Sara Selwood (L): Paddy Gilmore (R)

The conversation

Sara Selwood; Paddy Gilmore, Issue 113/12, p16, 02.12.2013
What can we do to get impoverished communities into museums?
Dear Sara:

We need to understand and appreciate the priorities of people living in such communities, and recognise that while many face economic poverty, there is no poverty of aspiration.

We need to establish relationships and develop partnerships at a community level, so that we can identify and manage expectations, and nurture aspirations. Museum collections offer myriad opportunities for captivating people’s imaginations, regardless of their social or economic circumstances, but we should always question our programming’s relevance to the widest possible audiences.

Paddy

Dear Paddy:

Frankly, it comes down to practical issues. At a time of declining resources, how can museums – especially those with no track record or proven success in the field – address this? We are not talking about outreach, which is expensive and, arguably, divisive.

If free admission isn’t getting impoverished communities into museums, what will? A change of programming? Museums thinking about inequality? Focused investment in marketing and mediated visits? What are museums prepared to give up to achieve this?
 
Sara

Dear Sara:

There are many organisations working at a local level that are better placed to understand the needs of communities, so let’s work with and through them – that’s not outreach. If the only barrier was cost, we wouldn’t have an issue. Traditional consumer marketing is of limited value.

Programming is undoubtedly a key part of the solution and we have seen a great response to exhibitions with programming that reflected community interest. Why do you need to give anything up to achieve that?

Paddy

Dear Paddy:

Moving museums’ mindsets is fundamental. The will to do something costs nothing, but changing how you work inevitably does, somewhere down the line. The sector still has a long way to go to get past project level: some respondents to the Museums Association’s 2020 consultation were satisfied that museums make a difference merely by “existing”.

Northern Ireland’s very particular circumstances have created a greater awareness of “impoverished communities” (however defined). How durable and transferable have your experiences of working with them been?

Sara

Dear Sara:

I agree that a shift in museums’ mind-sets is necessary. This will require an acceptance that quantity and quality are part of the metric. The trade-off for me is around numbers. A strong focus on instilling awareness of entitlement and a sense of belonging is now starting to pay off.

Every community is different, but a constant seems to be that considerable support and resource are required at the outset if people are going to feel confident enough to use museums independently.

Paddy

Dear Paddy:

There is still massive poverty of aspiration. Overturning that would change everything. You say entitlement needs addressing and museums need support at the outset. So, extra resources are necessary. Translating public service ethos into reality requires commitment.

Ethically, museums should hold themselves to account. Fulfilling promises will help museums sustain public trust. If abolishing impoverishment and nurturing aspiration are core functions, will museums have to contemplate dispensing with certain staff in order to achieve their goals? Or is changing the status quo too radical?

Sara

Paddy Gilmore is the director of learning and partnerships, National Museums Northern Ireland; Sara Selwood is a partner at Pomegranate consultants and an honorary professor at University College London

Comments

Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
Anonymous
MA Member
11.12.2013, 16:21
The museum I work for is dispensing with staff regularly, to the extent that there are now far too few of us to deliver the high aspirations we have in every area. A core group of exhausted and demoralised staff on mainly part-time contracts are trying to pretend they can cope and make out that museums can still do all the things they want to do and are expected to do. The latter list grows with every new hoop we have to jump through to acquire funding, and the staff just keeps on shrinking. I think most museums try very hard to address the needs of all the communities they serve, in practice we just have less and less to do it with.