Class consciousness in the museum

The Class Sketch, first broadcast in April 1966, is remembered as representing a period when British class definitions and identities …
Rhian Harris
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

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