We're failing in our aim of mass participation

Nick Merriman, Issue 117/01, p14, 01.01.2017
We must stand up for the values of liberal humanism that museums embody
The turn of the year is the point to reflect on times past, and on times to come. Like many, I felt pretty gloomy at the end of a year in which politics in the UK, US and in many parts of Europe has lifted the lid on a vein of intolerance and xenophobia that we hoped had been consigned to the past.

Phrases such as “post-truth” and “false news” have accompanied a denigration of expert knowledge.

Behind this is the fact that social inequalities have increased significantly during recent administrations. Many people suffering at the sharp edge of those inequalities used the opportunity of a vote about EU membership to protest about being left behind, and, in many cases, sought to blame this on others such as immigrants, the wealthy, the educated and the political elite.

It is part of a major trend across the western world.

The strongest predictors of voting in the referendum were income, class and educational attainment, with Leavers likely to be less wealthy, from lower socio-economic groups and to have fewer qualifications. The huge challenge this presents to museum professionals is that there is a strong correspondence between Leavers and those who tend not to visit museums, as shown by repeated surveys at a local and national level.

Why does this matter? You could argue that we’ve dismantled most barriers to participation, and we can’t force people to come if they think museums are boring. However, exclusion from cultural participation is not a free choice, but is an effect of what the late French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction”: historically, culture is a way in which the higher classes distinguished themselves from lower classes. While there has been a considerable erosion of these divides, their legacy still strongly structures many people’s attitudes to places such as museums.

It matters because there is increasingly credible evidence that visiting a museum provides mental and physical health benefits. So those who suffer most from health and wellbeing disadvantages have most to gain from cultural participation: excluding them is a failure to meet our mission.

It matters because museums are among an increasingly dwindling number of institutions that still have the public’s trust. They provide a disinterested public service, mostly free of charge at the point of entry. They are safe civic spaces where people from all backgrounds can come together for enjoyment, interest, stimulation, laughter, debate, provocation and education.

We must stand up for the values of liberal humanism that museums embody; values that stress tolerance, intercultural understanding, multiple viewpoints and a recognition of complexity. It also involves owning up to the darker pasts of colonialism and exploitation.

This isn’t just rhetoric: we cannot be content with small-scale interventions that make a difference to a few people from hard-to-reach groups. Instead, we need to facilitate mass participation. As most of us are not doing this, we need to examine why this is so, and change things. There are some good models out there, which involve tackling workforce and volunteer diversity; working in partnership with other organisations that can reach groups we cannot engage; developing programmes that are of interest to wide audiences; and welcoming criticism from under-represented groups.

My whole career has been concerned with opening up museums to everyone, and I feel that good progress has been made over the past couple of decades. But it seems we have stalled in the face of the greatest challenge – to engage people from lower socio-economic groups in proportion to their numbers in the general population.

Given the social purpose of museums, our failure should be a cause for shame. If we do not make more strenuous efforts to really reach out to those who do not think museums are for them, then we are part of the problem.

Nick Merriman is the director of Manchester Museum and is a panel member for the Museums Association Conference, which will be in Manchester on 16-17 November

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