Bridget McKenzie is the director of Flow Associates

How to energise local culture campaigns

Bridget McKenzie, Issue 112/03, p17, 01.03.2012
Since the credit crunch in 2008, I’ve been involved with or observed four campaigns that aimed to save or take over threatened museums and libraries.

Even where there have been successes, I’ve seen dips in enthusiasm and cohesion. This is my take on why that happens.

When a museum depends on one fund or is controlled by one authority it is harder for staff and supporters to voice alternative options for its future.

Protest can be impossible for staff, so external advocates must lead campaigns. Outsiders may have great skills but lack grounding in the organisation’s values, histories and practices. When staff can’t communicate freely with supporters, both can feel isolated and demotivated.

Supporters step back, thinking they lack expertise or ideas. A sense of agency is lost when the authority gives no time or due process for consultation.

Threat scenarios can switch from a sudden cut decision to a long drawn out process to establish an alternative. Support groups may wait months for decisions from commissioners or funders. Energy can be depleted by being in limbo, so the numbers dwindle while people give time to new campaigns as cuts hit elsewhere.

These are conflict situations, and in these there are always winners and losers. People find the prospect of losing (or indeed winning) stressful and can react by being more antagonistic or by withdrawing.

Tensions can turn healthy debates into scraps, for example, about prioritising either material assets or cultural programmes.

It’s harder to maintain a critical mass of enthusiastic support when the organisation is (or is seen as) modest, remote, niche or ramshackle. The less kudos, the harder it is to attract the right pro bono services, celebrity advocates or private backers.
If you can attract such support, the more energised campaigners will be and the more viable any takeover proposals.

While I’m critical of the big society, mainly because I’m critical of austerity measures, I don’t think it’s all bad. The promotion of civic participation in running services and the transfer of community assets are two things that can be positive.

However, museums need time and guidance to be participatory because their role is traditionally to nurture expertise and protect vulnerable assets. And communities need time and guidance to ready themselves to save or take over community assets.

The infrastructure for a transition to a big society is not fully formed and cultural services may not be seen as priorities for big society coordinators.

Museums have to be proactive. They need to work hard at building advocates, give them a sense of ownership, help them bond and pool tactics for sustainability.

Let the advocates discover and promote the kudos of the museum and imagine ways to design better services.