Huw Lewis is the minister for housing, regeneration and heritage in the Welsh Government

Museums can help address inequality

Huw Lewis, Issue 112/03, p16, 01.03.2012
The South Wales valleys where I grew up were once famed for social and cultural institutions – such as the miners’ libraries and institutes – which nurtured in many young people a desire to learn and broaden their horizons.

While many of these positive influences have now disappeared, I believe that museums have the potential to fulfil that role for today’s young people.

As a government, we have established a legal, as well as moral, framework to combat child poverty, through our Child Poverty Strategy.

This is one of the biggest challenges we face as a nation. Our strategy includes aims to reduce inequalities in educational outcomes, and this is the area where museums can make a positive impact.

Good work is already going on, but needs to be more focused and joined up. Research from the Cultural Learning Alliance demonstrates that learning through arts and culture improves attainment in all subjects, and that participation in structured arts activities increases cognitive abilities.

Strikingly, students from low-income families taking part in art activities at schools are three times more likely to get a degree, while students who engage in the arts at school are more likely to volunteer and vote as young adults. 

Museums must be welcoming and inclusive, but we cannot simply open our doors and wait for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to visit.

We must get out there, build links through schools, and engage with young people on their own terms. Museums must be relevant, and comfortable with digital technology, without trying too hard to be “trendy”.

They must make major, long-term investments of time and commitment, and address the physical barriers to visiting museums, such as travel costs.

How can museums contribute fully to this agenda? In Wales, we are working on several fronts. Firstly, our museums strategy, the first national museum strategy in the UK, sets out a cohesive framework for development across our sector.

Within that strategy, we ask that all museums develop educational policies that consider social outcomes for young people.

Secondly, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (NMW) is playing a major role in delivery of targeted services. It has access points across Wales. Several – for example, Big Pit in the valleys, and the national slate and wool museums in north and west Wales – are located in deprived areas.

It has a proud history of providing education services and recognises the contribution it can make in targeting these services to have the maximum impact. We are keen for all our public bodies to develop child poverty strategies.

NMW is leading the way in this work, and is currently consulting on its own ambitious child poverty strategy for 2012-15.

As part of the Welsh Government commitment to digital inclusion, we are also funding People’s Collection Wales, a groundbreaking programme that allows people to contribute and share their own material and stories.

The potential to engage young people through this programme – which now has over 33,000 items uploaded and counting – is vast. 

This strategic approach will support our drive to reduce the barriers of education outcomes and cultural participation that are a blight on today’s society.

I want my contribution as minister to be to ensure that museums are a vibrant part of our mission to give a brighter future for all our children.

Huw Lewis is the minister for housing, regeneration and heritage in the Welsh Government