to quickly whip up a survey and start asking people (or worse, just have ‘comment cards’ or the vexatious ‘visitor book’). In reality, audience research is quite a complex job. You have to know what you want to use this for and how. You need to think about sampling, bias, and analysis. You need to know how to administer your audience research: even doing surveys requires a professional approach. Planning audience research requires being familiar with the pros and cons of different methods, and not just relying on a one-size-fits all approach. Often, this is long-term data and developments you’ll want to capture, so there needs to be a proper strategy integrated into your management. Without that kind of professional audience research, your work will always suffer from an unprofessional, and thus shaky, foundation.

And why is audience research the necessary foundation? Because good audience research should inform business planning, business and options development, project development, infrastructure and visitor services, and interpretation. If you’ve cheated in the audience research, and allowed, for example, your biases to come through, or a notion that you ‘already know’ your visitors and non-visitors, then your entire project will suffer from it and most likely underachieve and under-deliver, be it in visitor numbers, satisfaction rates, or financial performance.

That’s why I found slightly curious the suggestion that audience research should take second place to museum research, understood here as research on collections, as far as I could gather. If you asked me, I would have it just the other way around. Without audience research, the heart of your museum can never properly beat.

 

Notes

[1] Here just a quick overview, and my thoughts:

Technology 1: Eye-tracking

It was quite noticeable that the non-British colleagues were very focused on technology-based museums and audience research. Eye-tracking and the use of video technology stood out. I wasn’t too sure at first about eye-tracking, especially with regards to understanding audiences, and how the museum worked for them. But then one presenter, Hanna Brinkmann of the University of Vienna, showed a ‘hot-spot’ map of a painting. It highlighted where most visitors looked (the face) and the areas they hardly noticed. She made the point that beside helping art historians understand how people ‘read’ art, it also gives a clue to interpreters about the things that visitors appear to be missing. That made sense, although I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a more cost-effective method available.

 

Technology 2: User Video Study

I was particularly intrigued by an excerpt from a User Video Study shared by Johanna Barnbeck of the University of Amsterdam. Basically this type of study attaches a camera to one of the group members, in this case a little boy, to capture their visit. Johanna found that people quickly forgot about the camera, and I thought this was a great way of seeing how visitors move through spaces, respond to exhibits and use interpretation socially, and potentially also to get some candid insights into what they think. I can see this method work also for the type of study that I’ve just done, which looked at the benefits that visitors took from heritage, and their relationship with it. I was conscious that I couldn’t eavesdrop into their conversations while observing them, and this would have been a potential solution (well, with funding). I think one would still want to have an explorative conversation, to follow up and probe on what they said and did. Apparently follow-up conversations were in fact part of the methodology that Johanna used.

 

Qualitative Methods

Several presenters also talked about using qualitative methods for audience research, sometimes, but not always in combination with technology-supported visitor observations. Unstructured interviews and narrative inquiry featured strongly, along with accompanied visits, with several presenters making the point that pre-determining structures, similar to pre-set answer options in surveys, means that what you can find is limited by your expectations, discourses and biases as a researcher. I thought that was an important point to make at a conference about audience research.

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I am really intrigued by how German cultural institutions, including museums, appear to be contributing to the efforts of integrating refugees into German civic society.

This announcement of an upcoming exhibition about 14 projects in Berlin notes what seems to be a conscious shift away from narrowly focusing on refugees’ stories toward integrative projects that focus on topics shared by young people instead – whether or not they’re refugees. The objective is to support the Miteinander, the being, living, working together.

This project received an award in 2014, the Mixed Up Preis, for being a great example of using the arts to tackle contemporary socio-political issues. Pupils from a German school and from several refugee organisations came together to use three different art forms – theatre, film and applied arts – to look at ideas of home, identity, and the experience of adjusting both in a new place. You can see the documentary film about the project here (in German). Importantly, this wasn’t just about the refugees; the impact evidently went both ways, not only because the whole project started with the German school pupils visiting their nearby refugee home.

This objective of integrating refugees as quickly as possible is really strong in everything that I read these days from Germany. Die Bundesvereinigung Kulturelle Kinder- und Jugendbildung, short BKJ (roughly translated the Federal Association of Cultural Education for children and young people) issued a statement that noted that young refugees ‘have the same rights as all young people’ – therefore, they should be provided access to the same provision, and for the same strategic reason: ‘It makes possible and requires social and cultural participation’ [1].

Participation, Teilhabe, is a key word these days in German cultural policy, I’ve noticed. It’s very much used, at least on the policy level, to suggest an active contribution that also changes society. As the Berlin exhibition announcement states, the projects presented show how refugees can be supported in shaping the future together with those that have lived here longer [2]. Note that it’s not ‘their future’; it’s ‘future’. Shared. Together.

I’m really excited about this. Not just because it reflects a more global vision of diverse people living and shaping the future together, but because it shows cultural institutions actively responding to the challenges faced by the society they’re part of as they happen, without ‘targeting’ and framing ‘the other’. This is relevant. This truly does contribute. It makes a difference. It changes lives.

It also takes a stand. The BKJ is clear in their statement that they demand of their society the acknowledgement of the human right to asylum. They do not want Germany, and Europe, to isolate themselves. They want widespread acceptance of the fact that Germany is a country of immigration. They want to support an intercultural society through practical measures. They want to make a positive impact through their work as cultural institutions.

Maybe that’s easily said and done when broadly speaking, the society your institution is part of shares your values. Perhaps. But for now, I feel reinvigorated by what’s happening in Germany. Maybe museums as cultural organisations and players in society need not be irrelevant after all [3].

Notes

[1] The sentence in German reads: ‘Dies ermöglicht und erfordert gesellschaftliche und kulturelle Teilhabe.’

[2] In German: ‘…wie Kinder und Jugendliche mit Fluchthintergrund unterstützt werden können… gemeinsam mit den bereits länger hier Lebenden Zukunft zu gestalten.’

[3] As ever, my caveat with the project examples is that I don’t know what their actual, long-term impact is.  Hopefully the German colleagues will do proper evaluation and analysis, and we’ll find out. I’m just excited at this point that they do more than be silent, and that they don’t appear to still perpetuate the myth of target audiences being about inclusion.

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A couple of weeks ago, the German Museums Association (Deutscher Museumsbund) published recommendations for museums on how to include and represent migration and cultural diversity in their work.

I was really impressed by two key concepts that frame the entire document:

Migration is the Norm

This is a fact that is evident when we burst open a fear-infused discourse about migration. The recommendations make brief reference to the history of migration through the ages, and conclude early on: ‘Migration is thus the norm in history’ [1]. There appears to be an acute awareness and acknowledgement of fears of migration too. The document takes a clear position: ‘To recognize this diversity as the norm is a task that we must perform daily and long-term in our society.’ [2]

The recommendations also highlight that there are various forms of migration: migration can be within one country, it can be temporary or long-term, it can be motivated by the economy or a desire to experience new cultures, it can be voluntary or forced. In other words, no two migrants are the same, and that’s not just because they may come from two different countries of origin.

Migrants and Non-Migrants are Alike

The recommendations place centre-stage an audience segmentation model that I had never heard of, but which seems eminently adopt-worthy after an admittedly casual read: the Sinus-Milieumodel (or Model of Milieus) [3]. The model identifies milieus on the basis of similarities in values, lifestyle/taste, and socioeconomic circumstances. According to the Museumsbund document, subsequent studies have shown that milieus are not determined by people’s migrant status. Rather, they cut across populations (i.e. migrant and non-migrant) which seems self-evident, but now we also (apparently) have empirical proof. And thus the recommendations state, ‘”People with migration background” do not exist as a homogenous target audience…They are represented in all social milieus.’ [4] They further make it clear that any orientation toward a target audience should therefore not be based on migration (p. 23).

I have previously questioned the usefulness of the concept of target audiences. It’s not something that I find discussed often in the UK, so this unambiguous statement regarding migrant groups (part of the British BAME concept [5]) is very refreshing.

The remainder of the document contains practical suggestions on how to start introducing migration as a ‘norm’ into a museum’s work. Some will be familiar to those of us in the UK and the US, around participation and community engagement. And where there might be the danger of slipping into tokenism, the document includes further really good points: For example, when reviewing collections, ‘collecting practices should be reconstructed and deconstructed’ [6], in other words, not just inviting source communities to comment (although this is recommended too), but to contextualize how collections came about in the first place, and what this says about historical (West/Not-West) world views – something that isn’t as often talked about over here in the UK. The aim is to cease the ‘dichotomy of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’’ (p. 14), which is a really important point to highlight.

From a British/US perspective, some underlying structures may seem slightly odd in the document [7] but overall, this is a really helpful guide that gets museums thinking about migration and how to reflect it in their practices. Now that I’ve come to identify myself as a migrant in Britain, I really appreciate the integrative approach this document reflects. This is not about ‘targeting the other’: the document makes clear that integration is a reciprocal process [8]. And that’s so true.

Notes

[1] Migration ist also der Normalfall in der Geschichte. (p.8)

[2] ‘Diese Diversitaet als Normalitaet zu erkennen, ist eine Aufgabe, die sich im gesellschaftlichen Miteinander taeglich und langfristig stellt.’ (p. 7)

[3] You can read the study that first introduced this model here (in German). It was developed through a narrative enquiry/hermeneutic exploration of lifeworlds methodology, so there were no preemptive categorizations that jumped out at me – but again, I’ve not thoroughly analysed it yet.

[4] ‘”Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” gibt es nicht al seine homogene Zielgruppe… Sie sind in allen sozialen Milieus vertreten. (p. 11)

[5] For non-British readers, the acronym stands for Black Asian Minority Ethnic, and generally covers colour, nationality, and ethnic/national origin. In theory, it would be split before it is used to define a target audience, but in practice it generally serves as a catch-all for a variety of museum offers. The issue is obvious: the concept and general application clouds the diversity of the groups clustered under the term, and thus hampers the way we discuss each group, their needs/interests/barriers, and the offer we put together to engage (with) them.

[6] ‘…die urspruenglichen Sammlungskontexte zu rekonstruieren und zu dekonstruieren…’ (p.13)

[7] For example, it too suffers – in my opinion – from the lack of the integrative power of interpretation as the discipline of (loosely defined) facilitating engagement, be that through exhibitions or public programmes. The continued split between ‘exhibitions’ (Ausstellungen) and ‘presentation’ (Vermittlung) is hindering, but at least there are signs that it’s starting to get addressed.

[8] p. 7. I’ve been thinking about how integration goes both ways quite a bit over recent months. I used to feel firmly integrated into British society and culture. This was my home, I knew more about Britain than I knew about my native Germany (which I left nearly 20 years ago). Since I’ve been cast as ‘the migrant’ in British media and public discourse, with comments permeating even into my personal and professional life, I can honestly say that I no longer feel integrated. I’m daily retreating further into my European-ness (first) and German-ness (second), and while other migrants may feel inclined to fight this negative discourse, I find myself wondering more and more whether I have a future here. That’s not just a sad thing to have happened to me as a person, but also, in my opinion, to Britain.

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In her latest blog post ‘Following up on Ferguson’, Gretchen Jennings mentions that several museum people told her that they had been specifically forbidden from answering visitor questions or commenting on social media about Ferguson [1]. Having worked in local authority museums in the UK and knowing from my work here as a consultant the constraints that many organisations work under politically, I expect that this is in fact the case for most museums. In the UK, it will not be Ferguson that museums are forbidden to engage with, but you can take your pick of any of the pressing issues that we are facing over here and which will no doubt be deemed ‘too hot’ by decision makers.

Contrast this with the drive to make museums more ‘democratic’, with ‘co-production’ and ‘community engagement’, with ‘audience development’ and ‘Museums Change Lives’. These are all eminently worthy and truly important initiatives. But are we deluding ourselves by not facing up to a fundamental hypocrisy here? If Ferguson, to stick with the American example, is on communities’ minds, then what on earth are we doing avoiding the issue? I am beginning to wonder whether museums are becoming irrelevant even as they’re trying, at least nominally, to become more people-focused. Here are a few questions that I’ve been asking myself:

Is this really what museums are for?
A couple of weeks ago, the UK Museums Association (MA) published case studies for its Museums Change Lives campaign [2]. And what these museums have done is all great: the Tank Museum has taught young offenders engineering and basic skills qualifications; Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service have engaged homeless people, and Glasgow Museums have created memory walls off-site to help people with dementia. But is this really what museums are for? Aren’t there other organisations, dare I suggest perhaps even the state, who should be tackling the underlying issues here? And what about actually discussing these issues? Who is asking the question about what makes young people so disillusioned that they just don’t seem to care anymore? Why do we live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and yet people have to go to foodbanks?

Is it really about collections?
In her post, Gretchen also mentions that several colleagues had commented that museums should always be first and foremost about mission and collections [3]. I know I keep writing this on this blog, but I really feel that in light of this continued insistence on the importance above all of material collections one has to keep saying it: collections are dead. And let’s face it: the majority of local history museums are full of stuff that’s neither local [4] nor particularly interesting [5]. By focusing our energies, resources, and our professional self-concept primarily on collections, we spectacularly fail to actually connect with what makes our communities go around. Yes, good practice is to find the angle that will ‘connect’ ‘the public’ with our collections. But like it or not, you will always and forever be limited by what that collection item is if that is how you set the parameters of your ‘connection’ with your community. And they just might genuinely not care, because when it’s between debating what can be done about institutional racism that rakes their lives, and talking to you about their cultural connections to an African kora, they might just deem the former far more relevant and pressing than the latter.

Are we too self-absorbed?
At the start of this year, the MA wondered what was around the corner for museums. This was the day before Charlie Hebdo, but many months after Ferguson and UKIP’s victories in Britain. And around the corner were concerns about budget cuts, the impact of the election on culture policy, and tucked away at the bottom, the current consultation on a new code of ethics [6]. Now, obviously budget cuts have an impact. Without money you won’t do much. But it does seem to me that certainly in the UK the focus has been on cuts, and relaying the impact of cuts, and gathering evidence of why cuts in museum budgets are wrong because museums contribute to society – see the Museums Change Lives case studies. And that’s all valid, but when there are people leaving our societies to join terrorists on the other side of the world, and a political climate sweeps the country in which the Prime Minister suggests that Britain would be a ‘better, stronger country’ if there were fewer migrants, then museums talking primarily about cuts in their budgets just sound a bit out of touch.

However, the question does, I suppose, come back to what service museums are meant to bring to society. Is it engaging the ‘hard to reach’ with collections? Is it using collections to support the health agenda? Or:

Should museums be something different altogether?

Last week I was struck by Richard Wendorf’s description of museums as ‘the chapels and cathedrals of an increasingly secularised society” in his comment on the MA website. Setting aside the Christian and religious connotations, and the inherent elevation of collections as objects of reverence [7], I did feel it expressed well a need that does exist in a secular society for a space that is special, that does hold society’s respect, and that does provide sanctuary to discuss, debate, grieve and celebrate together in safety. One could argue that perhaps there are many institutions that could provide this space: the local community centre perhaps, or the library, or maybe just even the town square. Like many others have done, however, I too would argue that if there is any relevance and purpose left for museums, then this is it. There is a need for places where we can encounter, share and further develop our collective memories and our collective aspirations – in many ways, museums are already set up as that. I think if museums really are serious about reflecting their communities, and providing a service to them, then we need this radical rethink that builds on and expands what museums are – both from museum professionals, but also crucially from decision makers. Museums need the political autonomy to explore and respond to the issues that are of concern to their communities. There cannot be any external, or internal censorship. If we are serious about being of service and use to our community, then this is what we need to do. Museums may well survive, drawing on the same white, educated, over 55 audience that lobbies for their funding as they’ve done for decades. But should they?

Notes

[1] You’ll know all about Ferguson, no doubt, but just in case you might want to read this. And for museum responses, check out Twitter #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[2] That’s the ‘MA’s vision for the impact museums can have on individuals, communities and society’ (see link).

[3] The joint statement by museum bloggers on Ferguson suggested otherwise: ‘As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.’

[4] How many ethnographic collections are there in local history museums just because a notable citizen brought these back. Let’s not probe too deeply into where and how they got those items in the first place, or ask those ethical questions whether they should be on show at all.

[5] My colleague Adam Ditchburn has eloquently said it in August last year in this post: “I get that the ‘Coming of the Railways’ was a big deal, but for goodness sake, let it go, or tell me something new about it, or ask me to tell you something, just don’t make me read another panel about it.”

[6] I dismissed this at the time, assuming that it would be concerned only with acquisition and particularly disposal, as it seemed this is all that’s been in the MA news over recent months. However, laudably, the code of ethics does raise questions about museums’ role in society, and public access etc. Well worth responding to! You’ve got until Friday this week (13th Feb).

[7] I can’t embrace either of these – I think all religions at times in their history have a questionable track record of giving and deserving respect, and I’ve already made it clear that I do not hold objects in particular esteem for their own sake.

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In a piece on The Conversation UK earlier this month, Jacqueline Baxter of The Open University argues that all teachers should have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) [1]. Her piece reminded me of the fact that in many museums, QTS is the required qualification for museum educators – the people that deliver the programmes for schools.

Now, museum educators aren’t teachers in a school classroom. In surveys that I have done in various roles, teachers bringing their classes to a museum or site have said that they want the children to experience something that they can’t give them in the classroom. A school trip is a huge administrative and financial burden for schools, so the value for the children has to far outstrip the effort. In our surveys, teachers have expressed that they want the children to experience the museum (or site), see the collection, handle artefacts, become immersed in history with opportunities teachers simply can’t offer in school.

And yet, I continue to see school programmes delivered as structured sessions in ‘education rooms’. Even where children are taken out into galleries, all that changes are the surroundings – the management techniques, the way that children are expected to behave, the way that they are invited to learn often stay the same as in the classroom. Educators count down to ‘stop talking’ with primary classes, children are sat down and asked questions, which they must answer by raising their hands. More often than not, the programmes don’t extend into the galleries at all. Teachers are expected to take classes there on their own, with resources that are often little more than historical background information, and possibly a ‘quiz’. [3]

I think museums can do so much better than that. Interestingly, at heritage sites the dynamic seems to be consistently different. When I was at 1066 Battle of Hastings two weeks ago, for example, I twice observed school groups going around with costumed interpreters. The children got dressed up, learnt to wield weapons, and re-imagined parts of the battle right above the battlefield itself [2]. Yes, they were expected to follow rules (they did get a bit excited by the battle re-enactment, and who can blame them?), but there was none of that tightly controlled discipline that seems aimed at supporting intellectual learning. This was hands-on, immersive and, judging from the children’s reactions, fun.

I don’t know if the interpreters at English Heritage are qualified teachers. If they are, they certainly have learnt to be interpreters rather than teachers. And this is why I would argue that museum educators should have interpretation as their required qualification, not QTS. Interpretation teaches us about learning styles, communication, managing groups, and working with children. We don’t need to know about classroom discipline or assessment. In fact, I believe it is this training in classroom techniques followed by formal assessment in the discipline the teacher is trained in that is responsible for the classroom programmes offered in so many museums. While interpretation encourages us to think creatively about ways of engaging people with the heritage that is there, QTS is ultimately about making sure children succeed in passing tests. And it shows. [4]

Notes
[1] Academies and free schools in England can hire teachers who do not have Qualified Teacher Status.

[2] This was one of the Discovery Visits that English Heritage offer. Note on their website the emphasis on ‘out-of-the-classroom experience’. Because that is what it is about.

[3] Obviously, teacher resources are necessary. Not every teacher wants a formal programme, nor can every school be accommodated. Teachers do ask for resources. What I would suggest, however, is that the resources are structured in such a way that teachers themselves can step outside their usual role (something that incidentally will also help children pay attention, as it’s not ‘the same teacher doing the same thing’). They should contain more than information, and a few suggested questions and ‘search’ activities. In effect, the resources should present a fully structured programme, supported by in-gallery resources, that teachers can quickly access, understand, and guide themselves.

[4] Perhaps it would help if we dropped the ‘educators’ label altogether. Let’s call them anything but educators. Education as a concept sets us on a specific path that just doesn’t inspire in museums and heritage sites – even for school groups. Teachers are great at educating pupils, and schools (and colleges and universities) are set up for education. Outside of these places, let’s stick with ‘informal learning’, unless we’re entering into a more formal agreement, which is usually with Further or Higher Education institutions, to provide part of a course, or a formal placement. But that’s not a school programme.

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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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