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Posts Tagged ‘Museums change lives’

I have tried for a week now to pen a dispassionate response to the British Museums Association’s (MA) article in this month’s Museums Journal relating to Britain’s EU Referendum [1]. I can’t. However, I still think that my experiences and views, and my bitterness, can offer something of value not only to British colleagues, but hopefully to others also.

 

This is a deeply personal and subjective post. I make no apology for it.

 

Just take a stand already

I don’t actually think the MA needs to take a stand for or against remaining in the EU. But there is a stand to take for an organisation that is fundamentally about culture and society (all of society!) and an organisation too, which, according to its own account, seeks to make a positive social impact for everyone. We’re getting the economic argument everywhere in the current debate, and that is already immensely frustrating to someone like me [2]. I would have liked to see the MA move beyond the question of the financial impact of leaving the EU on museums, and pick up on those things most others leave out. Listening to museums discourse at any other time, we’re led to believe that museums work with groups outside the mainstream, that they are about social cohesion, inclusion, and justice, about providing space for safe debates and engagement with views other than our own. So at the very least I would have liked to see the MA comment on where they stand for example on the one-sided way EU Citizens are being portrayed as mostly a drain on the UK’s social services.

 

This is not being neutral

I cannot help but feel that most likely, despite declaring that ‘museums are not neutral’, this lack of a clear stand by the MA is meant to be just that: neutral. They probably don’t want to be seen as trying to influence members, and alienate those who might disagree. But this complete silence on those very issues (above) that normally museums claim as their natural territory for making an impact is anything but neutral. This assessment by an associate professor at the London School of Economics expresses eloquently what it feels like to live in Britain at the moment as an EU Citizen, and the questions quite a few of us are asking ourselves right now about this country. By not highlighting and responding to these far-reaching social and political concerns that are raised here, the MA and museums are not only leaving unoccupied a space that in my opinion they should claim, they also suggest that they’re okay with the current state of affairs.

 

How about something like this?

I’ll make a quick excursion to Germany. Only this week, cultural institutions including museums (!) in Saxony-Anhalt, a state that has been particularly plagued by Pegida and recent gains in the state assembly by the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland party, came together to take a stand. They had the perception that ‘in recent months the political climate in the state has changed and public discussions have taken on an ever sharper tone. During the course of this, callous statements have found their way into these social debates that are unacceptable.’ [3] And so they are displaying banners, visible for everyone, declaring their belief in Article 1 of the German constitution: ‘Human dignity is inviolable.’ To this institutions add their own values that are most important to them, for example, ‘the right to asylum’. This is not mainstream. The refugees for example are not the majority in Saxony-Anhalt. But these institutions stand by them, and they make it known, which is likely to annoy quite a few people in the state. The institutions are happy to have a discussion with them. But they state clearly what values they want to see upheld, and which ones they will defend.

 

Context, you say?

In the two short paragraphs that end the MA article that set off this outburst, the MA’s policy officer is quoted as saying that the EU referendum provides an opportunity for museums to ‘give the debate a historical and social context’. Now, in the same issue of the journal, there is an interesting exchange on dealing with the legacy of empire [4]. Here, a – to me – very peculiar attitude emerges toward what museums can explore and how [5]. I may be unfair in thinking that this type of approach might be used also by others (the majority) to give context to the EU referendum. And if you come across an exhibition that does more than give a history of the EU and Britain’s relationship with it, go beyond some form of ‘fact-check’ of the arguments put forth by other players, and add more challenge to the mainstream view than an ‘I am an Immigrant’[6] style of display about the contribution of EU citizens to Britain, then do let me know. If, however, this type of exhibition is all that we’re getting, then I do not find this a context worth having. It’s not inclusive, it’s not representative, and it’s not contributing to the critical development of society. This is a mainstream narrative with the most tame of interventions (that would be the ‘I am an Immigrant’ element).

 

Let’s assume there is a future for us

But let’s imagine Britain stays in the EU, and EU Citizens can continue to live here without having to go through Britain’s famously hostile immigration system. What then? Are we just going to pretend that none of this ever happened? Is the MA suddenly going to become ‘my’ organisation again even though it too was content to ignore how EU Citizens in Britain were treated and represented? Or has instead a veil been irreversibly ripped off Britain’s face and my illusion of belonging? All I know is that silence, ‘neutrality’ and exhibitions like those I described above are not going to heal the wounds [7].

 

 

Notes

[1] The article focuses on funding: Steel, P., 2016. ‘What would leaving the EU mean for the cultural sector?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 7. The editorial of the journal includes a reference to the referendum around the broad questions of identity, but mostly in terms of what Britain’s identity is. The existence of non-Brits in this country is not reflected.

[2] I’m first and foremost a European (and YES, that is in an ‘EU’ sense, not a loosely and near-meaninglessly defined historical Europe). For me, Europe is about social integration, shared histories, shared culture, and most importantly, a shared present experience. I realised that most forcefully when I lived in the United States. I am reminded of it every time I go across to what Britons call ‘Europe’: the Belgians, the Poles, the French, these are my people. I know that Brits don’t see the EU like that. But I do.

[3] ‘…in den vergangenen Monaten [hat sich] das politische Klima im Land verändert […] und die öffentlichen Auseinandersetzungen [haben] an Schärfe zugenommen […]. Dabei haben sich auch menschenverachtende Töne in die gesellschaftlichen Debatten gemischt, die nicht hinnehmbar sind.’ (my translation)

[4] Mohammad, A. and Smith, A., 2016. ‘The conversation: Are museums doing enough to portray the legacy of British empire?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 17.

[5] An art curator writes that ‘museums are fundamentally concerned with the details of history, as represented by specific objects’, and therefore, ‘we are perhaps placing too heavy a burden of responsibility on these institutions expecting them to address such a contentious subject [like empire] through individual artworks’. The curator continues that, ‘The challenge is how to address empire in a way that engages with, rather than alienates, the public. There is no point in mounting worthy projects in empty rooms (my emphasis).’

[6] I do in no way mean to belittle this campaign – when it first came around, I was really rather grateful that someone wanted to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric. I do have a slight issue with the fact though that it focuses on immigrants, and suggests that we have to prove we’re ‘good’ immigrants. I firmly believe in integration, but I also believe in host societies questioning their own values and actions. And the fact that this campaign had to be launched in the first place says something.

[7] And again, I apologise to all my so-called ‘BAME’ colleagues, which, let’s be honest here, mostly means ‘non-whites’/’non-European’. I know you’ve known this for a long time. I’m actually thankful, in a really angry sort of way, for this experience I’m having. It’s making me a better museum professional, and a better person, as long as I will remember what this feels like. And I’m determined never to forget.

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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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Melanie Adams, Managing Director of Community Education and Events at the Missouri History Museum, ended her excellent guest post on the equally excellent Museum Commons blog yesterday with what I felt was not just a question, but a much-needed challenge for museums. She wrote: “This time it was Ferguson, Missouri.  Next time it could be your community.  How will your museum respond?”

Certainly in the UK, but also in my native Germany, museums needn’t wait for a ‘next time’. Stuff is happening here as well: I’ve already blogged about my unease with the current anti-immigration rhetoric in the UK. In Germany, there are mounting anti-Islam protests (and, thankfully, an equally strong counter-movement). These events and developments may not – yet – be as dramatic as what happens in the US, but they already challenge our museums and heritage sites, and us as people working in the field, to think deeply and honestly about what our role in this is, and how we could, and should respond.

If you’ve not already read it, I want to flag up to you the joint statement posted by various US bloggers in response to Ferguson. They make some very good points. I find them best summarized in this sentence from the statement: “As mediators of culture, all museums should commit to identifying how they can connect to relevant contemporary issues irrespective of collection, focus, or mission.”

Yes! All too often, I find that museum professionals (more so than those working more widely in heritage) are narrowly focused on things. Collections continue to be seen as the backbone and apparent raison d’être for museums and their work. The focus is on exhibitions and activities that ‘bring collections closer to the community’. I say, forget about collections. Museums must be so much more than that. They are perfectly placed to be spaces where our communities explore and express what it means to be a member of that community. They capture and reflect the spirit of that community. They are the place to go to if you want to connect with that community as an outsider, or connect with each other if you are a member. Yes, some of that can happen in the public square or the local community centre as well. But this is where museums can draw on their knowledge of the community’s past, as well as the material culture they have collected, to put them at the service of the community’s dialogue with each other, and how they shape their present and future.

Museums are places for the community. They do not exist separate from that community. We must stop doing community engagement work from a position that seeks benefit for the museum from this – as someone in a workshop I recently facilitated has suggested. Community engagement is not an add-on to the ‘core purposes’ of museums. It is the core purpose of a museum. Laudable position papers such as the UK Museum AssociationsMuseums Change Lives must not lure us into a false sense of achievement: the sector is very far indeed from actually embracing the radical shift away from a collection focus and toward community power. Community projects may abound, but serious evaluation still reveals a disturbing lack of diversity, impact, and organisational change.

The latter is a point that cannot be overemphasized, especially as organisations continue to use the idea of collections as the core purpose of museums as justification for their structures and activities. In times of dwindling resources, conservation and collections management, including access, are still prioritised. Community engagement is often seen as woolly and less profitable – especially if judged by (low) participation numbers. Investment into community engagement is regularly cut short long before its full potential can be realised. In addition, there is a culture of consensus and self-promotion that inhibits debate and self-critique. This is due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is securing the museum’s survival: if you are seen to challenge your funders’ priorities, take risks, open up for debate your own practices, then you might just run into the danger of losing funding or political goodwill. But that is exactly what’s needed: we need leaders that don’t merely talk the talk, but who go out there and stand by their communities, warts and all, and say: we’re not sacred. We’re here because of you. What do you need? What do you want to talk about? Some ugly and painful stuff may come out of this, but that’s all part of progress. This is what relevance means.

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Over recent months, living as an immigrant in Britain [1], I have gone through a process that leaves me feeling increasingly alienated from museums and heritage sites in this country. In still-used museum discourse terms, I’m probably becoming one of the ‘hard-to-reach’.

I feel let down by British museums. You see, these days, I daily feel in the firing line. Today, I am the other, the unwanted, even the enemy, if we go by some of the language used in the increasingly hostile discourse on immigration [2]. The UK Independence Party may have tried to soften the suggestion that upon a British exit from the EU people like myself will be deported (yellow stars anyone?), but when Radio 4 [3] not only fails to question the implications of such a notion, but actually appears to defend it, it’s no longer something I can ignore. This has become personal. This is my future that’s been threatened. This is my presence in this country that is being criticised, misrepresented and undervalued.

And while all this is going on, the First World War-dominated outputs from many museums are also spinning an inward looking narrative of ‘Britain’s just war’ against an enemy, and ‘heroes’ that will ‘not be forgotten’. Suddenly, I find myself thinking that I really don’t care to see yet another exhibition telling me the story of Britain’s sacrifices and battles. That’s not because I am no longer interested in Britain’s war stories, or British history in general. Rather, in combination with the current public discourse on immigration this has become the extension of an exclusive story that makes me uncomfortable. I neither feel safe at the prospect of visiting such exhibitions, nor happy.

If nothing else, I would have liked to see balanced stories that show the not-so-glorious aspects of history, to give a counter-weight to the current portrayals of Britain as a country once again under threat, fighting against injustice – this time from the EU and its migrants. But really, if British museums and heritage sites are serious about policy aspirations of mutual understanding, integration, and diversity, or even just the Museum Association’s vision that museums change lives, then they should be taking a stance. I’ve previously blogged that I think museums have a moral obligation to be the final line of defence, to hold a mirror up to society as a challenge to be better, and to be humble in the face of the tragedies its actions have caused in the past. Well, I think the time to hold up that mirror is now.

Crucially, that’s not a mirror that reflects me. I don’t need, nor am I interested in, an exhibition or programme about Germany. I don’t live in Britain to connect with Germany. I’m here because I want to live in Britain. If I’m beginning to be less inclined to visit museums and heritage sites here it’s not because they don’t ‘relate’ to my being German. Frankly, my heritage isn’t the issue here. The issue is a social and political environment that is casting me out, and which appears to be uncritically, if not intentionally, supported by museum and heritage narratives. That’s the problem. And I suspect that my experience as an immigrant at the moment, which leads me to feel this way, pales into utter insignificance compared to the experience of those who maybe were born here, but who happen to not be white, or straight, or middle-class, or well-educated, or whatever else classes one as ‘hard-to-reach’. Maybe their experience too is that it’s society as a whole that misrepresents them and turns them into ‘the other’, and they simply don’t care to get yet more of this by coming to a museum or heritage site. The exclusion does not lie in an excluded narrative about ‘the other’. The exclusion is the exclusion of a challenge to the mainstream, of a critical perspective not on the other, but the ‘majority’, and quite probably the very structure of the museum itself. I quite agree with the MA’s vision for museums to have an impact on social change: changing this societal context will tackle ‘exclusion’. Let’s get to it.

Notes

[1] Now here’s a label I never felt had any relevance for me. I was always simply a person who had moved from where she was born to elsewhere. And always because ‘elsewhere’ was a place I loved and wanted to spend more time in.
[2] A month ago a cabinet minister (!) talked about British towns being ‘under siege’ from immigrants, and ‘swamped’. He had to tone down his language, but ironically not over the siege part, but over ‘swamped’. ‘Under pressure’ was the expression sanctioned by Downing Street. It’s really not any better in my ears.
[3] For those of you not living in the UK: Radio 4 is the ‘serious’, publicly funded news outlet of the UK. For the US, think NPR. For Germany, think Deutschlandfunk. So having them not question the other side of this coin to me is nothing short of astonishing. I want my TV license money back that funds these guys. Which by the way is just one of the many (financial, as that is all that seems to count these days) contributions I make to British society. Just sayin’.  Because no-one else is.

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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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