Increasing cultural capital

Maurice Davies, 29.10.2013
Museums need to do more to engage with poorest in society
A few weeks ago I looked at the data on museum visiting in England and observed that the biggest predictor of museum visiting is how rich people are: people in higher socio-economic groups are about one and a half times as likely to have visited a museum in the past year than people in lower socio-economic groups.

Now a new analysis of data from Northern Ireland shows a remarkably similar pattern.

Northern Irish adults living in the 20% least deprived areas were more likely to have been to a museum in their lifetime (92%) and also more likely to have been to a museum or science centre within the previous year (61%) compared to those in the 20% most deprived areas, where 42% visited a museum in the past year - and 78% have visited at least once in their life.

That’s a pretty awful statistic – almost a quarter of Northern Ireland’s poorer adults have never visited a museum, compared to under a tenth of richer people.

Poverty and museums are more connected than we like to think.

The connections go beyond propensity to visit. A museum that fails to engage with significant parts of society is directly contributing to social exclusion. The people concerned might freely choose not to go, but the museum is still reinforcing divisions in society.

And, if the museum is an important, prestigious place, either locally or nationally, then being excluded can make a real difference to how people feel about their place in society.

In a small way, that can make people less likely to thrive and so more likely to be in poverty later in life. Of course, it’s not museums alone that are responsible for poverty. Far from it; but museums cannot avoid the fact they are one of many factors.

We love to cite examples of the worthwhile pleasure and learning people get from engaging with museums and how people’s lives have been changed by museums. And we regularly assert that going to a museum helps people feel part of a community.

If that’s all true (which it may well be), it stands to reason that people who don’t have those museum experiences will be worse off.

In theory around cultural capital, generally, the higher people’s cultural capital, the better they will do in life.

So it’s great that the Welsh Government has commissioned a report to advise on how cultural and heritage bodies can help reduce poverty.

In our response, the Museums Association argues that engaging with people at risk of poverty is critical.

“Museums can… address some of the disadvantages, such as social and cultural exclusion and low levels of learning, that might lead to poverty.”

We continue: “Increasing the opportunities, aspirations and social and cultural capital of children is probably the way in which museums and cultural organisations can best contribute to reducing poverty.”

As evidenced in our campaign, museums can change lives. By engaging well with poorer children, museums can help break the cycle that passes poverty on, through generations of a family.

If museums fail to do that, they will be one of the causes of poverty continuing from the past into the future. And that’s a type of preservation we shouldn’t be associated with.