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Posts Tagged ‘social cohesion’

Since starting work in the museums sector in Germany, I have gained a new appreciation for the positive role funders and political decision-makers can and do make in the effort to change museums into meaningful social agents. They can be and regularly are valuable allies. So, although I share most museum professionals’ unease about the idea of being pushed in a certain direction by outside forces, in this case, I would actually welcome more definite requirements.

 

Let me explain.

 

To start off, being a social agent is most simply defined by the impact or impacts an institution has within society, and these impacts range from the more cautious to the more radical, from the three areas of the British Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives campaign to the demands formulated after Ferguson [1].

 

In Germany, ‘participation’ is the key word around which we may cluster the various discussions on this topic. The landmark case of the ‘participatory museum’ [2] is the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, which, from all I can gather, really has placed participation, in the sense of inclusion and democratization, front and centre not only of its recent redevelopment, but also its on-going operation since reopening. It is an example that is regularly cited and represented at current conferences, and rightly so.

 

However, with equal regularity, there follows a heated debate: delegates challenge and question the idea of participation, arguing that it devalues expertise, subjects museums to the yoke of plebiscite, and overall reduces quality. How far this rejection can go is illustrated in a recent comment made by Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. He criticises the expectation that ‘everything’ should be ‘sacrificed’ to ‘Vermittlung’ (interpretation, public engagement) and that institutions are expected to use ‘simple language’, which in his words is like telling an athlete not to put in too much effort [3].

 

In this environment, funders and political decision-makers have turned out to be great allies when it comes to working toward museums having a bigger and broader impact in society [4]. Decision-makers have a clear expectation: they are beholden to the public at large, not a small section with the knowledge and education required to understand highly specialised treatises on a narrow topic. They want culture (and thus museums) to be representative of a diverse society, supporting things like inclusion and integration (see for example the new German Government’s coaltion agreement here, p. 166) . The same goes for many funders, who in Germany are often associated with the public purse and building societies. Perhaps because of this broad base they, too, often have a focus on wide-spread impact.

 

In other countries, funders’ requirements have already changed the sector. There can be no doubt that the Heritage Lottery Fund’s scoring on its desired outcomes (heritage, people, communities) has altered how museums and heritage organisations in the United Kingdom approach and deliver their work. The message has always been as clear as it has been uncompromising: you either deliver on these outcomes, or you will not get funding from us.

 

German funders generally are still more subtle than that. They engage in more conversations with the sector as a matter of course than I have seen elsewhere. On one hand that is fantastic, for it is always good to be engaged in an exchange. On the other hand it means that things can move very slowly. The desired change at this rate may take a very long time, and the pressing issues we were meant to tackle – migration, radicalisation, disenfranchisement – may have moved beyond our reach by then.

 

So, despite my above reservations, in this instance, I think it would be a good thing for funders and political decision-makers to be more adamant about what it is they expect their funding to do. Why not make funding decisions dependent on a museum’s commitment to deliver just that? The impact would be one of accelerated change. And we are not talking about communicating a party manifesto here, or implementing a particular world view. Nor am I suggesting some superficial tick-boxing. Rather, in this case, it is (most) funders and decision-makers who are actually the ones that want museums to go beyond a narrow interest, and truly have an impact on society. Personally, I can only consider that to be a good thing.

 

 

Notes

[1] In case there is any doubt, I am on the more radical end of the spectrum.

[2] Nina Simon’s book of 2010 is an often referred to textbook.

[3] His choice of words is important here. It displays an underlying contempt for the people who require these sorts of interventions (interpretation, simple language). In the interview he goes on to talk about ‘Höchstleistung’, or maximum performance, as that which is hindered by all these other efforts. Clearly, to him there is only one aim to be served by museums, and that is output at the highest academic level for those who understand it. All else is an unwelcome distraction.

[4] I meet funders very regularly these days due to a major museum reorganisation complete with a new building that we are planning at my workplace. And it is in my conversations with them that I receive the greatest encouragement about what it is I am trying to do in and with museums. Not all of them, granted, but the majority.

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I have left Britain and relocated to my native Germany. Most Brits nodded knowingly when I told them I was going back to Germany, telling me that ‘Of course, you want to go home’. And in many ways I have indeed ‘gone home’. But in nearly as many other ways, I have also lost my home.

 

The idea that ‘home’ is (solely, exclusively, even at all) the place of origin seems unjustifiably simplistic. I have spent nearly half of my life outside of Germany. Why should Germany automatically be more ‘home’ to me than the places where I deliberately chose to live? And yet, this definition of ‘home’ as ‘country of origin’ and, to a lesser degree, as ‘citizenship’ is widespread, not only in politics but also in the cultural sector. It fails to appreciate the complexity of ‘home’, and how intrinsically it is linked to people’s identity, their well-being, and their very lives.

 

That, to me, has been the true tragedy of the EU referendum debate in the UK. I didn’t leave Britain because of Brexit. Rather, I realised over a year ago that in the eyes of my chosen home, Britain wasn’t – and would never be – home to me at all. This clip, and the suppressed tears of the couple, should give everyone an insight into the impact of a country’s refusal to acknowledge that it is unqualifiedly ‘home’ to people that were not born there [1].

 

As I drove from Scotland back to Germany, I heard this poignant piece about ‘Heimat’, the German term that encompasses ‘home’. The professor [2] explored many different levels of ‘Heimat’ and how it is constituted; how it relates to where we are now, and how it can change and adapt. He suggested that ‘Heimat’ is ultimately about ‘feeling at home’, in his view mostly because of people, with place acting primarily as a symbol and anchor for that feeling, rather than constituting it per se. I would personally stress the role of place in certain instances a little bit more, based on my own experience, but nevertheless, as I was leaving one home further and further behind and approaching my old/new home, I thought that here was a way of thinking more dynamically about ‘home’ that was more appropriate and useful.

 

Germany has never ceased to be ‘home’ to me. But Scotland was also home. For many years, I knew more about Scottish and British history, politics and culture than I did German. I have adopted Scottish ways of thinking, I already miss tea and scones, and then there is that undefinable sense of connection to the Scottish landscape, the music, the dances and the stories, that perhaps more than anything else made Scotland home to me. However, I still scoffed at the suggestion that I should take British citizenship to secure my status in case of Brexit [3]. I am also German, in the stereotypical sense (inefficiency and being late drive me crazy) and in all the ways that Germany inspires me with its stories and landscapes and culture, and the fact that my own personal history started here. My point is that home wasn’t one or the other, it was both.

 

Policies and practices that stubbornly insist on a view of ‘home’ as rooted in ‘origin’ and ‘citizenship’ in the end will fail us. They divide people, and they reduce them to assumed traits that may or may not have any meaning in who they think they are and how they relate to where they live. We need something more complex. Today, we live in a world where people move around in varied circumstances, and we must acknowledge their right to ‘home’, and not simply their right to residence. If we fail to do this, there will be further repeats of what has happened in Britain to people like me [4].

 

 

Notes

[1] Please remember that these folks had come to Britain and still are in Britain perfectly legally. The fact that Britain to this day – more than two months after the referendum – still refuses to unambiguously grant their right to stay is frankly the starkest confirmation that the country still does not recognise their claim to Britain as ‘home’.

[2] At one of the universities in what will be my new home, no less!

[3] I never would give up my German citizenship, but as far as I’m aware I wouldn’t have had to. However, I resented that Britain asked such a huge step of me like becoming a citizen just to acknowledge my already evident commitment to it, and to give me security. It felt like being my German self who loves Scotland wasn’t good enough, and that a part of me was meant to be suppressed. I won’t have that.

[4] To push someone like me, who loved the place, spoke the language, earned her own money and was fully integrated, to the point where leaving seemed better than staying would be something I would really want to think about if Britain were my country. But then, that’s also very German of me.

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