Child poverty is a significant problem. Before the pandemic, there were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK. That is 30% of children – nine in a class of 30. In many areas, it is not uncommon for 40% of children to be living in poverty.
But we can’t understand the realities of poverty without asking questions of power, place and justice. For poverty is different in Newcastle than in Southend, and in Walsall than in the Rhondda. It’s different for disabled people, when living in a rural community or in a one-parent family. Poverty is not a one-size-fits-all experience.
Living in poverty impacts on and shapes many aspects of life, but in particular, it informs school relationships, examination results, future job opportunities, physical and mental health, and broader social, economic and democratic engagement. It’s fair to say that, for most reading this article, the significance of poverty in relation to museums and the broader cultural sector doesn’t need much explanation, yet in reality (and based on our research), the very principles driving the museum sector’s response are, perhaps, part of the problem.
Over the past 25 years – through political rhetoric, policy practices and papers relating to inclusion, discrimination and diversity – the sector has been co-opted and funded as an integral “partner” in the drive to deliver social mobility and responsibility. Essentially, museums have been positioned as part of the social mobility cabal that focus on opportunities for “earning” and “learning”, and cultural advancement as a route out of poverty. This bleaches out deep structural inequalities that form and maintain poverty, turning a blind eye to the realities of living in poverty in the now.
It’s a simplistic understanding of poverty that offers a glossy future and two spoons of cultural capital as the panacea. This cure, generally focused on programmes and interventions, offers no evidence that the museum sector is faring better than schools in delivering on social mobility. On an emotional level, this approach often leads to an uncomfortable dissonance in experience, as there is a gap between what we are told works and what we witness, regarding the realities of those living in poverty.
So, what can museums do differently? The University of Manchester has been trying to disrupt this social mobility, one-size-fits-all model of responding to poverty through the research programme Local Matters, which seeks to address poverty knowledge gaps in schools. These gaps cannot be compensated for by interventions and opportunities, but rather through embedded local research.
This approach works with school staff to investigate and critically explore what we know about poverty in terms of national data and policy. It also trains participants in social research methods, while exploring the local poverty context. We apply these research skills and knowledge, through action research, to make changes to institutional practice and policy. Essentially, we train educators to be locally embedded social justice researchers, who develop a more sophisticated understanding of child poverty in their own context. Rather than “fixing” the local community through activities and interventions, participants try to co-create transformational approaches.
We have recently adapted the Local Matters programme to work with staff at Manchester Museum. This has involved a deep interrogation of the discourses that drive articulations of poverty across the museum sector, particularly the social mobility myth, and a critical analysis of current responses. It has demanded that staff consider poverty knowledge gaps in their own context and look both inward as well as outward, as poverty is within the museum and not just “out there”.
We are asking challenging questions about volunteer pay and practices, as well as historical models of community engagement. As part of this process, we are collaboratively creating a Staff Attitudes to Poverty survey. By adopting a research-driven approach, we hope that staff can start to reimagine the thinking and doing of museum work, so that policy and practice are built on locally contextualised, locally owned responses to poverty that empower, rather than commodify.
The Local Matters research programme, which seeks to address poverty knowledge gaps in schools, has been adapted for Manchester Museum staff