Making the case for heritage learning

Photo from hoardings around development of new Tate Modern building.

“We are made wise not by recollection of our past but by the responsibility for our future” George Bernard Shaw

I’ve just been to the beautiful green campus of University of Exeter for the conference of the Group for Education in Museums. The conference enquiry was: how do we make the case for heritage education, in a time of austerity? What are the benefits to the wide range of audiences with which heritage educators interact? And so, what is the value to society? Can you put a monetary value against its benefits and does this help make the case?

Fiona Hutchison addressed the topic in most depth, as this is the focus of her PhD, with RAMM in Exeter as her case study. (Note, RAMM is winner of Museum of the Year 2012, quite deservedly.)

Her thesis is that we should seek alternative non-financial methods to value cultural engagement. I fully sympathise with her view and I’m very glad she’s doing this work. DCMS has been considering questions of valuing culture in general but I don’t think this goes into depth to explore the impact of qualities of public engagement with culture. So, it’s important.

I do think she was too dismissive of the Social Return on Investment method of evaluating impact. She described it as placing financial value on cultural/social work, which might imply only looking for economic revenue from culture, rather than what SROI attempts to do. This is to use proxies to identify the likely cost of delivering the same benefits via other services such as health, education or welfare. It is true that SROI is difficult to do well and maybe impossible to do well enough in our current situation, but the idea of proxy value can’t be so easily dismissed. I think it does enable the arts and heritage sectors to identify their cultural and social impacts, rather than resist the notion that they should have any transferable impact on anything at all. You could use proxies such as Timebank hours or alternative currencies, alongside money, if you wanted to use the SROI system without being too money-oriented. [Note, since writing this Fiona has commented below, helpfully.]

I’m wary of the culture sector habit of saying: Culture can’t be measured in hard or material ways because it has ‘other’ benefits, less measurable outcomes. The other remains undefined, in a vague and soft antithetical space. In general, I challenge the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ dichotomy. Maths and science versus ‘soft subjects’ or ‘soft skills’. Military/industrial power versus ‘soft power’. Soft always gets the raw deal. Its name defeats it already. What about if we flip it?  We could imagine:

Hard = capacities and work that are essential and difficult, such as:

  • Nurturing people
  • Stewardship of heritage, protecting against loss
  • Overcoming conflict through dialogue
  • Imagining multiple possibilities
  • Creating original ideas
  • Slow but agile activity with long term outcomes
  • Paying attention to ecosystem services, for sustainability

Soft = capacities and work that are abstracted, overfed, lazy and short-term, such as:

  • Subjugating and damaging people
  • Extraction and exploitation of environments, precipitating loss
  • Failing to address conflict by supporting agonistic politics and social inequalities
  • Extrapolating only from ideologies to imagine only one solution
  • Exploiting and/or constraining original ideas
  • Fast but repetitive/imitative activity to achieve short term outcomes
  • Ignoring ecosystem services, risking a hard fall.

You get the picture as I’m drumming it home. Fiona wasn’t unaware of the need to define the alternative to financial value. She does propose to work on definitions and produce a new impact assessment model, based on the following 10 impact factors: Economic: Tangible impacts for individuals: Impact for museum: Community outcomes: Identity pride and tolerance: Cultural aspects (aesthetic, spiritual etc): Wellbeing: Learning and knowledge: Personal capacity: Museum as a facility.

Seeing this list, I wonder if we’re hitting such difficulties in defining the value of culture because we struggle to organize these kinds of factors into a value ecosystem? I’m thinking about this in relation to a conversation with Pat Kane, who asked me with my business partner Mark Stevenson to work on a project about how cultural institutions (in the broadest sense) might need to be reformed by 2050. So, in fact, rather than bedding down more firmly for longevity might institutions need to continually reform themselves, reconstituting fluidly to respond to contextual problems, looking outwards or ‘bigger than self’ towards the common good? These organisations might be called ‘constitutes’. Thinking like this is difficult for museums and heritage bodies constituted to preserve assets for perpetuity. But it might become essential part of resilience, as long as enduring trusts of some kind are able to protect what it is their duty to conserve.

So, if we saw impact factors organized in a value eco-system, what might this look like? Imagine nesting circles (until I find time to draw them):

Planetary wellbeing: An organisation’s contribution to biosphere stability, through local and global action.

Inside which is…

Collective wellbeing: Its contribution to thriving neighbourhoods and partner organisations, promoting peace, collaboration and well-distributed resources.

Inside which is…

Constitutional wellbeing: The extent to which the heritage body is attaining more symbiotic relationships with its members and visitors to achieve its mission, including specialist communities of interest (such as subject experts).

Inside which is…

Individual wellbeing: The wide variety of ways that an organisation impacts differently on a wide variety of individuals. (This could be described as a ‘long tail’ of atomised impacts, but they might together contribute to the constitutional, collective and planetary impacts.)

Is this a more useful framework on which to map particular outcomes of heritage and cultural activity? I’d really welcome comments.

Anyway, the reason I was at the conference was to do some sessions on planning digital learning and participation with popular culture collections. We used the case study of the Bill Douglas Centre, which is a museum and archive on campus about the history of cinema and popular culture. We’re helping develop their digital strategy so I reflected on that, and the curator Phil Wickham gave us a tour of the galleries. My slides can be found here. I argued that more learning staff should be involved in digital planning across organisations, to refocus digital outputs on world-changing or place-making missions, that they need to employ their skills in promoting dialogue in online projects, as well as their skills in storytelling and addressing diverse audiences in accessible ways. If we want to make the case for heritage, we have to do the best quality work we can, focus on our responsibility for the future, make use of future technologies and engage with young people.

We ran out of time to discuss creative ways of interpreting popular culture collections online. Any participants itching to do that, or anyone else, is welcome to share ideas on the Bill Douglas Centre digital ideas blog. 


3 responses to “Making the case for heritage learning

  1. Hello from the beautifully green campus of Exeter University.

    Yes you’re right Bridget I am not a fan of SROI but I don’t think I am being prematurely dismissive. I have attended workshops to see what it involves and I understand how it works. There can be no argument that what it leaves you with in the end is a financial figure, a valuation, which is different than a value. I think it’s healthy to have a debate about this. Sam Elliott from Bolton Museum and Art Gallery made the point after my presentation that she would use SROI because it made sense to her local council. That’s fair enough but I am sceptical and I am not using it for my task of evidencing broad socio-economic impacts of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

    If you want to see how it has been used in our sector and judge for yourselves MB Associates did a report for MEAL, published in 2011, Investing in Culture and Community: The social return on investing in work-based learning at the Museum of East Anglican Life. Available from:

    I’ve got a picture of nesting circles in my head now and I like your idea of a values ecosystem. All the circles have the term ‘wellbeing’ in them which leads me to more and more questions. Well-being is a fuzzy term and, as my colleagues with psychology backgrounds will tell you, it’s far from straightforward to outline and then measure.
    I used the list of potential impacts you listed, taken from the literature, really as a stepping stone to create survey questions and interview questions. When you have to try and measure impact you have to go beyond conceptualisation. In my opinion asking people about their local museum and analysing their responses is the best way to really get a picture of the impact it has. My work has two layers, the individual layer; the impacts which can accrue to people with direct experience of the museum: visitors, programme participants etc.. Then the community layer, impacts for the wider community, not dependent on visitation. As I explained, I used random sampling for households across the city, this is not an exit survey or a visitor survey, it’s more than that. I admit that I am not attempting to evaluate planetary or constitutional circles from your model. It could be interesting further research to pursue though.

    I hope once I have finished my analysis, written my thesis, produced my toolkit and guide, and make available my data collection tools people can better understand the aspects I have attempted to measure and my methodology for doing so.

    Thanks for your response to my presentation,

    • Great, thanks for that detailed reply. Funny enough, I was quite critical of that MEAL SROI report too. It was that report that made me question the validity of proxies but I still think it can be a useful contribution to planning expenditure and assessing the value of it.
      I take your points about the need to use factors that are understood by people and relate to the ways that they conceive of the impacts on themselves. Makes perfect sense.
      I think the planetary circle is one that most institutions and sectors ignore because we don’t have an ecological epistemology in our culture. But because of the massive nature of the current crisis, this has to change. The melting of the Arctic ice this summer is causing emissions that are equivalent to emissions from human activities over 20 years. So, I’m not talking on the scale of museums getting a little bit greener or encouraging green behaviours. I’m talking radical rethinking of purpose: stewardship, therapy and education. Yes, I do tend to be on the radical edge of thinking about this but I’m not alone.
      A really outstanding book to read on this is by Robert Janes ‘Museums in a Troubled World, Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse?

  2. Pingback: Reclaiming economics for cultural commons by Bridget McKenzie - The #culturalvalue Initiative·

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