Posts Tagged ‘Museums 2020’

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.


[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.


[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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Next month I’ll be presenting a paper at the NAI/IE joint conference entitled ‘Interpretation can make us citizens of the world’ in Sweden. I’m really looking forward to what people will say about this topic.  As I’ve reported in my last blog post, only one couple out of the 100+ people I’ve interviewed so far have made a reference to something approaching world citizenship: they called it mutual understanding.


I’m interested in how this mutual understanding was generated.  The conference title suggests that interpretation has a role to play here.  I’m sure it does, but I wonder if that role is as active and targeted as the title implies.  My interviewees touched on ‘mutual understanding’ when they spoke about their own visits to foreign countries.  And ‘mutual understanding’ here wasn’t confined to heritage either.  It also arose from people on the street responding to the gifts they had bought for their grandchildren back home.  Arguably, there was no interpretation involved here – in fact, there was a language barrier, which seemed to have been overcome by the time-honoured means of waving arms.


But they did also specifically mention going to heritage sites as a way of connecting to the people abroad, and finding out more about them.  They found similar stories: of poor versus rich, power struggles and passions, and the hardships of survival in times gone by.  They didn’t talk about royal connections, or the many ways in which European histories crisscross back and forth. My impression was that the interpretation provided paid no heed to them as a ‘special’ audience (i.e. foreign): it simply told the story of the place.  And my interviewees found simple human stories through which they connected to the people: in seeing that their personal struggles past and present were similar to their own they did away with the unfamiliar, and recognized ‘the other’ as similar to themselves.


To me this does raise an important question that I’ve found myself asking throughout this research process so far: what does interpretation need to do (actively, purposefully) to deliver certain benefits?  Is there a limit to this activism, and the desire to prompt a certain outcome? Because listening to these visitors and many of the others, I was really struck once again by their informed approach, and their clear desire to create their own narratives, and not be dictated to [1].  They didn’t need the interpretation to tell them that x is similar to z, and really, the two hark back to a shared origin that makes us all the same.  They didn’t want an integrated story of European history, but embraced the uniqueness of the foreign heritage: that’s what they had come for.


I wonder if there is a danger for interpretation to go overboard.  I think there is a fine line between keeping your eye on the heritage in front of you and trying to (actively) create and deliver overarching outcomes that are, let’s face it, so often politically motivated.  For me, a stabilising factor lies in engaging with stakeholders, which is what my own paper at the conference will focus on.  But whether this is the ultimate answer, or indeed what the many complexities of these questions in general are, is something I suspect I’ll be contemplating for a while yet.





[1] That’s also what I suspect lay behind ‘the public’s rejection of the idea of the museum as a place for debate in the Museums 2020 research: they probably thought that the museum would take a side and try to brainwash them.

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I’m three-thirds through my interviews with visitors at Battle Abbey [1], and this seemed a good time to stop for a moment and reflect.


Firstly, and as always, it is just humbling to talk to visitors. Every time I have the luxury of actually spending time with them, I am reminded that in the field of heritage, no amount of specialist knowledge can ever surmount the importance of people’s own connections with heritage. And don’t they know it: where heritage professionals fail, visitors’ judgment is swift and crushing.  They make it quite plain that they don’t need us, at least not beyond making sure they can come to the place when they want.  Where the work is good, like it seems to be at Battle Abbey, visitors make use of it, but never without suspending that awareness and expectation.


Visitors are really smart.  I can count on one hand the number of people out of the 100+ that I’ve interviewed so far [2] who have given me simple answers.  Most people have challenged my assumptions, provided insights I’d never even dreamt of, and engaged me in conversations that have left me feeling inspired and invigorated.


The primary purpose of these interviews is to establish whether the benefits that visitors gain from heritage are the same as those proposed in legislation (and to some degree literature).  And some are.  Historic interest is something that visitors cite quite often as a reason for visiting.  Upon further enquiry, this generally seems to split into a thirst for acquiring historical knowledge for its own sake and a desire to imagine the past [3].  The latter is also a benefit cited on its own: to see what it was like to live in past times, sometimes simply in order to better understand and compare it to the present, and sometimes as a sort of mediated time travel to experience a life that is desirable, perhaps as an adventure, perhaps as a missed destiny [4].


Imagining the past is also connected to another benefit cited on its own, which is the need to locate oneself in a long chain of events in the history of mankind, both nationally and internationally – a benefit emphasised in legislation.  Many have described this as providing a sense of anchor, of understanding how humankind have arrived at this particular place in time, and to feel prepared for the future (although the latter was rarely expressed without further requests for clarification).  In legislation, this is often related to larger concepts such as ‘peace’ and ‘mutual understanding’, which interestingly is a point that only one couple have made, but not with regard to visiting sites in England, but rather in relation to visiting sites abroad.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, many visitors also cited having been taught about the Battle of Hastings in school as their motivation for visiting.  When I prompted them to explain why it was important to come on site, rather than watch a documentary about the battle, for example, two things emerged.  The first will make every heritage educator’s heart sing: heritage sites, visitors explained, provided different and more interesting opportunities to learn and engage than those offered in classrooms and through books.  Being in the place itself was the second point that many emphasised, and some even raised this as a point in its own right.   This also relates back to imagining the past – people spoke about standing on the battlefield, imagining the battle unfold, soldiers dying.  This experience of being in the place itself, more than any other, seemed to make the event real to them, and to allow them to connect with it.


I will confess that I expected visitors to connect with the site on an identity-level, and a few did as far as national identity goes.  However, the importance of the site, and the need to come, really related mostly to having learnt about it at school – an interesting point to ponder when it comes to national narratives, and the (manipulative?) impact of school curricula [5].  Nevertheless, visitors’ attachment was very strong – when suggesting (hypothetically) that the site might be redeveloped for something else, everyone without exception expressed the need for preserving it.  Place, the physical connection to an event, was of the utmost importance.


The above are just some reflections on what visitors have told me so far, not an actual analysis.  For that, I will have to wait until the end.  But I do feel reassured on one thing: almost nobody left it at saying, ‘It’s just a good day out’ (although it is that too).  Phew.




[1] This is part of my PhD research into the public benefits of heritage, and whether or not we are delivering these through interpretation.

[2] I’m doing group interviews, so these were 100+ people in 34 groups.

[3] The latter point – imagining the past – is not mentioned in legislation, and mostly frowned upon as a reason by academic writers.

[4] Destiny might be an unexpected term here, but I’m reluctant to dismiss it as nostalgia.  Most people that have cited this ‘benefit’ have been absolutely clear about their awareness of and even deep respect for the hardships that people experienced in the past.  Nevertheless, this was a life with particular values and a clarity of fate that they felt would have suited them better than their current lives.

[5] My initial reaction to this was to reconsider my rejection of public (or national) narratives arbitrarily determined by states, as clearly the selection of topics for the school curriculum has a big impact.  However, having worked in Scotland and Wales I am aware that official narratives are rejected, and popular ones, seemingly suppressed by the state, survive and prove to be powerful heritage motivators.  It would be interesting to look into this in particular – if you know of any studies, do let me know.

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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.



[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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