Connecting Cultures in Museums

Originally posted in December 2009

This week Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, was allowed for the first time to appear on BBC Question Time. For non-UK readers, the BNP is an all-white, far right party which promotes sending non-whites (especially muslims) ‘home’ and which has denied the Holocaust. In June this year, the BNP won three council seats and two European Parliament seats, with Griffin representing the North West of England. A shocking poll in 2006 showed that 59% of UK people share their views on immigration, although they don’t all vote BNP.  As we come up to Remembrance Day, many of those 59% people will be wearing poppies to remember the war against unthinkable fascism, without thinking of the irony.

In response to Griffin on Question Time there has been a lot of Twitter action. Quite a lot of comments were about the role of cultural learning and museums in changing the hearts & minds of those 59%. @51m0n (Simon Berry of the Cola Life project) tweeted: “In Anne Franks’ House. Harrowing. Nick Griffin where are you?” @KevAdamson suggested Griffin should go on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

The realisation that so many share these views, or versions watered down by blithe ignorance, has thrown into sharp focus the purpose of proposals for the transformation of the museums sector. These proposals under the Open Culture banner are about driving digital inclusion into communities and harnessing the digital for cultural participation. Put like that, it sounds a little uncompelling, more than a little perhaps. But when you look at the context, the urgent need for co-operation and problem-solving in communities, and when you have experienced of the power of museum learning and engagement, the success of the proposal seems essential.

In the same week as Griffin’s appearance I started working on a project for the Equalities & Human Rights Commission. This is the Young Brits at Art awards, which are about using culture and creativity to promote the values of respect, dignity, fairness, equality and autonomy. When Griffin came on screen I had just been writing about the scientific facts proving that the notion of a human subspecies is a cultural construct not a biological one. In other words there is only one human race, though many cultures.  The science is complex and the history of cultural and genetic interweaving on a global scale is massive to understand. You need to grasp the complexity to get the basic facts. One of the best ways to grasp the complexity is to explore museums (real or virtual) and to participate actively in cultural learning, for example, getting into archaeology.

This is all intensive work, intensified by the many other requirements of museums to solve all social ills. Cultural tolerance isn’t the only value we need to develop. We also, urgently, need to support people to develop adaptability to face a disrupted future due to climate change, not a need yet fully acknowledged by the Government. We’ve spent the past 10 years revamping our displays and buildings, building new ones, expanding our shops, and spending quite a bit of money on it all, including a bit of digitisation. Cultural and heritage institutions are more often driven by trustees and managers from hard-nosed business backgrounds, who help spend this kind of money and attract more. You might wonder then why, despite all this expansion of cultural provision, and its claims of effectiveness, are we still seeing these intolerant attitudes in so many of the population? Three reasons (amongst many) come to mind, the first two on a big scale: Global inequality has exacerbated extremist terrorism, leading to greater mistrust of ‘others’. Labour has not tackled the root causes of economic inequality, despite many non-economic initiatives. Thirdly, there has not been enough investment in the most effective kinds of cultural learning in the museum sector to make good work reach enough people and to be sustained. The bulk of investment has been in bricks and mortar, style, spectacle, collections, marketing and so on. The dominance of the business-and-tourism-led management of our cultural sector, fails to adequately value the relational work of those who deliver educational and participatory engagement.

There are, however, many success stories and good things happening within all this investment. These good things tend to be where there is integration between the display (or accessibility) of collections and the relational work to interpret them. For example, the Ashmolean Museum has not only created a new building but has altered the structure of displays and all the interpretation to reflect the formation of cultures through exchange. It’s a shame then that the first press coverage of this revamp by the Times has been to accuse the Museum of ‘dumbing down’ and catering for ‘half-wits’. Kathy Brewis sees museums exclusively as a place to switch off at the weekend from her busy ‘digitally included’ life, to wander the old cabinets of curiosity in a graciously vacant but already well-educated manner, gazing on the otherness of heads shrunken by barbaric people who are not like us. She says she doesn’t want to “discover how civilisations developed as part of an interrelated world culture”. She may already understand the complexity of cultural connections so well she has no need of learning further, but I suspect if she did understand she would realise the responsibility she has to disseminate this knowledge and would make better use of her privileged position as a commissioning editor of The Times in doing so.

There is some truth in what she says, albeit expressed in a way I find offensive. I believe that we have put too many words on the walls, sometimes stating facts too baldly, which has reduced the emotive and aesthetic effect of collections and heritage spaces. The most effective learning takes place through dialogue, mediated in relational and creative ways. A plan to transform the sector needs to focus on making this kind of learning available to all, and that has to mean using digital technologies in many new ways and also working in partnership with public service broadcasters.

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