Rhian Harris is the director of the V&A Museum of Childhood, London

Class consciousness in the museum

Rhian Harris, Issue 113/01, p19, 02.01.2013
The Class Sketch, first broadcast in April 1966, is remembered as representing a period when British class definitions and identities were more certain than today.

Upper class John Cleese looks down on middle class Ronnie Barker, who looks down on working class Ronnie Corbett, who simply “knew his place”.

It’s easy to forget that the second half of the sketch, reflecting the economic and social changes of the mid-1960s, played with the shifting relationship between the upper and middle classes. But through it all, flat-capped Ronnie Corbett “knew his place”.

Class in Britain is complex and contested, fluid, and yet, ever-present; consider the widespread scepticism about the government’s claim that “we’re all in this together”, when it comes to today’s austerity. Perhaps the one remaining certainty is the unchanging position of the working class.

How, then, should museums, often considered to be bastions of the establishment and cultural elite, engage with and develop working class audiences? A museum’s mission statement and leadership should establish inclusion and accessibility as priorities.

These should permeate the organisation, underpinning the development of galleries, exhibitions, learning and outreach, and communication.

Recruitment, too, should reflect these values. Programming should be inclusive. A wide range of relevant material from across the social spectrum should be exhibited.

The use of personal stories adds resonance, drama and accessibility. Cultural or seasonal festivals provide a context for engaging an emerging or target audience. Language and interpretation should be layered, offering a variety of levels and points of access.

Collections should be representative. It is often elite culture that survives or is valued but the high street has its place in museums alongside haute couture, the commonplace alongside the exceptional. Museums should demonstrate commitment to the communities they serve.

Collaborative, equitable partnerships with health and social services, community and youth organisations, educational institutions and the voluntary sector are crucial in determining need and accessing audiences.

Co-curatorship, robust volunteer schemes and association with transformational local or national events, from local regeneration schemes to the recent Olympics, all generate a sense of shared ownership and identification.

Finally, practical issues. Make museums welcoming and accessible. Bear cost in mind, whether transport, entrance or refreshments. Ensure a good provision for families.

Museums should represent a broad, deep and inclusive culture, not because it is politically correct but because it reflects the complexity of shared history. When it comes to museums, it should truly be the case that “we’re all in this together”.

Rhian Harris is the director of the V&A Museum of Childhood, London


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
MA Member
21.01.2013, 10:01
It's always a good idea to remember visitors aren't made in our image - we're not creating and running museums for us and people like us; we're creating and running them for lots of people.I didn't much like this article; it reminded me far too much of being at a GEM conference years ago when a delegate stood up and said they had no idea how to talk to working class people because, like everyone else there, he wasn't working class. I on the other hand find it easy to talk to working class people - I refer to the ones I know as "family". I can't be the only person in this sector from a working class family? Class is no longer as simple as working, middle and upper. There is far more mobility and far more complexities; I'm not even sure you can still define people in the way society used to. Class isn't just about how many qualifications you have, how much money you have or what you sound like. Don't values and ideologies have a large part to play?
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
09.01.2013, 22:09
Rhian, there is plenty of food for thought in your comment piece. However, i don't think the sentence "Perhaps the one remaining certainty is the unchanging position of the working class" stands much examination.Even back in 1966, the idea that British society was divided into three classes was a generalisation albeit one people recognised, and since then society has become far more complicated. Council house sales, de-industrialization, the end of full employment, the opening up of higher education, immigration, changes in the position of women in society, the weakening position of Trade Unions, de-skilling of the working class, new technology, have all combined to transform this country and they have probably transformed the experiences of the majority far more than those of the elite. Not that i know how the latter exactly live!! As for bastions of the establishment, i don't wish to intrude into the private hang-ups of the V