A manifesto for museum learning and engagement
Over 20 years ago David Anderson’s report, A Common Wealth: Museums in the Learning Age, was published. The report was based on extensive research and called for learning to be placed at the centre of the development of museums.
We now live in a very different world from when that report was published. Digital technologies are embedded in every aspect of our life and work. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own governments and culture is a devolved responsibility.
Now, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has sharply revealed the realities of contemporary inequality, in ways that can no longer be evaded or concealed.
It has disproportionately impacted people from the African Diaspora, those from South, East and South East Asia and those that are ethnically diverse, those who live in overcrowded accommodation or have no permanent home, and those who experience poverty and the consequential harm that poverty brings. It has widened the gap in educational opportunities for learners of all ages in our society.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have laid bare the racism that still impacts society and our museums. Museum partnerships, collections, programmes and exhibitions do not represent the diversity of society.
Those from the African Diaspora, South, East and South East Asia and those that are ethnically diverse make up under 3% of the workforce in museums and libraries – and almost all of these are in the lowest paid jobs.
The origin and spread of the coronavirus crisis is intimately connected to the way humans treat each other, but also to the way we treat the environment. The climate crisis poses a serious threat to the future of the planet and museums must play their part in protecting the precious resources that we have left.
These crises are interrelated. They make it imperative that we make a transformational change to the role of museums in society. This is a time that requires radical social innovation.
Until now, arts and culture have had only a minor role in the process of civil renewal and social change, but we should commit to them being central to the rebuilding of our societies.
This manifesto has been built on two years of research, engagement and consultation with those that work in and with museums. It provides a framework for all museums, whatever their history, scale, funding or model of governance, to reflect on their purpose and develop their practice.
Cultural rights and cultural democracy
Access to and participation in culture is a basic human right. Everyone has a right to representation and agency in museums, and communities should have the power to decide how they engage.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community”. This is based on the principle that citizens are not just consumers of cultural capital created by others; we have agency and the right to contribute through culture to the wider good of society.
The most significant function of museums is as centres for cultural democracy, where children and adults learn through practical experience that we all have cultural rights. Having the opportunity to create, and to give to others, may be one of our greatest sources of fulfilment. Culture is everywhere and is created by everyone.
Museums have a responsibility to work with their communities to overcome the challenges of poverty and exclusion and to achieve equality of outcomes.
Social justice in museums is based on the principle of the right to equality of access and participation for all. It means that the whole of the public can benefit from the collections and resources of museums and that everyone can participate and contribute equally.
Social justice means museums working with their communities to enhance health and wellbeing, create better places to live and work, and provide opportunities for debate and reflection.
Meaningful participation and volunteering can promote self-confidence and improve the life chances of participants, including overcoming social isolation and providing opportunities to develop skills and improve employability.
Museums are not neutral. Museum activism should be based on listening, acting and delivering with our communities.
Museum activism is about taking positive action to make the world a better place. Museums are part of the fabric of society and are impacted by and can have an impact on events outside their walls.
Museum activism can mean supporting campaigns that our communities care about in an open and collaborative way. This could be working on issues where museums, through their collections, interpretation and programming, can add understanding, knowledge and perspectives on issues such as anti-racism and the climate crisis.
Museums should develop innovative models of engagement which represent the cultural context of their communities and nations and that are brave and challenging. Community groups should be valued and fully engaged with all functions of the museum.
Communities are complex, multi-layered and fluid and their participation in museums is not passive or static. Participation should challenge institutions, staff, the communities we work with and our visitors.
The challenge can sit just as much with what a school group expects of its workshop, as with an exploration of the food and drink served on site with a under-represented group.
The uncertainty of the journey of community participation is a sign that it is true in its intent. Community participation has no end date, and there is always more that can be done.
Collections belong to communities and without people museums are just storage warehouses. Collections are for public use.
Collections matter to many people, and for them to be a source of understanding and empowerment, people need access to them. Museums should work with their communities to ensure that collections are empowering, relevant and dynamic.
This means adopting a proactive approach to the democratisation and decolonisation of collections; reinterpreting collections with communities; and supporting partnerships and knowledge sharing.
Museums should be transparent about the objects they hold and work with communities to understand, interpret and rationalise collections.
Research and evaluation
Museums should support people-centred research that responds to the challenges in society and leads to positive change.
Museums are a way of thinking, and these ways change over time. Research – purposeful, public-focused and meeting contemporary needs – is essential if museums are to be effective as centres for social justice and transformation.
Museum research is not undertaken only by specialists focusing on museum collections. New knowledge developed with the support of museums may be created and led by activist researchers using cultural resources in their own localities. This research and new understanding can be used by communities to achieve change in society.
Partnerships should bring communities together and be based on the principle of equity. Museums should work with a diverse range of partners and think beyond traditional partners and audiences.
Partnerships between museums and communities, and the organisations that represent them, can bring fresh perspectives and insight to all areas of museum work. Partnerships that are forged equally with communities will enable us to engage with new ideas, networks and people.
Strong partnerships can help museums to understand the issues their communities are facing, support collaborative community participation, and bring them into contact with new networks of people that can then become new audiences, volunteers and staff.
Museums need a workforce that represents their communities, is respected and rewarded equally, and delivers and supports the ambitions of this manifesto.
When people from under-represented backgrounds enter institutions, their rise to decision-making positions is often rare or short-lived because of systemic issues and unsupportive environments.
Museums must implement fair recruitment practices, create development and progression for the under-represented staff they already employ, and ensure safe spaces and support for these staff when entering the workforce and arriving in leadership roles.
A representative, creative, and supported workforce is an essential foundation for this manifesto, and is critical to achieving its goals.
This Manifesto was written by David Anderson, director-general, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Dhikshana Pering, head of engagement and skills, Somerset House and Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, after extensive consultation and engagement with museum workers throughout the UK. It has been produced in collaboration with Engage and the Group for Education in Museums, and with support from the Art Fund.