As is not unusual, I’ve spent some of my holiday visiting museums with my family. Two experiences stick out, a trip to the Wonderlab at the Science Museum and a visit to the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. Although as institutions they were like chalk and cheese, we enjoyed quite similar immersive experiences. Both were busy, both engaged my daughters, who much prefer kinaesthetic learning to books and reading, and both had engaging, cheerful and audience focussed front line staff. In the Wonderlab, science was made simple by great explainers and well-designed activities, in the Black Country, history was conveyed by familiarity and not a little nostalgia.
Both charged admission (for a family Black Country, £44.10 Wonderlab, £17.50), and there were plenty of opportunities to spend more in the shops, stalls and cafes. Most importantly both experiences seemed to be enjoyed by paying customers from a variety of social backgrounds.
In a previous blog I wrote that over the last 20 years, the participation gap in heritage does not seem to have narrowed between rich and poor.
Time to narrow the gaps in Cultural Capital
At both these museums it seems that admission prices are not a barrier for visitors from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I am a great supporter of free admission to National Museums and there are a host of reasons as to why it is a good thing. However bridging the divisions in cultural capital is not one of them.
Access to, and participation in traditional forms of culture foster entitlement and authority. Those with it are more likely to get the best out of institutions and services. They are better educated and pass those qualities to their children. The power of cultural capital is that it is not recognised directly. You can’t see it like the inheritance of property and it is masked by the language of meritocratic achievement and hard work.
According to the writer Lynsey Hanley
“If you grow up in a milieu of high cultural capital it is second nature to you to engage in arts and culture as they add to ‘the richness of life’: they help you to be participatory, confident, assertive.”
The accumulation of cultural capital, either through educational advantage or geography, in one class is a great impediment to social mobility.
Derby’s research tells simple truths in order to diversify audiences
This gap is borne out in our own non-user research in Derby.
Our Audience Finder research puts the number of visitors from lower income backgrounds higher than the regional average. But last year we asked researchers, Bluegrass to conduct some non-visitor research, focusing on low attainment groups and the Asian community in three of the poorest wards of the city. The results were fairly stark
People did not visit because
- “it is not the sort of thing people like us do.”
- It was not recommended by friends or a peer group.
- “We do not have enough time.”
- “We do not hear about events.”
- They were perceived as primarily educational experiences.
A large percentage noted that whatever we did to make it more enticing, they were unlikely to come.
Interviewees did note however that they were likely to spend their disposable income on leisure activities such as going to the cinema, eating out, going to commercial festivals and visiting theme parks.
We used to name those non-participants, ‘hard to reach’. This patronizing moniker suggested that once people understood what we had to offer, they would be sure to come. Our experience shows non-users have much more agency and discernment. Their communities also have high levels of social capital; manifest in close family networks, use of community facilities such as mosques, temples and churches and use of local shops and cafes.
Why we all benefit from a diverse audience
If cultural organisations don’t narrow the social and economic gap in visitors, institutions will tilt towards elites at a time when we need open exploration and understanding across society. Many of our museums collude in this, through a wilful obscurantism in the way they tell stories or interpret art and material culture.
Having a diverse audience makes great business sense. The most financially successful museums in England such as Beamish, the living museum of the North, Black Country Living Museum and SS Great Britain, have a far wider socio economic demographic than many free museums like my own.
Derby Museums will be participating in an Arts Council Funded initiative led by the Association of Independent Museums to help museums diversify their audiences. I hope our research will be useful in helping other museums to open up and embrace greater social and economic variety.
Our goal should be to increase the habitual usage of museums by everyone. We can only do that if we lift cultural barriers which sometimes are more perceived than real. Good museums understand that museums visitors are heterogeneous. There must be variety and diversity of human interaction, from that first greeting by front line staff, to the goodbye at the end of the visit; from the food that is served in the café to labelling and interpretation of exhibits. Only then can we truly live up to the Arts Council England’s mantra of “great art, for everyone.”