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Posts Tagged ‘target audiences’

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

 

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the negative impact on immigrants of the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in British media and politics [2] were superseded by actual xenophobic attacks on EU Citizens, which many argue were enabled by the tone of the EU referendum campaign.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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

 

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The main research question for my PhD was whether or not interpretation delivered the public benefits of heritage as asserted in relevant legislation and policy. A key benefit is mutual understanding/social integration and cohesion, and sometimes also more directly, peace [1].

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular benefit over recent months. In Germany, integration of refugees has become a primary societal task and shared endeavour. Heritage interpretation can play a role here, but are we philosophically equipped for this? I specifically wondered about this when on the Deutschlandfunk a few days ago a woman made the very important observation that integration classes teaching ‘German values’ must be very careful indeed to avoid both stereotyping the learner (e.g. the ‘misogynist Muslim man’) and overinflating the values themselves (e.g. as uniquely ‘German’ or already ‘achieved’). Both can actually lead to the opposite outcome – that ‘learners’ feel less respectful of these supposed ‘German’ values and more alienated than inspired to embrace them.

 

For me the delicate balance lies in the understanding of ‘education’. I do not subscribe to a view of interpretation as an ‘educational activity’ [2]. I think this creates a number of very questionable subject positions and assumptions, particularly of an ultimately ignorant visitor in need of knowledge supplied by the interpreter [3]. Interpretation understood as education also necessarily focuses on what must be ‘taught’ [4]: the message, the one thing that visitors will take away with them, the theme [5]. In the example above, that would be the ‘German values’, as evident in German cultural heritage, and immediately the pitfalls that the woman noted loom large.

 

Once we begin to acknowledge that these German values are not actually uniquely German, and that with some, German society still struggles and has plenty of heated arguments about; once we recognise that the Muslims, Christians, Syrians, Eritreans that come to Germany already share some of these values with us, or a version thereof, and that they will necessarily contribute their own views, it is no longer a matter of providing education about, or communicating, a value (the message), as if they’d never heard about it, nor had any personal claim to, or stake in it. What we’re dealing with here no longer fits the suggested process of selection of what to include, and what to leave out in order to most effectively communicate our message. This needs so much more.

 

For example, it needs to make room. What I’ve been really impressed by is the many writings in Germany, particularly in cultural policy, that are about active participation by new arrivals, and their contribution to shaping and changing German society and German future. However, interpretation as an educational activity is primarily based on a static view: of the past as something that has already been concluded, and of contemporary society as taking in that past as a (usually scientifically examined) given. Inspiration, renegotiation, questioning, critiquing has no room in this. But it is exactly these processes of reshaping heritage for the inspiration of and use in a shared future by a society that is re-constituting itself that social integration is built on. A concept of integration as a matter of the new arrivals properly understanding the ‘host’ society’s history and values, and uncritically adopting both, is old-fashioned and unworkable, besides presenting a distorted view of the coherence of that history and of those values. An interpretive practice that continues to view integration in this way, and provides interpretation accordingly, will have little, if any positive impact.

 

So I argue that we need something different, something that is not based on any idea of education, no matter how progressively framed, particularly when it comes to supporting integration. There is need for education, yes, and the teaching of the critical skills that enable people to become full citizens. But that is not the task of interpretation, at least not directly [6]. As visitors come to sites or to museums, or to their virtual counterparts, they do so for an existing reason [7]. It is partly an expression of their identity and their aspirations, and partly they look for further information – all of it, not simply our selection that supports and communicates to them our message. Interpretation must find ways of facilitating the processes of renegotiation, questioning and inspiration, with room for critiques and disagreements, and reinterpretations by a new society that is finding its way. It’ll be interesting to read the evaluations of the programmes run in Germany at the moment and learn from them.

 

 

Notes

[1] My case studies were two battlefields and these benefits were not reported by visitors, suggesting that they did not realise them. This is insofar of interest as at one site, Varusschlacht in Kalkriese, this European peace message was in the foreground. The short answer regarding peace/integration would therefore have to be that no, it doesn’t look like interpretation encouraged the realisation of these benefits at these two particular sites (and I spend considerable time in my thesis discussing why that might be).

 
[2] Tilden, F., 1957 (1977), 3rd edition. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, p. 8.

[3] Yes, some writers do acknowledge ‘prior knowledge’, but this is still a far cry from accepting this knowledge in its own right as the distinguishing heritage value. Rather, the approach in interpretation that seeks to understand prior knowledge is usually used to be able to better influence visitors toward the knowledge/attitude/behaviour the interpreter wants them to have.

[4] Even if our literature takes great pains to distinguish this ‘teaching’ from that of the ‘formal classroom’ – a distinction that professional teachers would probably be puzzled by. It suggests their practice is still stuck in the 19th century. Modern teaching is not so much different from what interpretation proclaims as best practice. But I do not therefore think that education is interpretation, either.

[5] Possibly the first book to expand on thematic interpretation (the idea was already in Tilden’s book) was Ham, S., 1992. Environmental Interpretation. Golden: North American Press, p. 33ff. However, thematic interpretation is a core pillar of much contemporary interpretation literature.

[6] Arguably, as visitors will still gain new knowledge and experiences, there is always an element of education in interpretation, or even just in visiting a site that is not interpreted at all. The difference is in the philosophical foundation: I’m advocating that we don’t set out to educate, but to facilitate.

[7] A good starting point on this are the writings of Poria et al, starting with 2001, ‘Clarifying Heritage Tourism’. In: Annals of Tourism Research 28 (4), pp. 1047 – 1049.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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The ‘Extremism’ speech delivered this week by Britain’s Prime Minister made me ponder again that concept of ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences, especially what we call ‘BAME’ groups, and how the museums sector is using it to shape its practice. To me, what has been happening to Muslims in the UK over the last decade illustrates very eloquently what is wrong (and it is very wrong in my opinion) with this.

What we’ve been witnessing, what we are witnessing, is a systematic exclusion of people from society, and a complete misrepresentation of who they are. As this comment on the experiences of Muslims since London’s 7/7 bombings painfully explains, Muslims have been made to feel that they are suspect, ‘other’, and have to constantly prove their ‘Britishness’. In her comment on the PM’s speech, this woman notes how, effectively, she was dragged from being just another regular Brit to being a ‘Muslim’. Her religion has become the focus for society, a focus that has also taken a truly nasty turn: ‘Muslim’, she observes, is equated to ‘terrorist’. And government initiatives meant to tackle ‘extremism’ are targeted almost exclusively at Muslims, and the woman wonders: would she ever even want to participate, given how unpredictable the consequences of such participation are. As she writes, ‘just talking about certain aspects of Islam is now considered extremist’.

One of the government’s targeted measures is the PREVENT programme, and the changes that came into effect at the start of July. It requires all sorts of institutions, including universities to, in short, get better at spotting ‘radicalisation’ of their [Muslim] students. The Conversation UK posted a great analysis of this here, with this sobering quote in response to Islamophobic graffiti at the University of Birmingham:

‘As a Muslim student at the University of Birmingham and a born-and-bred Brummie, am I surprised by these attacks on my community? The short answer: No.’

And yet the measures are targeted at the student, their religion: not at the attacks from the rest of society. In fact, in his speech, the Prime Minister went as far as calling it ‘paranoia’ when people, including Muslims, criticise PREVENT for singling them out. He refuses to engage with the idea that society’s actions may be the bigger problem than people’s [Muslim] religion. And so the questions the woman in her comment asks, about what the government will do to curb the increasingly negative media coverage of Muslims, or the rise in Islamophopbic attacks, will probably remain ignored.

And what has all this led to? The woman writes that she feels ‘isolated’ and ‘scared’ by Islamophobia and ‘double standards’. In The Conversation piece on PREVENT, another student is quoted saying,

‘…it’s that nagging thought in the back of your head that keeps coming back … do I belong here?’

So the journey of exclusion was not one that started with these people’s religion. It is not that which made them, initially, feel isolated, excluded, as if they did not belong. It was a process that was initiated by wider society, through focusing on one attribute about who they are, and denying the validity of all others – as if compared to our being a ‘Brummie’, this attribute in them was somehow less, or different, or overshadowed by being a Muslim. Society then continued with targeted measures, targeted, again, at this one attribute. Society created the exclusion. And society expects them to ‘fix’ it, to ‘integrate’, as the Prime Minister said. The woman commentator noted how she has started to dread and avoid altogether news coverage. Perhaps, she has also started to disengage with other aspects of public life – because she may  not know what to expect. People may be tired of the mainstream narrative that goes unchallenged. They do not want to be singled out again. They just want to be a Brit, a student, a football fan.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know where my argument is going here [1]. For one, museums and their audiences do not live in a bubble. I’ve already seen the well-meaning programmes targeted at Muslims, and they completely and utterly fail to even acknowledge the wider issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims – they ignore those issues, just like the Prime Minister does. They also perpetuate the exclusion: once again, we’re defining people by their religion, as if the fact that they were ‘born and bred’ here suddenly no longer had the same, or possibly stronger meaning for all of us together. Instead of providing a platform that says, ‘We are all the same’, museums’ targeted programmes reaffirm otherness: for example the ‘otherness’ of Muslims recontextualising ‘our’ local history collections so that ‘we’ can better understand ‘Islam’. Targeted programmes ignore the fact that Muslims, in this example (and you could take immigrants too these days) have been actively excluded and demonized, and they reiterate subtly that this institution too thinks the issue lies with ‘them’. Like the government’s measures, programmes target ‘them’, not the rest of society. We ignore the source of the problem, and target the ‘symptom’ – in our case, under-representation in our audience profiles.

For as long as we insist on talking about ‘hard-to-reach’ and ‘BAME’ groups, and a practice of ‘targeting’ them, we will continue a discourse that emphasises ‘otherness’ and ignores how we as institutions may be part of the problem. It prevents us from developing a different way of thinking, one that is about genuine tackling of barriers that we as institutions and societies create, and of inventing practices that are about honest integration of everyone. As this commentator wrote, ‘Integration is a two-way process’. It really is.

Notes

[1] I’ve thought long about whether I should even post this. I’ve started feeling like a broken record, and yet the discourse of ‘hard-to-reach’ groups continues, as do the practices of targeting audiences. Over recent weeks, the British Association for Heritage Interpretation’s re-launched awards celebrated the practice again, and a client of ours was told by Heritage Lottery Fund to more specifically ‘target’ the ‘hard-to-reach’. There is some merit to some elements of these practices, but by and large, the uncritical way it’s bandished about does more harm than good, in my opinion.

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Last week’s #museumsrespondtoferguson discussion was on inclusion policies and their implementation in recruitment practice (you can read the Storify story here). At one point, one of the hosts of the chat, Adrianne Russell, shared, ‘I can’t count how many times black visitors told me “I’m so glad to see you here”’, which just floored me. Other observations that contributors made apply to the UK, and my own experience in museums as well:

  • ‘Sitting in museum cafe with almost all white patrons, almost all African American servers’
  • ‘Many museums I interned for had a homogenous (white) staff.’
  • ‘I’ve worked in predominantly white museums.’

And this is despite the UK’s fairly good track record with equality policies and standards. So what is going wrong?

The Twitter chat noted a few things, on which I’d like to expand and to which I’d like to add here:

Representation

The chat was focused on recruitment, but it did make me think about the impact of our offer to visitors as well. In addition to not finding yourself represented among museums staff, I think it is fair to say that in many instances, under-represented groups will also not find themselves represented in museum narratives. And where they are, these representations are usually through someone else’s prism. We need more studies here to show the real impact these practices have on visitors, but my assessment is that they can be as easily patronizing and exclusive as they may be inclusive [1]. If this is indeed the case (as I think it is), then visiting a museum currently is unlikely to make under-represented groups feel like this is a place for them.

Outreach

The point on representation makes outreach that much more important. This is not outreach of the educational kind; this is outreach where museum professionals participate for example in careers fairs, and chat to pupils from under-represented groups about the roles available in the sector. It would be helpful if the staff going there were from the community itself, and a certain added element of ‘representation’ may just have to become a part of the role of staff members from under-represented groups [2]. Otherwise, if you send me, I may just inadvertently give the same message as what these pupils may be getting already: If you work in this sector, you get to work with more white folks like me. Hurrah! (or not).

Unpaid internships

This is not just a matter of dubious practice bordering on exploitation. It’s also a matter of exclusion, and this cannot be stressed enough: only those able to afford to gain unpaid experience are able to take up these internships. Make internships and experience a central stepping stone to get into the museums sector, and we’re excluding people before we’ve even invited them to apply.

Qualifications, Skills, and Knowledge

This didn’t come up in the chat, but in my own practice I’ve observed that particularly in the museums sector, we seem to have very odd notions of what qualifications, skills and knowledge are required for certain roles. I argue that it is sometimes the wrong qualifications and experience we’re looking for (see for example this post). Community involvement, community connectedness, facilitation and creativity are far more relevant to many community-facing roles than say, art history. And these may be exactly the qualifications that currently under-represented groups may have. If we’re asking for the wrong qualifications, we will get the wrong people, and we will continue to perpetuate under-representation amongst our staff.

Advertising Roles

Museums seem to have their usual ‘go-to’ channels to recruit staff. In the UK, that’s generally the Museum Association’s job section, and large newspapers (I’ve found all but one of all my jobs via large newspapers). The problem is that these are not necessarily the channels where really well-qualified people from groups other than the usual suspects may be looking for jobs. We’re properly entering the vicious cycle here that started with the points above. And yet, identifying alternative channels might just mean we find the perfect candidate amongst those under-represented groups we’d like to join our team.

Support

A few of the chat contributors noted that there was a lack of support in the sector for in-job professional development. I can’t say that this is true for the UK as I have experienced it, from Local Authority museums to a national charity. However, with budget cuts going ever deeper, this may well become an issue here as well. It is certainly true that much can be achieved through professional development, although in order for these benefits to kick in, we first need to take down the barriers that prevent people from entering the sector in the first place. I honestly believe that change could be much more quickly achieved, if the sector recruited on different criteria, and then invested in people to get them up to speed on things it still considers important – such as knowledge of collections. Or even a teaching qualification, if you must.

And finally, the biggy: Our Own Underlying Prejudice

I’ve added this on just before I added this post, because as if on cue, I found this depressing experiment in my Facebook feed. I’ve tried to highlight the impact of our own personal flaws/issues/horizons in my last blog post, and I’ve noted it in other posts previously. But it’s not something I hear widely discussed. And I suppose that’s because it’s not making us ‘in power’ look too good. It’s darn uncomfortable. It suggests that despite our policies and inspirational vision papers, and despite our efforts to be good people, we may actually do stuff that under scrutiny turns out to be pretty appalling. But if those findings apply more widely – that an ‘ethnic’ name makes a person less likely to get invited for an inverview – then we better start examining honestly and systematically what our own subconscious prejudices might be.

Notes

[1] For a related post you may find this one interesting. The comment discussion on this post may also be of interest.

[2] I’m uncomfortably conscious of the fact that this is making the ‘under-represented’ attribute yet again a focus, when really all we want is for people to just be people, and treated as such. I honestly don’t know how to overcome that as yet. My good intentions as a white woman from Germany just probably won’t communicate to a black teenager from central London that really, s/he is exactly the person I want to see directing our museums in a few years’ time.

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

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

Migration is the Norm

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

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

Migrants and Non-Migrants are Alike

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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