The conversation

Iain Watson, Mary Godwin, Issue 118/02, p17, 01.02.2018
How can we ensure that local communities benefit from cultural regeneration?
Dear Mary: About 15 to 20 years ago, it seemed that cultural regeneration was about shiny buildings designed by signature architects. While these spaces are, in some cases, wonderful, sometimes they fail to relate to the collections or the community. Culture was often an instrumental tool to achieve an economic or paternalistic social output. A focus on the civic museum and the work of initiatives such as the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum programme have sought to look at the role of museums in civil society and to give communities agency, ensuring that there is a link between communities and culture.

Best wishes, Iain

Dear Iain: We mustn’t assume that cultural regeneration is seriously on the agenda in all communities, let alone that there are shiny buildings. While at a local level there is much “place-shaping” and economic regeneration, the critical role of culture at the heart of building the local economy, pride and community wellbeing is not common currency. Museum leaders can serve as an informed voice to change this, helping to catalyse new perspectives in decision-makers. All museums should consider taking a dynamic and even provocative leadership role in this, including forming partnerships with other cultural and visitor economy providers, asking what people want, and developing participatory programming that appeals to a diverse audience and makes cultural regeneration tangible.

Best wishes, Mary

Dear Mary: I like your idea of museums as community leaders or catalysts. In my area, 10 organisations have come together as Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues, and we are working on a programme, City of Dreams, to enhance the opportunities and life chances of young people. We have made a decade-long commitment to something that will be transformational for children and young people, our city and organisations. It’s not about buildings – it’s about people and supporting the attainment and aspiration of the next generation through culture.

Best wishes, Iain

Dear Iain: I agree that it’s not about buildings, although it helps to have spaces that people feel comfortable in. Just walking through the door of a glossy venue is daunting for many, and decisions about the location and design of cultural spaces need to take this into account. IntoBodmin, the group that we’ve set up to catalyse change, aims to take over the town’s former library as an activity and events space. We are putting together a diverse programme of cultural events in open spaces, churches and museums.

Best wishes, Mary

Dear Mary: Neil Mendoza proposes in his review that “museums can play a major role in their communities, both responsively and helping to shape place” and suggests that “the role culture plays in local places should be thought of as an ‘ecosystem’”. Within that regeneration ecology, perhaps museums can be a place of debate for the community about regeneration; facilitate agency for communities; bring together public, private and the third sector with communities; and celebrate intrinsic, as well as instrumental, values within the regeneration culture. Is the brilliant Ukulele Orchestra in Sunderland’s Hylton Castle Social Club not as much part of regeneration as new office blocks?

Best wishes, Iain

Dear Iain: Museums need to see themselves as critical to making successful places, and we should be confident about putting this at the heart of our work. We’re part of the matrix of great things that make communities tick and bring authentic and enriching experiences to people. Fun and occasional weirdness are essential ingredients too – something we perhaps don’t think about enough.

Best wishes, Mary

Iain Watson is the director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Mary Godwin is the director of Cornwall’s Regimental Museum, Bodmin

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