Museums and the Civic Contract – part 1

Last week I went to the V & A to see the All this Belongs to You. It is a series of interventions by artists and the museum examining the role of public institutions in contemporary life and what it means to be responsible for a national collection. This is an opportune exhibition, opened in the run up to the 2015 General Election and at a time when many feel that a decade of austerity will undermine the notion of a free and open public realm.

'All this Belongs to You', Neon Invitation by Neon Circus 2015

‘All this Belongs to You’, Neon Invitation by Neon Circus 2015

Apart from the bold assertion that All this Belongs to You in the entrance hall, I found many of the other installations quite hard to locate, hidden in far away galleries with the guidance leaflet difficult to follow. What should have been a call to arms seemed flat in comparison to the razzamatazz surrounding the concurrent Alexander McQueen show. That said, the programme of events and talks over the next few months looks fascinating and provocative.

In the regions of the UK, large public institutions are at risk. Many our great civic museums, supported by local authorities have seen their funding reduced by between 25% and 50% during 2012-2016. Some local authorities talk about their budgets going off a cliff with the possibility of funding for discretionary services ceasing completely by 2017. Arts Council England are shortly to publish a review of the future of local authority funding for culture, it will make sober reading. Some civic museums many of which are nearly 200 years in the making could shrink considerably and conceivably disappear.

Although the avalanche of funding cuts may be hard to avoid, museums could help themselves by being more vocal as to their value in the civic realm. The decisions politicians make are coloured not only by economic matters but also how they play with the public. On the one hand, museums are far more socially active than in the past. A more progressive profession and benign political climate has meant that a commitment to learning, participation and community engagement is central to most museums. The Museums Association clarion call, Museums Change Lives places social justice at the soul of museums.

Paradoxically the instrumentalisation of cultural policy and activity over the last 20 years has not meant that museums have fulfilled their full potential as independent rallying points for civil society. In a previous blog I noted that for civic institutions to have greater impact in the public realm they need to behave more like civil society organisations. They should allow for the rhythm of local life. Communities unite, divide, show liking or indifference to each other. Our cities have very fluid communities, there is far more muddle than is convenient for media.

Although fifteen years of instrumentalist funding has had much social impact it has meant that many organisation became proxy state delivery agencies. I’ve witnessed this as director of the ‘independent’ Museum of East Anglian Life. I was encouraged to bid for Local Authority contracts to deliver services for learning disabled adults (as a means to offset a reduction in public funding).

Long term trends show that museum visits are increasing, survey after survey shows that museums are trusted by the public. I think that this is at risk if museums do not reassert their civic contract to the public. They should assume a commitment to social justice but from a position of independence. In 2013 The Garden Museum in Lambeth supported residents of the Heygate Estate which had been slated for gentrification by Lambeth Council. They should reassert their ethics and be prepared to debate in public the value of a civic collection in all senses. If not, there is no counter to the reductionist economic case made by some elected members to sell cultural assets to plug budget shortfalls. All this Belongs to You applies equally to local as it does to National collections.

In the next blog I’ll describe some of our work in Derby Museums to reassert our civic contract, by being more open, democratic and responsive to the public

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3 Responses to Museums and the Civic Contract – part 1

  1. Nick Poole says:

    Thanks for another thought-provoking piece, Tony. I share your love of museums and your concern about the forthcoming cuts but I differ from the MA on the point of view of tactics.

    While we may all believe in our bones that Museums Change Lives, and it has clearly served as an attractor for internal debate within the museum profession, it is not a particularly effective rallying cry for the advocacy of the value and impact of museums (at least partly because, as with all ideology, it leaves scant room for those who don’t immediately agree with it to find a place for themselves or their skills within it). It speaks to ideology, when the real crisis is all too practical. As you say, local politicians have one eye on finance and the other firmly on public perceptions, and if it is to be effective our advocacy must be designed around this reality rather than our own beliefs and debates.

    Some parts of our museum leadership spend too much time addressing the social role of museums (which replaces instrumentalism with an equal dose of soft utilitarianism and bombast) and not enough time generating public and political awareness of the work they actually do. I sometimes wonder whether all of the money that is currently funnelled into internal conferences, research and meetings to discuss the Purpose of Museums could be put to better purpose by employing a decent lobbyist and a marketing agency.

    The MA’s own public perceptions report was quite clear – the public want and demand a thrilling, professional, high-quality museum experience in which collections are interpreted, protected and displayed. It would be an act of profound arrogance to respond by implying that this is all well and good, but the public don’t really know what’s good for ’em.

    There is much we could learn from Bernard Donoghue’s work at ALVA. Visitor attractions can claim many of the same social values and impacts as museums, but the campaign by ALVA to promote their interests has been particularly effective because it has focused on outcomes, impact, influence and evidence over hand-wringing and introspection.

    It will be interesting to see whether the forthcoming I Love Museums campaign will provide the vital spark which ignites the public (particularly those that traditionally do not visit museums) to make a stand in defence of Local Authority spending on cultural services. I hope that it does, and I also hope that in future we have less theorising about and accountacy of the social impact of museums and more getting out there and visibly delivering the services which attract the public to us in the first place.

  2. tonybutler1 says:

    Thanks Nick, thoughtful as ever. I agree with most of what you say. In agonising over what funder’s want or proving to them that they do make a difference, some think that we’ve taken an eye off the customer. I think good organisations can do more than one thing at a time. They can improve their services and make the day out better for the visitor but they can also improve their research. Their advocacy if underpinned by good research then becomes far more powerful. Perhaps we need to a bullshit bingo test to how we communicate in public. Let’s talk less about ‘outcome focussed activity’, delivery and impact and more about fun and discovery of a complex, troubled yet fascinating world

  3. Very thoughtful article, especially about the ethics of museums. We will be contacting you about the ethics of museums based upon our recent experiences at the Derby Silk Mill.

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