Can cultural assets inspire the ‘Great Imagining’ of Transition?

On Tuesday last, I spoke at the latest of Mission Money Model seminars, Thriving on Less, at the A Foundation at Rochelle School in Shoreditch. The event challenged people working in culture to respond to a future of low or no growth and the long-term implications social and climate change.

I described MEAL’s journey from Social History Museum to Social Enterprise, the strong social networks the museum has built and how it has encouraged us to devote our energies to examine the historic well-being of communities in rural East Anglia.

Alongside me were the inspirational Topher Campbell, artistic director of the Red Room and Lucy Neal  who leads the Transition Town Tooting. Both spoke with great conviction about the potential for the cultural sector to bring people together in a ‘Great Imagining’of a future not dependent on oil; where individuals are better able to connect with others and their environments, and where the atomisation of society, created by a need to endlessly consume, is lessened . Topher described Red Room’s plans to build a theatre using waste or recycled materials, remarking that, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Lucy outlined the urgency required community activism required for Transition from an oil dependent economy, “previous generations were unaware of the dangers of climate change, future generation will know that we knew.”

Common to all our experiences, be they rural or urban, is a desire to think differently about how we use cultural assets. I have always believed that without people’s stories, or a strong network of local people participating in work (as they do at MEAL), a museum is moribund. What makes MEAL tick isn’t just the historic buildings or landscape or the artefacts but the social networks which staff, volunteers and built around the organisation. This approach is inspired by Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) a framework championed by Carnegie UK, a rural development think tank. ABCD takes as its starting point the existing assets and strengths of community, particularly the strengths inherent in community based associations and other social networks.  It defines assets not just as physical capital assets such as buildings but the distinctive qualities of the environment and the skills of people within the community.

Last year as part of my Fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme I produced a paper with the Countryside & Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire. Entitled Grow your Own it examined how an asset based approach can be used to developed cultural amenities in rural areas. It took in case studies from such far flung places as Cardiganshire, Shetland and the central highlands of Kenya and can be downloaded here. Used creatively, the unique assets of landscape,village or neighbourhood and the people within them, can help begin this ‘Great Imagining.’

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