The conversation

How should museums respond to the unchanging participation gap?
Mark Taylor
Dear Mark Robinson: Maybe museums shouldn’t do anything about the participation gap. The concern about it often suggests what social scientists call a “deficit model”. This assumes that museums are an unquestionably good thing, and if less-well-off people don’t go, it’s because they don’t understand how good they are. But attempts to convince non-regular museum-goers of this haven’t worked. Maybe, instead, museums should recognise that people who don’t go to museums don’t have empty lives that can only be fulfilled by seeing the Elgin Marbles. Best wishes, Mark Taylor

Dear Mark Taylor: I agree with almost everything you say, but I don’t think museums should do nothing. Stopping the self-flagellation while recognising that some people’s museum-less lives have all kinds of abundance in them could, though, be a way forward. If participation levels are already a kind of co-creation between museums and people’s upbringing, parents or teachers, as I think some research suggests, should we stop assessing how supply stokes demand and ensure museums are open to, and working on, relationships of genuine relevance? Or as my local museum director, Alistair Hudson at Mima, might put it: just be useful. Best wishes, Mark Robinson

Dear Mark R: That’s a start, but I want something more specific; we’ve heard a lot
of similar noises from the sector, yet the participation gap persists. One thing about the participation gap is that the fraction of people from what the Department for Culture, Media and Sport describes as “lower socio-economic groups” going to museums has increased – from 28% in 2005-06 to 37% in 2015-16. This is surely a win.
An alternative route to closing the participation gap is to discourage better-off people from going; it would have halved in size if participation from the better-off group had remained stable. Is any museum willing to do that? Best wishes, Mark T

Dear Mark T: I know of none aiming for that particular pyrrhic victory, although inclusive approaches may deter folk who don’t like sharing places. Glass-half-empty thinking feels so deep-rooted in how this gets discussed. Why wasn’t the impressive increase you mention in the headlines? Some museums are swapping VIP private views for public opening nights – small and symbolic maybe, but a sign of eschewing targeting those deemed “needy” for whatever reason or “needed” because they are more likely to donate. Addressing local issues often seems to work, too. But maybe good practice serves only to sidestep what the stats tell us. Best wishes, Mark R

Dear Mark R: Attempts to close the participation gap tend to be expensive and unsuccessful, at least in the long term. The classic example is free entry to national museums, which, regardless of what Tessa Jowell says, has made no difference to museum visitors’ diversity. Public opening nights sound lovely, and I believe museum directors and professionals are committed to diversity, but I’d be astonished if this sort of initiative changed who is in museums. Best wishes, Mark T

Dear Mark T: Free entry wouldn’t be my first step to diversify visitors – something reinforced by Association of Independent Museums research on charging. I’m vice-chair of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, which has always charged for entry. I’d like it to be cheaper, but don’t lose sleep over it. Museums may always reflect “gaps” running through society like words in sticks of rock. How could they not? But let’s not give up – continued effort is worthwhile because it’s the right thing to do, not because success is guaranteed. Museums may continue to “fail”, but will, as Samuel Beckett put it, “fail better”. Best wishes, Mark R

Mark Taylor (pictured left) is a lecturer in quantitative research methods at the University of Sheffield

Mark Robinson (pictured right), a former executive director of Arts Council England, North East, is the founder of arts consultancy Thinking Practice

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