Back in April I wrote a post about the Ofcom report which criticised museums’ web offerings. Its commissioner, Tom Loosemore, later spoke at the UK Museums and the Web conference saying that museums should follow the lead of Tate and see themselves much more as media organisations.
(Whenever I write about museums, this is shorthand for museums, galleries, archives and heritage libraries.)
Ross Dawson, an Australian commentator, said in a piece on the future of museums that “it struck me that museums are basically media organizations, providing and editing (i.e. curating) content”. Someone from a media background may not be very affected by being struck this way, but the ‘striking’ does affect museums and archives because they have so resolutely defined themselves as organisations for collecting, caring about and understanding objects. Public programming revolves around and emerges from the collections and research about them, and themes are often chosen in order to raise profile and further funds for that work. So, it’s a semi-shift and therefore there is tension. (Incidentally, I’ve noted a change in the use of the term ‘curating’ along with this semi-shift: From meaning ‘caring for collections’ to ‘programming interpretation’. Notice Dawson’s use of the term.) Even if we need to rethink the entire politics of collecting in such a way that we are almost ‘uncollecting’ (unlocking our stores, randomising or changing taxonomies, returning collections to original ownership etc) we still have duties of care for these objects and our traditional tasks and practices remain the most practical.
In response to Dawson, Angelina Russo says the notion of museum as media organisation has been with us a long time but that she despairs of museums considering the role of technology as central to museum communication. I agree with her that: “The museum sector would do well to move away from a sense of its own importance to demonstrating the true value it can bring to lives. As cultural networks proliferate, the museum is ideally placed to lead discussion and debate, to create participatory media and develop the role of the active cultural participant.”
Seb Chan (who I am kicking myself not to be meeting today as he is leading a seminar in London) also deals with the museum as media organisation here. He implies that this does not mean museums learning the ways of the old media, rather that because of blurring definitions between types of media and types of cultural collection, both media and cultural collections organisations need to develop new skills. In particular, he points to skills in facilitating interpretation not just within your own channels or sites but out there where people are congregating.
Looked at one way, it is easy to agree with all this. Yes, we should be engaging and communicating as widely and innovatively as possible. But there is something too that rankles about being told to become a media organisation (apart from the ‘being told’ bit).
Partly, it’s about resources. Mal Booth’s long comment in response to Seb on Museum 3.0 makes this pretty clear. He says “we can never really hope to compete with the huge media empires, it simply isn’t feasible. We are not Newscorp, Disneyland, Nickelodeon or Fairfax. They might be useful models for us to mimic on a much smaller scale, but we don’t have a stack of journalists sitting around waiting to engage in online conversations. Nor do we have the media expertise and savvy of the BBC or the ABC. In reality, most museums are pretty stretched just developing and caring for their collections, researching and describing them adequately, providing access to them and curating exhibitions that might interest the public.”
Partly, it’s about our perceptions of what ‘media’ means. Museum discourses revolve around the twin poles of ‘collections’ and ‘education’. The two have become more connected in many organisations but even they remain twins. Museum education has expanded its range to include outreach, audience development, participation, exhibition interpretation, access and creative projects, more often defined as ‘learning’. The distinction of museum learning is that it involves conversations and engagement between real people in real places, not lecturing or pushing out knowledge. Our experience of the media, traditionally, is that it involves lecturing or pushing out knowledge. Of course, this is changing with the internet but on the whole, ‘media’ still connotes to us a certain distance between content provider and audience. Perhaps museum learning professionals have a great deal to teach ‘the media’ about dialogic engagement, as we become the media or become more like the media.
Partly, it’s about the cultures in which we operate. We could form vast consortia of cultural collections in order to pool resources and collaborate to create media channels. But, cultural organisations have been primarily intent on establishing their unique brands, engaging with their specific localities and specialist communities and developing their buildings to improve the visit experience. Modernisation has meant learning how to be competitive.
However, there are signs that this is changing in the UK. The National Collections Online Feasibility Study that we have just undertaken for national museums and Culture 24, and the forthcoming digital strategy for the MLA sector, are both asking: What will happen if we collaborate? How can we reach more audiences more efficiently by sharing and repurposing our infrastructure? How can under-resourced organisations become curators of media, and increase resources for their collections work too, by co-creating and sharing those media channels? The digital strategy is aiming to support these developments through guidance and working alongside collaborative initiatives.
The Guardian (and perhaps other press?) has been jumping up and down about the ‘banning’ of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Education for Leisure’ from the GCSE English syllabus. It has run at least 6 articles on the topic. Why such a fuss? It is symptomatic of a culture of prohibition, which does seem to be coming upon us, perhaps creeping across from the US where in some states so many books are being banned from schools that it wouldn’t be a surprise if they decided to shut those darned dangerous libraries altogether. For evidence of this mindset look at the list of books, including Shakespeare, that Sarah Palin wanted to ban and forced a librarian to resign over it.
It also raises important questions about the role of art in education. Should art be made or used with the purpose of enabling exploration of sensitive issues? Is it true that if the poem is taught there would be less knife crime? Does this reduce, or on the other hand elevate, the role of literature?
The Duffy story developed such a profile it ended up with a front page article with a poem by Duffy in response to the saga. The article just sneaked in the fact that AQA has said that schools were not being urged to pulp the anthology: “This is not about destroying books. They are allowed to continue teaching the poem, if they wish, but they are not going to be examined on it,” it said.
So, it’s not a ban but a removal from the official syllabus. It’s quite hard to know what this means in reality. On the one hand, given what we know about the pressures on teachers, it’s clear that pupils during the exam years are not going to explore texts in any depth which aren’t on the syllabus. On the other hand, the changes in the National Curriculum would seem to be overtly encouraging teachers to make their own choices about curriculum content, to mix non-canonical material with requisite material, and to enable students to follow their own enquiries too. Ofsted really do want teachers to be less wedded to delivering curriculum content and more engaged with finding the best methods to support students to follow their own enquiries.
I’m not sure how much freedom there will be in English GCSE (let’s assume not very much) but it does seem that there will be a very great change at A Level. This article about the changes in the National Curriculum and 14-19 assessment says “Teachers of English Literature A-level will be free to choose any texts they like for pupils, which could include those recommended by breakfast TV couple Richard and Judy, the exam board OCR said.”
This looks positive but it does raise two concerns: One is that many teachers must be worried about how their choices will relate to their exam results. Will they blamed if they made the wrong text choices and their students don’t do so well? Teachers already feel too much responsibility for their students’ results.
The other is that we can’t assume that these freedoms issued from the QCA and exam boards will necessarily mean a wider range of texts, topics and viewpoints being taught. I’m thinking specifically of the increase of faith schools and the freedoms accorded to the sponsors of new Academies to influence the ethos of their schools.