Class Struggles

Attention to socio-economic division within the UK appears to be en vogue. Whether it’s interest in post-industrial decline, the ‘left-behind’ of globalisation or rising inequality, class is back!

Last year a survey led by Goldsmiths, University of London noted that social mobility in the performing arts was at an all-time low. It found that only 18 % of Britain’s cultural workforce was brought up by parents who did traditionally working-class jobs, as compared to 34.7% in the country as a whole. Only architecture as a profession was more elitist.

In museums, especially at leadership level there are few people from working class backgrounds. Indeed there were more members of the Cabinet of old Etonian David Cameron who went to state school than there are UK National Museum Directors.

It’s not that there are no people from working class backgrounds working in museums, it’s just that many are invisible. At the Museums Association conference in Glasgow this year, Nat Edwards speaking in a session about social mobility, noted that there were plenty of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds working in museums; it was just that many were in front line roles and no-one ever thinks to suggest they might go to a conference.

Similarly, many museums have still yet to broaden their appeal beyond a middle-class, super-served audience. The most recent DCMS Taking Part survey noted that more people than ever were visiting museums – over 52% of the population. However this increase was not matched by a broadening visitor base. The number of visitors from poorer backgrounds is stubbornly refusing to shift. This is despite 15 years of free admission to National Museums and more programmes geared towards inclusion and social and cultural diversity.

The cause of countering apparent elitism was not helped by a recent report for the Scottish Government, exploring the social impact of public services. Museums were classed as ‘pro-rich’ service – primarily accessed by the better off. This compares to children’s social care – a service mostly used by poor people , described as ‘pro-poor’ (interestingly libraries were described as ‘neutral-poor’). This rather clumsy piece of research was not well received in our sector, Alistair Brown from the MA wrote, that the report, “failed to reflect the huge amount that museums do to increase access and to work in partnership with communities of all types.”

Although James Doeser artfully tweeted that

Seems Scot Gov appraised mus & galls according to what they actually do, not what they aspire to do.

With these surveys in mind, it was to my surprise that I read in the Guardian last week that the participation gap between people in rich and poor areas was shrinking dramatically in terms of visiting historic sites. What was the wider heritage sector doing right, which seemingly eluded museums and galleries?

Chairman of Historic England Sir Lawrie Magnus adopted a distinctly post-brexit tone noting that heritage “provides people with a physical link to the past, permanence, stability and sense of belonging. Places with strong, distinctive identities are more likely to prosper than those without.”

On further inspection the numbers are not all they seem (thanks to academics Sue Oman and Mark Taylor who delved deeper in to the report). The definition of visiting an historic place is broad ranging – from a visit to a town and city with historic character to being a paying visitor at a stately home. So doing a bit of shopping in historic York is equal to paying a twenty quid to visit nearby Castle Howard.

However once visiting a town or historic park is removed, the demographics of visitors pattern is very much like those to museums. Indeed the demographics of National Trust member is even more socially exclusive than those visiting museum and galleries.

No matter how the figures are presented there is still a large gap between rich and poor visitors to museums, galleries and historic houses and sites.

There are some notable exceptions to this elitism. In big cities such as Glasgow and Liverpool, local museums have for decades been synonymous with civic pride. Add to the mix free admission and an overt framing as ‘people’s culture’, these museums have genuine patronage from across the community.

Museums such as Beamish and the Black Country Living Museum provide an immersive experience and living history that is a source of regional affection. In this circumstance visitors, many of whom are on very low incomes are prepared to pay £50 for a day out.

Few museums can replicate the Beamish alchemy but there are actions which could be taken to bridge that participation gap.

  1. Accept that despite decades of instrumental funding on targeted projects combating social exclusion, museums are failing to attract poorer visitors at population level.
  2. We need to take a much more direct and long term approach focussing on ‘areas of low participation’ rather than cultural communities (as has been the approach hitherto). Often these groups intersect. The reasons for low participation are a combination of social, economic and cultural factors, often complex and vary from place to place.
  3. Take a more targeted approach to incentivising visitors from localities where there is low participation. Head of Culture in Bristol, Laura Pye in December’s Museums Journal notes that at Bristol Museum to accompany the popular exhibition The Story of Children’s Television, special offers were made available on the back of bus tickets on routes which went through residential areas of people who did not frequent museums.
  4. There is a need for organisations to carry out much better non-visitor research focussing on areas of low participation. All Arts Council NPOs will be required to participate in the Culture Counts surveys which measure impact of culture on place and audiences. I hope that this scheme will identify why people in areas of low participation are choosing not to come to museums.
  5. We should promote programmes for young people which direct focus on social mobility. Inclusion is not enough. The Department for Education has identified six areas in England where there are poor educational outcomes and limited social mobility evident. In Derby Museums a recent programme focussing on students at risk of exclusion encouraged year 10 pupils to develop skills and knowledge in engineering. The experience of working with technicians outside the classroom and with industry partners had a palpable effect on the students. Their teachers noted that their attendance and attention in class markedly improved.

Decline in social mobility in the workforce and a continued domination of well-off people as participants in cultural activity, can’t be good for museums. It seems that Culture is still struggling with class.

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One Response to Class Struggles

  1. Pingback: Why a museums goal should be a diverse, habitual audience | tonybutler's blog

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