‘Revealed Roots, Concealed Communities’
A project in hand
Public on-line reports of the last ten years on the function of museums in society make interesting reading. They reveal a shift in priorities which in an ideal world might normally have been expected to attract additional public funding. In reality, the opposite is true. Given the state of the UK economy post-Covid and the vagaries of Brexit, the contrast in style between past and present documentation reflects a welcome improvement in messaging but fails to illustrate detailed ways in which its recommendations can best be realised in practice. The present case study seeks in a small way to fill that gap. It offers a fascinating insight into the role played by creative artists in transforming the environments in which museums and local communities can interact and, in so doing, reveals the potential for museums to modify their own institutional cultures.
The 2013 briefing by the UK’s National Museum Directors Council (NMDC) emphasises the contribution made by museums to the national economy. Pride of place is given to tourism (‘The most important part of Britain’s Tourism Offering’), visitor numbers, secondary spending, job-creation, attraction of investment from alternative sources, the centrality of major national collections to the generation of ‘soft power’ and cultural reputation seen in national terms. Inevitably, the report relies heavily on the ‘jewels in the crown’, the majority of which are located in major metropolitan centres, while referring to iconic examples which embody regional identity and heritage. It pays lip-service to small regional initiatives and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) which have achieved national prominence.
The contrast between the 2013 briefing and the latest NMDC on-line statement: ‘Museums Matter’ (2021) is striking. The executive summary of the more recent document makes no bones about the problems associated with cut-backs in funding. At the same time, it is balanced, economical and articulate in its acknowledgement of museums’ public responsibility as civic agencies:
‘Museums matter because they uniquely serve a public past, a public present, and a public yet to be born… [They] curate, acquire, conserve, engage… [Otherwise] collections and cumulative knowledge wither’Museums Matter (2021)
The summary is upbeat about the sector’s ability to confront current realities, describing museums as ‘Cultural enterprises which have adapted quickly to reductions in public funding’. It recognises nevertheless that despite the investment derived from The National Lottery, Trusts and Foundations, Private Donors and Taxation, there has been an ‘erosion of expertise since 2016 and ‘reduced investment in the built fabric’, leading to an overall reduction in the quality of visitor experience. It is refreshingly open in asserting that businesses only invest in ‘attractive and creative environments with a strong civic infrastructure’ and hence in the vital importance of ‘making a place attractive to live in’. Museums are ‘one of the few genuinely egalitarian civic spaces […]; a common treasury for all’, ones which offer ‘the opportunity to actively engage groups in their communities and ensure that their stories are documented’.
The report goes on to stress museums’ potential contribution to health and well-being: reducing levels of loneliness through collaboration with local authorities, hospitals and social care agencies, as well as the need for their closer integration into education through such imaginative interactions as object-based teaching, dramatic performance and staff exchange as part of programmes of lifelong learning. All this, combined with a review of technical innovation allowing for virtual tours, games, artworks and crafts created in collaboration with local institutions as well as linkages with associated artefacts from different environments across the world. The document concludes with a comprehensive wheel chart plotting the many ways in which museums can match their activities with the potential sources of funding available. All in all, it is a most impressive text which, unlike many of its kind, does huge credit to its authors.
If there is a drawback to the NMDC’s latest offering, it is certainly not in its articulacy format or coverage. It is simply that it has little space available to provide in-depth studies of individual experimentation. While it paints a comprehensive picture of the roles which museums should ideally play within society in general, it makes few recommendations as to how these can be promoted on the ground. Neither does it offer fresh suggestions as to how future initiatives should be funded, or, if they are, how they should best be sustained. In the current climate, both are of critical importance if the role of museums in communities is to thrive, not simply in the national context as income generators, but as creative hubs to promote cultural renewal, knowledge, understanding and a richer quality of life. The other comment which could be made is the inevitable consequence of a polemical overview. The overall message is clear: ‘Museums Matter’. The document makes its case supremely well but in covering all the bases, it is hard to differentiate adequately between the distinctive types of museum, their regional and local specificities and the particular character of the communities which they represent. Clearly museums do matter – they need to get real but how and for whom?
Which is where artists have a special role to play. Frequently employed on commission as curator-designers of exhibitions whose material contents and thematic focus have already been determined, there is now an increasing potential for them to fulfil a more inspirational function: that of redesigning the institutional structure of the museum itself, spatially, conceptually, inter-personally and in terms of the mobilisation of its human resources. The story of ‘Revealed Roots, Concealed Communities’ offers a practical insight into how this can be achieved cost-effectively. As a project, it is rich in ingredients for future development. The exciting creative idea behind Pippa Hale’s proposal to Rotherham’s Municipal Council was its originality. Why not invite the staff of the museum itself to curate their own exhibition? Instead of relying on professionally trained in-house curators, recruit front of office colleagues who would not normally be responsible for aesthetic decisions to generate ideas which correspond to their own interests as inhabitants of Rotherham. Enable citizens to speak for themselves. It would be for them to imagine new, colourful ways in which their personal interests could be represented as symbolic of local character and, in so doing, to generate more deep-seated patterns of social behaviour: in short to make a meaningful contribution to inhabitants’ cultural literacy.
How they did this – with Pippa’s help and the full support of the Council – is for them to describe: https://pippahale.com/portfolio/revealed-roots-concealed-connections/. Their account opens the door to future opportunities for sustainable collaboration between museums and local communities which this case study, in the citizen-curators’ own words, will seek to explore further.
3rd August 2021