Museums for the People?

The politicisation of museums is a disaster. So why have they so readily adopted the social inclusion agenda?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Under pressure from the New Labour government, museums and galleries, like other public institutions from doctors’ surgeries to universities to schools, are expected to take on social inclusion as a main part of their role.

Under the banner of social inclusion, museums are now busying themselves building community relations, challenging prejudice and tackling unemployment.

But what does it actually mean for museums to organise themselves around social inclusion?

For all it is a buzzword in New Labour’s Britain, social inclusion is a murky concept. It seems to be driven by an anxiety about social fragmentation, manifested in a concern about the existence of isolated, aimless individuals, who must be contacted and given a purpose to their lives. The Policy Action Team 10 social inclusion progress report says: ‘If having nowhere to go and nothing constructive to do is as much a part of living in a distressed community as poor housing or high crime levels, culture and sport provide a good part of the answer to rebuilding a decent quality of life there‘ (my italics) (1).

To this end, the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) claims that museums and galleries can ‘[empower] people to determine their place in the world…[and] play a full part in society’ (2), while the Group for Large Local Authority Museums (GLLAM) says that social inclusion projects have the outcomes of: ‘enhanced self-esteem, confidence and creativity, which in turn have helped people to develop more active, fulfilled and social lives.’ (3)

The politicisation of museums is a disaster. So why have they so readily adopted the social inclusion agenda?

The first reason is that the museum profession as a whole was in a state of crisis when New Labour came to power. Museums’ traditional self-justification for their existence – as the carers, studiers, and interpreters of objects – had been under attack from all sides for more than a decade. From the right, former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher attacked museums for being useless to society, and introduced market criteria as an evaluation of their work. Many on the cultural left, meanwhile, attacked museums for being elite ideological institutions that controlled and excluded the masses.

A defensive museum profession, riddled with self-loathing and no longer sure of its traditional role, was open to the new DCMS agenda.

And the DCMS has certainly been aggressive in the promotion of its agenda – as well as being explicit about its desire to politicise museums. DCMS reports are full of thinly veiled threats, such as: ‘The culture of the organisation itself may need to change, in terms of attitudes and behaviours, values and beliefs.’ The same DCMS document suggests that ‘Museums might identify, each year, a subject pertinent to public or social policy, which can be featured in an exhibition or event’. But the museum profession has largely remained silent in the face of these attacks.

Indeed, it seems that museum professionals are so demoralised that social inclusion projects are often as much for their benefit as for the general public. GLLAM noted that social inclusion projects helped staff to feel ‘relevant and necessary’; another museum said that ‘it helps us to feel more connected’; another, ‘we need to be integrated’ (4).

But the social inclusion agenda has not just been drummed into museums from without. It has been actively promoted by a new museum elite, many of whom had been running these types of projects for a decade.

Many of these new museum professionals studied the MA in Museums Studies at Leicester University, many were left-wing social historians, and many went to work in Labour-controlled local authority museums. They seemed to hold the idea that museums – from the objects they chose, to the layout of their buildings and exhibitions – excluded ordinary people.

Allowing visitors to become part of a museum’s work and displays was seen as a radical and socially transformative act. Peter Jenkinson, now head of Walsall Museums and Galleries, almost seemed to invoke Lenin’s State and Revolution in his description of the ‘stages in withdrawal of power’ of professionals from the museum, perhaps culminating in ‘the most radical solution, the final utopian stage, of the creation, or release, of the autonomous, truly popular and professional-free museum’ (5). (It is ironic that a museum professional might contemplate the erasure of professionals from museums.)

But far from bringing about social transformation, these projects were more about making people feel better about themselves. In the context of industrial decline, social history museum professionals set about restoring people’s pride through telling their histories, just as it seemed that the living basis for that pride was wearing away. It is telling that, after losing the National Union of Miners’ ballot to keep a Welsh mining village pit open in 1983, a village museum was set up the following year (6).

Social history curator Gaynor Kavanaugh said: ‘to be without history is to be outside the prescribed view of the world, to be deleted from the human picture, to be ignored and forgotten. A recognised place in history means finding self-esteem and value.’ (7) Bill Silvester, setting up the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in Sheffield in the 1970s, said: ‘the idea was to provide a museum for workers and their children, to restore that pride in heritage – so often denied or stolen by others.’ (8)

Despite the radical rhetoric of ‘social change’, social inclusion projects today play a similar role in making individuals feel recognised and appreciated. In Plymouth Museum’s social inclusion projects, for example, ’emphasis is given to projects that validate people’s skills and experiences, making individuals feel valued and their stories and lives appreciated’ (9). Tyne and Wear museums justified ‘Making History’, a project where members of the public were asked to donate objects, on the basis that ‘This project shows that everyday objects today are valued and their owners are valued too. [It conveys] the feeling for members of the community that the museum collection belongs to them, that they are a valued part of the whole and have helped to tell their own area’s story’.

The difference is that, now, social inclusion has become a key government project. It is not just a lone museum curator using the museum to boost the self-esteem of socially excluded individuals – it is also the government.

The new museum elite promotes museums as ideal vehicles for government policy – in the words of GLLAM, ‘they offer safe, non-judgemental environments. They are not associated with sites of problems and failure as are some of the organisations with which they collaborate, including social services, prisons and hospitals’ (10).

For example, an Asian women’s textile project at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, under the guise of getting the women to make textiles based on the museum’s collection, encouraged them to talk about their mental health. These women would have been unlikely to have gone to a mental health discussion group with the social worker – museums, in this case, provide cultural activity as a front for social work. As reported in Including Museums, ‘Mandy’, an individual who took part in Activate, an Angel Row Gallery project targeting young people in Nottingham, was encouraged to talk through ‘personal issues and extreme unhappiness’. ‘Any information which was felt to put Mandy “at risk” was reported to her social worker.’ (11)

‘Socially included’ individuals effectively become New Labour stooges. A sign of Mandy’s progress was that she ‘attended national conferences on Youth inclusion as well as developed her role as peer educator on subsequent projects’. Learning to talk the talk and participating in the right projects seemingly equals well-rounded and fulfilled individuals.

In this sense, museums geared towards social inclusion are actively bringing their visitors into a more intimate relationship with the state.

This transformation of the museum’s role in society transforms the content of the museum. As long as the DCMS advocates in the museum think that an individual’s self-esteem is being raised, that they are improving their skills or their mental health, it is incidental what activity they are involved in – they could be playing with building bricks or painting a masterpiece. The social inclusion agenda is indifferent to, and even contemptuous of, the activities on which the museum was built. It therefore distorts the very basis of the institution.

Traditionally, the museum’s role of collecting, studying and presenting artefacts had a firm basis in society. Collectors and an academic establishment outside of the state became involved in this activity to further understanding of the world, and they developed standards and ways of evaluating their work of their own. This activity gave the museum a solid grounding, a raison d’etre – and the presentation of objects in exhibitions gave the museum a substantial basis through which to relate to its public.

Although social inclusion is, at present, taking over museum policy, it is not a project with a clear sense of direction or solid grounding in museum practise or in society.

This is why few advocates of the museum’s role in social inclusion can define what social inclusion actually means. Richard Sandell writes that ‘For the cultural sector, the term remains fluid and ambiguous’ (12). The GLLAM Report on social inclusion, written by local museums at the forefront of social inclusionary initiatives, says, ‘definitions of social inclusion are problematic’: social inclusion is ‘difficult to see and difficult to grasp as a whole…[it is] a fuzzy concept, defined and used variously by government and by different local authorities’ (13).

When concepts are fuzzy, the temptation is to get out the ruler to help define them better. The DCMS says that there is a ‘need for longitudinal studies and a coherent overview’ of social inclusion policy, and is committed to ‘a programme of research into the impact of culture and leisure on individuals and communities and to developing, monitoring and evaluating methodologies as standard elements of social inclusion work’. But even the most elaborate system of measuring the impact of social inclusion projects in museums will not solve their essential lack of raison d’etre outside the agenda of the new elite.

Nor will using museums in this way solve the problem of social disengagement. Creating more ‘Mandys’, who can parrot government approaches to developing skills and self-esteem will not reinvigorate political or civic life. Bland, bureaucratic buzzwords cannot pass for genuine engagement. And communities are created out of people spontaneously sharing their lives together – not out of museum-orchestrated reminiscence sessions.

Both politics and museums would be greatly aided if politicians squarely faced up to the problems of the sphere of politics – and museums appreciated why they existed in the first place.

Josie Appleton is author of Museums for ‘The People’?, the Institute of Ideas’ new Conversation in Print. To buy a copy, call 020 7269 9220. Museums for ‘The People’? was launched at the conference, Connecting the Collection on 11 November at the British Museum. See the Institute of Ideas website for details.

Read on:

Culture at the crossroads, by Munira Mirza

spiked-issues: Museums and galleries

(1) Building on PAT10 – Progress Report on Social Inclusion, February 2001

(2) DCMS, Centres For Social Change: Museums, Galleries and Archives for All, May 2000

(3) GLLAM, October 2000, Museums and social inclusion

(4) GLLAM, October 2000, Museums and social inclusion

(5) Peter Jenkinson, in Museum studies in material culture, (ed) Susan M Pearce

(6) History curatorship, Gaynor Kavanagh, 1990

(7) History curatorship, Gaynor Kavanagh, 1990

(8) History curatorship, Gaynor Kavanagh, 1990

(9) GLLAM, October 2000, Museums and social inclusion

(10) GLLAM, October 2000, Museums and social inclusion

(11) Including Museums, 2001

(12) Richard Sandell, ‘Museums as Agents of Inclusion’, in Museum and Management Curatorship 17 (4), 1998
(13) GLLAM, October 2000, Museums and social inclusion

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Topics Politics


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