Outreach as agent for social inclusion

Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd, Issue 11, p72-73, July 1999
Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd examine the role museums can play in tackling the symptoms and causes of social exclusion and outline the key stages in the process of becoming more inclusive
The term 'socially excluded' is most often used to describe people who suffer extreme disadvantage and deprivation, but can also encompass many more people who are excluded in some way from mainstream society.

Outreach is just one way in which museums can begin to tackle social exclusion and build relationships with groups and individuals marginalised from society. But it is also important for museums to recognise that the responsibility for promoting social inclusion cannot neatly be allocated to individual roles and duties - all museum staff have a part to play. To be effective, outreach work must be undertaken within a broader context of a commitment by museums to develop their social role and try to become more inclusive in all their areas of activity.

The potential of outreach

Outreach has generally been used as a means of providing access to museum services for those groups who, for many reasons, have been unwilling or unable to visit museums or take part in their activities. Tackling social exclusion presents museums with a challenge which requires a different approach to thinking about the role of outreach, an area of work with little accumulated knowledge or established procedures on which to draw.

The potential of outreach can therefore be considered in two main ways - as a means of:

Removing the barriers to access which deter from visiting museums; or

Tackling the social problems experienced by socially excluded groups - a more contentious approach which can involve museums in multi-agency solutions to tackling aspects such as poor health, crime, homelessness and unemployment.

A framework for outreach

In considering outreach as a method for promoting social inclusion, museums must be clear about the objectives behind their initiatives. There is a temptation to initiate what seem to be worthy projects without considering them in a wider context. Rather than arbitrarily deciding on a target group, museums should consider carefully:

The overall purpose of their outreach programme

What they are trying to achieve

Which socially excluded groups it might it be appropriate to work with

The particular needs of the communities involved and how they might be met.

Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, for example, decided to focus the resources of its museum service on young people. It had already established that the borough's population included a high proportion of young people. This information provided the wider context and rationale for targeting this group.

Similarly, Nottingham City Museums' outreach programme is informed by the city council's anti-poverty strategy - based on findings from detailed research - which has highlighted those communities most at risk from deprivation (see Case study, Nottingham City Museums).

The need for such strategies is not confined to museums in urban areas. Museums in rural areas, for example, might consider what an outreach programme could offer older people living in isolated communities and how it might complement services for older people provided by other agencies in the public or voluntary sectors.

Working in partnership

Museums should not always expect to be able to build relationships with socially excluded groups, or make an impact on the social or other problems they face, on their own. They may need to look for resources and support from the communities themselves and by forming partnerships with agencies which have first-hand experience of working with the particular target groups. In looking for partners, museums must consider:

The type of groups or organisations it might be appropriate for them to work with

The objectives which are likely to be common to themselves and other partners.

Joining partnerships to tackle social exclusion will mean working with non-museum organisations involved in the practicalities of implementing social policy. Museums which have built up experience of working in partnership may benefit from setting up stakeholder groups to provide a forum for the partners to agree and steer the direction of outreach projects.

Although representatives from the museum, the target group and the various agencies which work with them on a daily basis may have different interests - or stakes - in a project, these need not be mutually exclusive. However, museums may have to accept - particularly in the early stages of projects - that their interests may be considered a low priority by other stakeholders.

The best policy is to be flexible about the outcomes of projects, and willing to work constructively with other partners, rather than expect to set the agenda from the start.

Sometimes, the composition of stakeholders' groups for outreach projects may change over time. It may not be possible, for example, for representatives of the target groups to attend stakeholder meetings at the start of projects, particularly if participants have little or no experience of museums or lack confidence to voice opinions in public.

Initially, their interests might be represented by people from other agencies working with them. For example, at stakeholders' meetings for Nottingham Museums' project with disaffected youth and school refusers, the young people are currently represented by staff from social services and other agencies, with the intention that, in time, the clients themselves will have more direct input into the development of the project.

Resources

Although working in partnership can give museums access to additional resources - skills, experience as well as financial support - outreach is a specialised area of work which may also require staff within the museum with specific skills, qualities and experience, including:

A genuine empathy with the communities with which they are working. This provides the starting point for staff to develop an understanding of concepts such as equality and inclusion as projects progress

The ability (and authority) to take risks or experiment, and be prepared to fail and learn from mistakes

Recognition that effective outreach may require a long-term commitment. Adopting a tick-list approach to working on one-off projects with different socially excluded groups can raise participants' expectations in the short term, but leave them and the museum with no means of sustaining their relationship or building on achievements when projects come to an end. Resources dictate that they must have an end date, but the aim should be for projects - or elements of them - to become self-sustaining, with opportunities for the original participants to continue to be involved with the museum.

Outcomes

Little research has been conducted into the impact of outreach as an agent for social inclusion. Evaluation of individual outreach projects tends to be based on qualitative rather than quantitative methods, and most museums are wisely cautious about the extent of benefits to themselves or groups they work with.

However, it is important that museums build evaluation into projects to obtain results which they can use to inform future work. Tangible evidence of any benefits for the communities and participants involved is also necessary as part of the process of justifying public, political and - sometimes - financial support for outreach work by demonstrating its value to the community.

If museums use the results to inform other areas of their work - including their approach to acquisitions and the display and interpretation of collections - outreach can also be of benefit to all visitors.

Richard Sandell is lecturer at the Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester; Jocelyn Dodd is Acting Service Manager, Nottingham City Museums. Richard Sandell is organising an international conference on museums and social exclusion to be held in March 2000.

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