This week Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, was allowed for the first time to appear on BBC Question Time. For non-UK readers, the BNP is an all-white, far right party which promotes sending non-whites (especially muslims) ‘home’ and which has denied the Holocaust. In June this year, the BNP won three council seats and two European Parliament seats, with Griffin representing the North West of England. A shocking poll in 2006 showed that 59% of UK people share their views on immigration, although they don’t all vote BNP. As we come up to Remembrance Day, many of those 59% people will be wearing poppies to remember the war against unthinkable fascism, without thinking of the irony.
In response to Griffin on Question Time there has been a lot of Twitter action. Quite a lot of comments were about the role of cultural learning and museums in changing the hearts & minds of those 59%. @51m0n (Simon Berry of the Cola Life project) tweeted: “In Anne Franks’ House. Harrowing. Nick Griffin where are you?” @KevAdamson suggested Griffin should go on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
The realisation that so many share these views, or versions watered down by blithe ignorance, has thrown into sharp focus the purpose of proposals for the transformation of the museums sector. These proposals under the Open Culture banner are about driving digital inclusion into communities and harnessing the digital for cultural participation. Put like that, it sounds a little uncompelling, more than a little perhaps. But when you look at the context, the urgent need for co-operation and problem-solving in communities, and when you have experienced of the power of museum learning and engagement, the success of the proposal seems essential.
In the same week as Griffin’s appearance I started working on a project for the Equalities & Human Rights Commission. This is the Young Brits at Art awards, which are about using culture and creativity to promote the values of respect, dignity, fairness, equality and autonomy. When Griffin came on screen I had just been writing about the scientific facts proving that the notion of a human subspecies is a cultural construct not a biological one. In other words there is only one human race, though many cultures. The science is complex and the history of cultural and genetic interweaving on a global scale is massive to understand. You need to grasp the complexity to get the basic facts. One of the best ways to grasp the complexity is to explore museums (real or virtual) and to participate actively in cultural learning, for example, getting into archaeology.
This is all intensive work, intensified by the many other requirements of museums to solve all social ills. Cultural tolerance isn’t the only value we need to develop. We also, urgently, need to support people to develop adaptability to face a disrupted future due to climate change, not a need yet fully acknowledged by the Government. We’ve spent the past 10 years revamping our displays and buildings, building new ones, expanding our shops, and spending quite a bit of money on it all, including a bit of digitisation. Cultural and heritage institutions are more often driven by trustees and managers from hard-nosed business backgrounds, who help spend this kind of money and attract more. You might wonder then why, despite all this expansion of cultural provision, and its claims of effectiveness, are we still seeing these intolerant attitudes in so many of the population? Three reasons (amongst many) come to mind, the first two on a big scale: Global inequality has exacerbated extremist terrorism, leading to greater mistrust of ‘others’. Labour has not tackled the root causes of economic inequality, despite many non-economic initiatives. Thirdly, there has not been enough investment in the most effective kinds of cultural learning in the museum sector to make good work reach enough people and to be sustained. The bulk of investment has been in bricks and mortar, style, spectacle, collections, marketing and so on. The dominance of the business-and-tourism-led management of our cultural sector, fails to adequately value the relational work of those who deliver educational and participatory engagement.
There are, however, many success stories and good things happening within all this investment. These good things tend to be where there is integration between the display (or accessibility) of collections and the relational work to interpret them. For example, the Ashmolean Museum has not only created a new building but has altered the structure of displays and all the interpretation to reflect the formation of cultures through exchange. It’s a shame then that the first press coverage of this revamp by the Times has been to accuse the Museum of ‘dumbing down’ and catering for ‘half-wits’. Kathy Brewis sees museums exclusively as a place to switch off at the weekend from her busy ‘digitally included’ life, to wander the old cabinets of curiosity in a graciously vacant but already well-educated manner, gazing on the otherness of heads shrunken by barbaric people who are not like us. She says she doesn’t want to “discover how civilisations developed as part of an interrelated world culture”. She may already understand the complexity of cultural connections so well she has no need of learning further, but I suspect if she did understand she would realise the responsibility she has to disseminate this knowledge and would make better use of her privileged position as a commissioning editor of The Times in doing so.
There is some truth in what she says, albeit expressed in a way I find offensive. I believe that we have put too many words on the walls, sometimes stating facts too baldly, which has reduced the emotive and aesthetic effect of collections and heritage spaces. The most effective learning takes place through dialogue, mediated in relational and creative ways. A plan to transform the sector needs to focus on making this kind of learning available to all, and that has to mean using digital technologies in many new ways and also working in partnership with public service broadcasters.
I wrote this post on my trip to Washington last week….
I’m sitting in the vast atrium of the National Building Museum. Like most big buildings in Washington its classical style looks ridiculously overblown on this scale. The columns, big as giant cedars, are fakely gilded. I expect any moment a throng of lions and spear-touting soldiers to appear and play out a Ben Hur style epic. Instead around me are big men, not in togas but in the uniform of chinos and clutching takeout coffee, talking loudly about construction projects. Though Washington is not a skyscraper city it is one of monumental high-spec buildings, very many of which are museums and memorials. It’s a city in memoriam to a long past America as if it is an ancient civilisation. America borrows, buys or, you might more positively say, salvages or earns this heritage and then pays it respectful homage in its museums. The overall effect of trawling all Washington’s museums is to feel that America believes itself to represent the descendancy of the universal civilisation, as if it is an ark or a higher ground following all the bad times, the unsettling age of diaspora. The message is: At last we can settle, build and cohabit.
This belief seems to power America’s official (if not entirely widespread) acceptance of its cultural diversity. Washington’s museums act for the nation as a kind of camera obscura reflecting the world and space beyond, its realities inverted. Because the museums are so closely set together the juxtapositions, say of the Museum of the American Indian next to the Air and Space Museum, make for some uncomfortable ironies. Each museum makes its own statement, a particular mix of pride and sorrow.
This is a city besotted with the statement that you can make with buildings. One display at the Building Museum is about the utopian plan of early Washington, which aimed with its architecture to create ‘grandeur befitting greatness’, to give proof that America was leading on the world stage. Mike Edson, the Smithsonian’s Director of Web and New Media Strategy, believes that the city’s museums don’t accept that they can more effectively realise learning and social change using the web and distributed media. He says they have to get over their love affair with bricks and mortar. I agree with him in many ways. A display about sustainable communities in the Building Museum was empty of visitors whereas some of its content was distributed in panels on Metro trains, reaching thousands of commuters every day. Any space that has been taken over from the Earth needs to be used with responsibility. The question ‘what is the most responsible thing you can do with museum space?’ is a fraught one. When the British Library was scoping what it should do with some unused land in Camden I suggested it should be a community permaculture garden with an outdoor sheltered wifi workspace. Of course I didn’t mention the idea often or loudly as it seemed mad. If you can get sponsorship for a building, which gives a public monument to the sponsors, then surely that’s the only sane course? The Library decided to build a digital access centre, as it is easier to get funding for a new building than for updating existing digital infrastructure.
We might think that the old approach which simply put stuff on display is comparatively irresponsible and that we must construct ‘rides’ or immersive narrative spaces. I’ve been on some great museum ‘rides’ and I know they’re popular. But the ride approach is expensive and difficult to get right. Often there is too much noise, too many words and you are bombarded with messages. You feel you can’t rest in a space and simply look, draw, talk and reflect. The old gallery approach can at least create more space for a variety of interpretations and activities.
On my last day, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, only 5 years old, with interpretation that is very thought-provoking and moving. I wandered into a large research centre on the top floor, with banks of PCs, a library and some education rooms. No visitors were in there. I talked to a Guatamalan woman demonstrating weaving. Then, I met Caleb Strickland, who worked at the Museum. I asked him why the centre was so empty. He said this was a problem they were trying to fix and they would have to rethink the space. The separation in this museum’s functions between immersive narrative spaces and investigative/reflective/creative space was too extreme. They need to take some of the museum into the research centre and put the web on those PCs at the very least. But, then I went down to the restaurant and realised what the radical solution could be. The restaurant was totally packed. It offers 6 stations of food from different American Indian cultures. In contrast to standard American food, this was exciting and healthy, and leading visitors to talk to each other about what they were eating. It was buzzing. Now this is where the museum was happening. What if the restaurant could be expanded, with more interpretation here about Indian cultures, with art installations, cooking demonstrations and cultural performances? And in turn, could a redevelopment of the research centre be inspired by the restaurant?
This idea was sparked by some things that Nina Simon had said in a meeting to discuss a new Learning Lab for the National Museum of Natural History, including her plans to create a cafe as a cultural venue. I’d be interested to hear about examples of museum development projects (or outdoor heritage/public art etc) which go beyond the orthodoxy of immersive narrative space without denying meaning-making. I’m thinking of spaces that make the best use of people being together in a physical building, where people can be creative, share ideas and stories together, follow their own investigations and, most importantly, develop skills and plans to take action to make a better world.
I’m sitting in a hotel bar in Washington DC, a few minutes from Capitol Hill, writing this post for Blog Action Day. The theme for this Action Day is calling on Obama to tackle climate change at Copenhagen and beyond. I was going to blog about the reason I’m over here in Washington, working for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, whose vision is ‘understanding the natural world and our place in it’. The museum is planning a fantastic new space and programme that aims to change people to take responsibility for our planet. But before writing about this I have to get something off my chest: I am really quite shocked by the unsustainable lifestyle here. I knew the facts about America’s consumption and emissions and I’ve visited twice before. I did think though, that there must have been some change in response to the climate crisis. Nope. Everyone looks blank when you mention environmental reasons for wanting less plastic, air con or paper, as if they haven’t heard the news. They pat their mouths with another paper napkin from their personal pile of napkins, rather than licking their lips, and ask if they can get you anything else, as you seem a bit dissatisfied. Because, really they are exceptionally warm and friendly people here in Washington and I’m not being sarcastic about that. This isn’t personal at all. It’s about the norms that people accept.
The food here can be relatively tasteless or crude tasting, and is always in vast portions, so that loads is wasted or causing obesity, and if it’s not hot it’s tooth-achingly chilled. It’s a society that finds it easy to complain about poor service but there are no complaints about this waste. If the Americans had heard the news they would surely feel sick and at least show signs of wanting to change. But I see hardly any messaging in advertising, news, retail and hospitality services to be more sustainable.
They can’t have heard the news, not understood its meaning or just won’t believe it. Maybe they really haven’t seen the news. It is true I’ve seen no single mention of environment in two thick Washington Posts, delivered unwanted to my hotel door, which doesn’t appear to have any environment coverage at all judging by its website navigation, even as Obama is today involved in climate summits with India & China. Climate protests in Washington, such as Power Shift in February, seem more fully covered by The Guardian than Washington papers.
The news on one level is pretty simple. It’s as simple as a tiger leaping into your face. If you saw a tiger coming at you, you would panic, run and/or die. Unfortunately we don’t see it. We kind of see it, but we interpret it as something all cuddly, frozen in time or not there at all like the tiger leaping out of a display in the Museum of Natural History. We are so used to seeing the natural world as if in a diorama, threatening but safely distant. Actually, the news is worse than one tiger coming at us. It’s us going at all the tigers, and going at many 1000s more species of animals and plants, including our fellow humans. It’s us having become a ‘force of nature’ and accellerated geologic time, as Alan Weisman describes in A World Without Us.
Bill McKibben helps make it clear with his 350 campaign. The planet has never before seen more than 300 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. We are currently at 390 parts and rising. We need to get it down to below 350 to sustain some semblance of liveability on the planet. Above 350, as McKibben says ‘you can’t have a planet’.
So, Americans, you understand the concept of choice. What do you choose? Asking for a bigger portion of steak now or a liveable planet for your own future years and your children’s? We’re not talking about your descendants, we’re talking about you. Ask everyone who has any power, whether it’s the power to stop serving individual plastic bottles of water, or the power to change the law to reduce emissions, to make the change because you demand better service.
I’ve shelled out to attend the Museums Association conference because it covers three themes in relation to museums facing a difficult future: Learning, Digital, the Environment. I think these are the only three themes that really matter so I had to go. One problem though: which theme do I choose when there are three concurrent sessions (plus lots more to catch)? I think these themes not only all matter, they are all interwoven. The problem with the ‘curation’ of the conference is that when each theme is taken separately, each is delivered in too bland and mundane a manner. In fact, the problem is with the notion of a ‘theme’. It neutralises all issues and subjects and collapses levels of abstraction. The environment, more than the other two is not a theme but an all-encompassing system, a system in crisis. Both the system and the crisis should determine everything we think and do. In this context, Learning and Digital become more than just themes, they become means of survival (or even ‘thrival’ – yes, I have seen it used). Learning is about how people use and share knowledge to develop themselves and others, and to solve problems. Digital is about how we can make Learning more efficient, open and effective for a mass audience. These three themes have not been articulated in this emergent relationship.
I welcome the fact that the Museums Association is addressing sustainability in its policy work and this conference but feel niggled by its lack of rigour in discussing sustainability. Their discussion paper provides many useful prompts and ideas. Technically, it is correct to make a distinction between economic, social and environmental sustainability, and to draw attention to the breadth of the challenge. But too much of the paper addresses the need for each museum to sustain its funding and to develop its audiences and staff. Each organisation may be sustained in the medium term, if focusing on this aspect of sustainability, but perhaps to the depletion of ecological resources overall.
One of the sessions today was about 3 major museum redevelopment projects. None of the speakers addressed the ecological context of their grand projects. As a sector, we are aesthetes. We love to play with bricks and copy each other’s shiny new edifices. We convince funders and taxpayers of the value of these new developments, but we are never asked to explain how a new building or other kind of grand project will actually mitigate and help us adapt to the global crisis we face. I realised after today that we absolutely need to address economics in our talking about sustainability, but not in terms of how each separate project can be sustained, rather in terms of how we can together develop wellbeing without material growth or expense of natural resources.