Museums – from Civic Institutions to participants in Civil Society

I followed with interest, last weeks debate at the Social History Curators Conference in Cardiff last week – Are visitors the new curators? Sharon Heal has since given a good account of proceedings.  I agreed with ‘floor’ which rejected the motion, not because I think communities shouldn’t co-create museum activity but because I’m not sure most museum’s institutional values enable co-production, however progressive their leadership.

A museum’s view of communities as active partners depends on whether they see themselves primarily as civic institutions or part of civil society. I’d define the Civic Realm is ‘the local state’ comprising of organisations and institutions governed by political representatives. Here citizens participate in groups like local health boards, school governing bodies and perhaps in a museum’s case, user panels. This is great, but ultimately these bodies are appointed by and under the control of the local state.

By contrast Civil Society is characterised by voluntary action undertaken by citizens independently. Two centuries ago Alexis de Tocqville famously described a thriving United States characterised by ‘free voluntary associations which strengthen civil society by creating habits of the heart.’ Typical organisations might be local development trusts, social enterprises, faith groups or co-operatives. As the UK state shrinks under the Coalition Government, these bodies begin to play an increasing role in bridging social capital and tackling inequalities in communities.

The distinction between the civic realm of the state and the civil realm of the citizen is important. I’ve experienced a view articulated by Laurence Demarco a few years ago that there is a powerful lobby within the statutory sector which believes that anything organized in our communities outwith their control is potentially dodgy.

Notwithstanding the most progressive of founding values, all civic institutions are the reflection of the dominant political or social order. I feel uncomfortable when I see a museum indulge in civic pride to the extent that they seem to be hand maidens for the local tourist board or when they appear to be a little too aligned to a governments desire to foster national identity.

Instinctively I prefer the approach of Sue Clifford the founder of Common Ground who noted in an interview in the Ecologist (Local Heroes: Sue Clifford & Angela King The Ecologist Paul Kingsnorth 01/12/2006)

Letting people define for themselves what’s special about a place, and what matters about it… That’s the key. Government agencies and large bodies can’t stand this. They want to define things; they want to keep tabs…  only ordinary people can make ordinary places matter.

In contrast to the defined structures and layers of accountability of the local state, civil society is a muddle. It comprises of groups of people, sometimes sharing, sometimes opposing, sometimes indifferent to each other. It is a space organised by the habits and intelligence of collective action.

I don’t believe that a small state is the primary means to increase freedoms and resilience of communities. Civil society doesn’t operate in a vacuum and is strengthened by a state which trusts it as an active partner. Likewise the state alone can no longer tackle pressing social and environmental challenges, like child poverty, alone. It needs co-operatives, campaigning groups and collectives to deliver at local level.

I do believe in order to treat communities as active partners civic institutions like museums should learn behaviours from civil society. This requires systemic change; opening up governance, allowing self-actualising networks to replace structures and strategies, stimulating social innovation and collective intelligence rather than tried and tested methodologies. If museums use all these assets to create inventive and imaginative programming they’ll then  place their institution within the hearts of their communities.

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3 Responses to Museums – from Civic Institutions to participants in Civil Society

  1. Pingback: Museums: from Civic Institutions to participants in Civil Society « Museum Network Warwickshire

  2. Pingback: Thoughts inspired by #citizenbedford « myseum

  3. Pingback: Museums and the Civic Contract – part 1 | tonybutler's blog

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