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Posts Tagged ‘museums’

I’ve recently read English Heritage’s consultation on under-represented heritages [1] and it got me thinking, yet again, about target audiences. Here are some of the points that struck a chord with me:

We don’t want [insert under-represented heritage here] sites
In fact, one respondent called this idea ‘horrible’ (p. 10).  In other words, they didn’t suddenly want a load of sites that were designated as Black, Muslim, LGBT, whatever.  And there were a couple of reasons why:

The groups aren’t separate
It was actually in the disabled group that they pointed out that disabled people are also lesbian, gay, black, Muslim…But that’s not all:

Groups don’t like to have their marginalisation constantly reinforced
This was specifically said with regard to the language used by organisations: how are the groups represented?  They didn’t want to be represented as always different.

Don’t we all have an ethnicity?
…asked one participant when it came to judging categories for searching heritage lists, such as the category ‘Ethnic History’ – which, alas, doesn’t mean ethnic at all, it means non-White, non-European, non-Western.  But the point that touched me the most was this one:

It is ‘very dangerous’ to address [insert under-represented heritage here] history only to members of that community
This came out of the LGBT group, where they felt that for their ‘political safety’ (p. 25) everyone needed to understand why their history was important.

For me what emerges from the above is one key point: these people don’t want to be singled out and ‘targeted’.  They’re just part of our whole wide wonderful and diverse world.  The moment we focus in on one attribute of a person (“gay”) and then target a programme at that, mostly what we’re signalling is that we, too, see difference, exclusion and marginalisation.  We’re effectively reinforcing that segregation by addressing, as they said, members of that community alone, when the real need may lie somewhere else entirely – for example in addressing our own and society’s focus on just one attribute.  That’s an uncomfortable thought, I know.  But the reality is that there are museums, as mentioned in this report, that simply ignore for example the homosexual attraction their key historic figures may have felt.  And that, more than any lack of targeted programming, may be the reason why people feel our museum is not for them.

So do let’s search our visitor data for under-represented audiences, but let’s understand that what it tells us is not something about those that don’t come.  First and foremost it tells us something about our own organisation.  If there is a black strand to the story of our site, then let’s tell it.  But let’s not set out to tell it ‘for black people’, let’s tell it for people.  Let’s include that ‘ethnic’, LGBT, disabled imagery in our children’s activities as a matter of course, not because we’re doing a programme specifically for these groups.  If there are barriers that may prevent people from coming, be that cultural barriers or physical, then let’s address those barriers – let’s not address the people, as if they were the issue.  That’s what is the underlying principle of equalities legislation and practices, and it’s what museums should apply too.  Once we normalise what we consider an attribute that makes someone hard to reach, our place will become more welcoming to them.  And we may just find that they visit without a single targeted programme on the schedule.

And I will no longer have to use language that talks of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Notes
[1] As an aside, the selection of those consulted is quite interesting: Participants were shortlisted based on whether they had published a major body of research in one of the areas identified as under-represented.  Bless the LGBT expert who noted that it would be more relevant to speak to the local community.  If English Heritage is truly committed to giving equal consideration to communal value then this approach to currently under-represented heritage is unlikely to reach those communities.

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Last week we had to cancel a training day on community engagement because of low uptake [1].  The training co-ordinator suggested that community engagement may still not be seen to be important to the work of museums.  He may be right, but I very much hope he isn’t.  After all, there is, and has been for a couple of years, a lot of talk about community engagement in the museums sector in the UK.

The thing is, sometimes I wonder whether we’re all talking about the same thing when we say ‘community engagement’.  And I wonder if the practices that are out there can really be called ‘community engagement’, or whether it’s just a label that we apply to tick a box.

I deal a lot with community engagement and co-creation, so I inevitably hear a lot of comments about it too.  And I’m afraid I often disagree with them.  At a recent network meeting, for example, someone talked about a community engagement project in which they got people in to work on their archive.  That’s not community engagement, if you ask me.  That’s getting volunteers in to do the work you need doing. Another person understood engagement as working with pre-constituted groups, which you target according to your own choice. Again, with this level of museums control (your choice) and exclusion of other members of the community, I don’t feel we’re really justified in calling this community engagement [2]. In another meeting someone felt it was community engagement if a group approached the museum with an idea and then executed it on their own with the museum in effect providing nothing more than a venue.  I’m not sure I would call that engagement either.

Now don’t get me wrong: these are all worthy project structures [3].  And compared to those times when museums were completely closed off to any public input, they are better than nothing. But personally, I feel we need to strive for more than that.  For one thing, I think community engagement should be embedded in how a museum or heritage site is run.  No more one-off projects without any links to what else is happening. Yes, you may need to kick-start the process with a few individual projects, but these quickly should turn into a constant dialogue, where one thing leads to another and then sideways feeds into yet another aspect of museums work. We need a constant stream of crowd sourcing and participation and feedback and co-production, to the point where every little thing has a public connection.  And that’s not where it should end either.  I do believe museums and heritage sites are an active part of people’s lives, and therefore our community engagement should not only have an impact on us, it should have an impact on ‘the community’ as well.

Allow me to give an example of which I am mightily proud.  In my museums service, we decided to put the call out to the community to get their input into what should go onto our Community Timeline.  Not only did people submit events, people and landmarks we’d never even considered, but we were also able to draw on a previous engagement project, where people had specifically shared local superstitions.  We also, for the first time, heard from a part of the community that so far the service had had no contact with, and whose history is completely and utterly absent from our exhibition and the story we tell: the Jewish community.  So I asked them if they would like to do a talk as part of our lecture series.  They agreed, and what was going to be just a talk given by one Jewish group turned into their own engagement project where they collaborated across different denominations within Judaism.  The talk sold out, with plenty of attendees never having been to the museum before.  Now the synagogue will host a re-run, and some of our non-Jewish visitors who missed the first talk are set to go there to catch it this time around.

To me, this is really exciting.  It was a give and take, inspiration being traded and the programming and display most decidedly being developed together over a series of different activities and collaborations [4].  It had an impact on us, and it certainly had an impact on them.

There are still a few big questions to ask, and I will be the first to admit that I neither have the definite answers nor am I sure that everything we do in our service actually works when it comes to community engagement.  What level of collaboration and dialogue makes something real engagement?  What type of power balance qualifies?  Is it engagement if the stimulus comes from us?  Is it engagement if we just provide a venue?  In my service, we use several different methods, so I suppose we’re covering all bases. But as I tried to illustrate with my example: in the end, I feel that community engagement is real and truly successful when it develops a life of its own.

Note
[1] For the record, in my practice I prefer talking about stakeholder engagement.  But if ‘community engagement’ doesn’t find enough supporters, then ‘stakeholder’ engagement gathers none.  So I’ve given in.
[2] I actually feel quite strongly that targeting groups, especially when they’re the types of groups generally favoured by a social inclusion or ‘hard to reach’ agenda (young offenders, mental health groups, or ethnic minorities), is often a rather questionable practice.  It labels and defines people by something that’s negative and which they probably wouldn’t choose themselves as their one defining attribute (e.g. the offender).  It also tends to limit the responses or perspectives that we allow people to have (I hope I never see another ‘mental health’ response to a collection).
[3] Except for targeting groups.  I really can’t bring myself to see any good in that.
[4] Our volunteers did the artwork to represent what people had submitted, and the public helped us paint the timeline.  And talking of giving over control: when the young school children we’d invited in drew green grass and trees everywhere both our Learning Officer and I were close to a heart attack.  But then you just have to let go.  Now I like how colourful it is!

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I know I keep writing about how we need more research and critical self-analysis in interpretation.  But when I recently read Dr Bernadette Lynch’s report ‘Whose Cake is it Anyway?’ (2009) and Skibins, Powell and Stern’s 2012 ‘Exploring empirical support for interpretation’s best practices’ I didn’t feel validated.  I felt depressed.

Lynch researched ‘the real nature and effectiveness’ of community participation practices across 12 UK museums [1].  While it didn’t surprise me that she found there exists ‘an illusion that the work is more effective than it is’ (p. 10), I was plainly shocked to read that ‘target participants’ felt frustrated and had ‘the unhappy feeling of having colluded in their own marginalisation, disempowerment and even exclusion’ (my emphasis, p. 12). Lynch also had a good (discourse analytic) look at the language one museum used (‘we believe’, ‘we can make people’s lives better’, ‘we nurture a sense of belonging’, ‘we provide, expand, foster, encourage’, my emphasis) [2]. Her conclusion is that museums display ‘an almost nineteenth-century view of a passive subject, outside the institution, awaiting improvement (my emphasis, p. 16).

It’s worthwhile pointing out that in our official interpretation discourse, we use similar language as the museum quoted above.  For example, here in Britain, the Association for Heritage Interpretation writes that interpretation ‘helps people’ to ‘make sense, ‘understand more’, that it ‘enables communities to better understand their heritage’ and that it ‘enhances visitor’s experience, thus ‘resulting in a variety of benefits, including individuals possibly identifying ‘with lost values inherent in their culture’ (my emphasis). Is interpretation also stuck in a 19th century mindset?

Interestingly, in Lynch’s study the ‘participation’ experience was frustrating for participants, yes, but in the end they weren’t all that bothered, it seems to me. After all, they knew that they needed museums less than museums needed them, as one of them said (p. 21) [3].

The article by Skibins, Powell and Stern sought evidence for a causal relationship between the best practice techniques established in interpretation literature and outcomes examined in evaluation studies.  Theirs was a review of 70 articles rather than a piece of original research, which in itself makes for sobering reading.  Evaluators, they write, often didn’t seek to isolate factors that may have determined outcomes – there was a tendency to uncritically assume that an outcome is associated with a particular technique, when really, the cause for it could have been anything. This becomes even more depressing when they point out that many best practice examples still were only linked to an outcome fewer than 5 times, with many others having no link with an outcome at all.  If ever there was evidence that we need more evidence, this surely is it.

That’s all I’m saying.  We have to be self-critical.  We have to constantly test our assumptions or interpretation as a discipline will become even more marginalised and undervalued than it is already in places.

Notes
[1] Participation, or community engagement as I prefer to call it, to me is the core of interpretation.  Just in case you’re wondering why I’m talking about a study on participation on my interpretation blog.
[2] Of course that’s just the one museum who had the courage to hand over its policies for scrutiny.  I daresay we’ll find that most policies talk like that.
[3] Which is another way of saying that they don’t need museums, or interpreters, to understand their heritage.  They already understand it, or at least enough without having to put up with our professional hybris.

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Last week I was back in Germany finishing up the visitor interviews at Museum und Park Kalkriese for my doctorate research.  One interview in particular struck a note with me.  A visitor was very upset about what they felt was a major lack of balanced representation.  They felt that there was little to nothing about the German side, even though the museum owed its existence to a battle in which an outnumbered force of German tribes annihilated (there’s really no other word for it) three Roman legions in 9 AD.

The visitor said that they expected objectivity in a museum. For them, this objectivity meant giving due consideration to historical fact without overlaying a modern bias.  The bias in this case, as they explained, was Germany’s difficult relationship to anything in German history that might inspire nationalistic sentiments – i.e. a tribal leader of 2000 years ago defeating the expanding Roman Empire.

My interviews with various staff suggest that this bias has indeed been present when the interpretation was put together.  However, when I specifically asked about why there is this prominent focus on the Roman side, the answer was mostly: there aren’t many artefacts that have been found from the Germans.  Moreover, the sentiment was that by focussing strictly on what has been proven archaeologically, i.e. via artefacts and physical traces, objectivity would be achieved.

I think the visitor I spoke to articulated a very good point [1].  When, numerically speaking, about 80% of an exhibition relates to one side of a story, there cannot be objectivity.  Objects and archaeological evidence do not ensure objectivity.  These are merely two sources of information, and if they don’t illustrate both sides of a story, then other sources need to be consulted and represented [2].

If this means drawing on different theories that may still be discussed, then so be it.  What interpretation needs is the courage to own up to the dictionary core of the meaning of the word: there are many possible interpretations of a story, or historical fact.  As this visitors’ reaction makes clear, we cannot hide behind archaeology and objects.  They cannot on their own deliver objectivity [3]. We have to acknowledge that there is more than one point of view. And we have to trust our visitors to be just as smart as we are.

This is an important point: what strikes me about my interviews with staff is this fear that the site will be hijacked by fascists, or at the very least misconstrued by visitors as a site of nationalist pride [4].  And in order to prevent this, any suggestion that there could have been anything like a ‘German achievement’, as the visitor called it, is carefully avoided.

In reality, visitors are also part of this German discourse.  They’re very capable of placing the historic fact of the German defeat of the Roman army 2000 years ago into the context of more recent German history.  The visitor that spoke to me was well-educated, eloquent, and fully aware both of the challenges of German history and the fact that there weren’t many German artefacts from the battle.  What they wanted was for the museum to provide a space free of the manipulation ever present in the outside world (they said) and show some (real) objectivity.  They were going to do their own thinking about the sources provided, thank you very much.

Notes
[1] It is really striking just how reserved responses in Germany are compared to those that I’m getting in England at the Battle of Hastings.  A few responses have made me wonder whether the issue does actually lie with this bias identified at this particular museum.  I have therefore decided to do a trial study at the mirror site to Kalkriese, the Hermann’s Monument.  It’ll be interesting to see if there are differences in visitors’ responses at these two sites.

[2] Ironically, where the German tribes are discussed, this is generally done via reference to Roman writers.  And yet, the interpretation then goes on to call into question the reliability of these sources, and even contradicts them – although I’m not clear what the basis for the contradiction is.

[3] Just on a quick side note, the focus on objects in our social history museum has led to key events of local history being neglected. I’m feeling a bit smug when I write here that for this reason, I wrote into our Interpretive Vision as a principle that our interpretation at the new museum would not be object driven. It did cause a mini-mutiny by our curators, but now they’re on board.

[4] In England, at the Battle of Hastings, neither visitors nor staff give this another thought.  Of course this is where The Nation Was BornOf course it’s part of their British identity, and they’re proud of it.  I hasten to add that with none of the British visitors did I get a sense of irrational nationalism.

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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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Two days ago, I was told by someone calling himself ‘an Englishman’ that I should ‘go back to my own country’.  This has left me deeply shaken on several levels, and it is also making me ask some uncomfortable questions about my own assertions and beliefs about the potential of interpretation [1].

Only a few posts ago I asserted that in my opinion, interpretation can do a lot to support social justice. And although I fully agreed with Emma Waterton’s assessment that social inclusion was often proclaimed and pursued in simplistic and ultimately hegemonic terms within the sector, I did feel that if only interpreters were smart and insightful enough about it, they could still achieve a lot. After all, I would never have simply introduced the slave story at Monticello in the belief that the lack thereof was all the reason why African Americans weren’t visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home.  [2]

After what happened to me, I’m not that sure anymore. First of all, our current discourse about social inclusion, integration, and anything else that is aimed at bringing people together in a diverse society, are exclusively aimed at the newcomers, or other ‘excluded groups’. I may be making a shamefully discriminatory statement myself here when I observe that the gentleman who said these things to me isn’t someone that I would normally expect to visit a museum or heritage site.  So what does our inclusive programming do for him?  I also daresay that anyone who feels it is acceptable to racially abuse someone will not be enticed into ‘an English’ museum, in my case, by an exhibition on the culture and traditions of the immigrants to ‘his country’.

The other side of the coin, as Emma Waterton has already made clear, is also not that simple.  We may get a few more people through the door by putting on exhibitions that reflect their migrant or ‘excluded’ cultures [3], but I’m no longer convinced that such interventions actually achieve more than boost our figures.  Do they really promote inclusion and integration?  No.  Because this approach is still one-sided.  It doesn’t address the underlying causes of ‘exclusion’, or racism, or whatever social challenge it tries to tackle.

I can see a variety of reasons for this: our existing audiences may not appreciate having to see their society in such a harsh light, and feeling like they’re expected to take a stance.  And taking a stance is what it is ultimately all about: the museum, or indeed the whole heritage sector, is only a part of a wider social system that churns over these issues on a daily basis.  Our sector alone can’t tackle it: it may not even be the best place for it, as I expressed in my response to the Museums 2020 report.  Social inclusion, integration, racism, these are all political and social issues that are part of the daily negotiations and explorations of a diverse society.  In fact, they drip into our own conversations: in various workplaces I had staff call visitors ‘foreigners’, or advise strongly against portraying for example something as commonplace (in my opinion) as a lesbian relationship in our programmes. In Britain at the moment the talk is of benefit caps and limits on immigration, and there are reprisals against immigrants after a soldier was brutally killed in London three weeks ago.  These are just some of the daily factors that shape how a society grapples with the challenges brought on by a global world (and don’t get me wrong – I’m all for a discussion of any issue).

I don’t know what the answer is.  But when the – in the grand scheme of things – minor incident of racism that I experienced completely threw me to the ground, I didn’t think of my local museum as the place to go to. I relied on my friends, many abroad, but some, thankfully, in Britain, to tell me that they didn’t approve of this, that I have a right to be here, as a German, without the need to forego who I am.  I needed the police to tell me that they were here for me, and my neighbours to pop around to see if I was okay. And I sought refuge in my own German-ness, defiantly listening to German music, watching German films, phoning my friends in Germany – and all of this as someone who thinks, writes, dreams in English, and knows more about the United States and Britain than she does about her native Germany.

So I suppose what I’m saying is that if interpretation and heritage really can help with integration, social inclusion, and racism, then we need to do a lot more reading into the research in those areas. It’s not an easy matter, especially not for those ‘excluded’ groups as we so simplistically label them.  As for me – I don’t know yet what will come of this, both with regards to my interpretive practice, and my personal life. I certainly have a lot to think about now.

Notes

[1] I would like to take this opportunity to say to everyone who experiences more substantial racism than the stupid comment and rant that I got how deeply, deeply I now empathize with you.  My outrage against all discrimination and racism that I had before was simplistic; I did not appreciate how hurtful it is, and what an impact it has.

[2] Please see my response to a comment in this post.

[3] I hasten to add that at no place where I’ve been responsible for interpretation have we ever used this approach.  I prefer a project approach, that brings people together, and the outcome lies in the process, rather than any output.  That way, what they do is up to them – I’m not going to prescribe what the participants have to talk about, or how they want to express themselves.  If they want to have a heated argument, then I’m happy to provide the platform for it.

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Last week, the UK Museums Association published the research report into what the public think are the purposes of museums. I’ve blogged about the announcement of the research, and especially the brief for it, here.

 

I was particularly interested in their methodology [1].  My concerns were that the framework established in the brief would limit the range of responses participants could make.  I still think that might have been an issue: the method used was a workshop format that guided participants through set exercises in order to answer the research questions.  The report doesn’t say much about the segmentation put forward in the brief, but it does mention that participants were evenly split between museum visitors and non-visitors (it doesn’t specify recruitment methods).  Perhaps most crucially, while it gathered unmediated views on museum purposes at the start, participants were then presented with purposes discussed by museum professionals.  In this, it appears that their ability to explore their own new purposes was indeed limited.

 

The findings, however, are nevertheless interesting.  Most notably, ‘the public’ [2] fundamentally rejected two purposes that have been heavily discussed in the museums sector: Promoting social justice and human rights, and providing a place for public debate.  Even the purpose of providing a sense of community was half-heartedly supported as a ‘can do’ purpose (as opposed to ‘must do’), and there was no real support for museums playing a greater role in the community overall. Helping the vulnerable, another purpose cherished by museums professionals, also ranked very low in the public’s estimation, being a ‘can do’ purpose to which they were not willing to give much funding.

 

The purposes of museums that they identified without prompting were very traditional: to collect and care for historic objects, to make them accessible to the public, to promote economic growth, to facilitate personal development, and to promote well-being (read: provide enjoyment).

 

So what does this mean for the museums sector?  I first come back to methodology: I’m just not sure how much one can get from ‘the public’ by asking them about something so conceptual and vague as ‘the purpose’ of an institution.  It may have been more fruitful to really explore with them why they do or don’t go to museums, what they expect, what they think about them, etc.  The report did note that there were several participants that changed their attitude from never, ever wanting to go visit a museum to stating their surprise at the diverse offer modern museums provide.

 

The latter may be an argument for dismissing ‘the public’s views altogether as just not very imaginative.  And perhaps it’s true that ‘the public’ simply do not have the necessary overview or in-depth understanding of the potential of museums.  However, I hope that’s not what the sector’s response will be.  There may have been limitations to uncovering what ‘the public’ really think off their own back, but there is clearly something to be said about their informed rejection of the purposes we proposed to them.

 

I cannot emphasise enough how telling I find it that the sector has spent such considerable time engaging in a debate that has been viewed as ground-breaking and visionary, only to find its key proposals dashed by the public.  To me, this signifies a continued lack of public focus – even in the UK.  How can it be that we so grossly differ from what the public think about the future purposes of museums?

 

In some ways perhaps this report also points to an underlying truth that we may find hard to accept: museums and other institutions have a specific purpose, and just because this purpose no longer produces the (economic, quantitative) outcomes we want from it doesn’t mean we can change the purpose without changing the nature of the institution itself.  By that I mean quite literally what the research respondents have said themselves about, for example, the sample purpose of helping the vulnerable: There are other institutions that are better placed to do that.  This could also mean looking at alternatives where financial pressures limit museums’ ability to fulfil a traditional purpose.  Universities, for example, may be the collections stores of the future.

 

Maybe we also need to review our responses to a changing environment.  I have been wondering, even before reading this report, whether in some ways our drive to be all and everything is a knee-jerk reaction to a looming fear of becoming obsolete.  The report suggests that ‘the public’ aren’t all that worried about that.  Maybe what the report tells us is that we should refocus on why the public already come to museums – and see how we can improve our offer in this area.

 

Finally, and I’m not just writing this because I’m an interpreter: I do think that museums (or heritage sites) can contribute a lot to modern societies’ needs, like social justice.  The thing is, ‘the public’ don’t want to be hit over the head with it. They don’t want a ‘social justice’ theme.  But they will be open to great interpretation that just so happens to also get them to think about social justice.

 

Notes

[1] Since embarking on my doctoral studies, I have noticed first my own increasing interest in methodology, and then many practitioner colleagues’ exasperated response to my examining methodology before I say anything about content. This is one example where I now feel strongly that practitioners need to review academic working methods more regularly.  It does not do to manipulate surveys (unconsciously) to obtain the desired results, or to blindly accept others’ findings when they happily fit our own agendas. Methodology can be boring to some, I suppose, but it’s the spine of any valuable study.

[2] The study had 90 participants over six day-long workshops.

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