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Not everyone wants culture in reverential silence

23 June 2014 by David Fleming

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What follows is the fourth of a five part series looking at museums and democracy, this time explaining how museums failed to respond effectively to the rise of the working classes. The series is from the text of a lecture I gave in May 2014 at Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital research symposium entitled ‘The Arts, Them and Us: creating a more equitable system for subsidised culture’.

Part 4

In a country where four million children are living in poverty, in families which struggle to afford basic things like healthy food, school uniforms and shoes, in families which don’t have books or computers, or the £10, £12 or £15 for admission to a museum exhibition; where in some areas more than 30% of children have parents who are unemployed and claiming benefits; where a child in a northern city will live several years less than a child in a wealthy London suburb, it is a gross misrepresentation to claim that we do not have a host of social issues to resolve which are based on inequality and class differences.

Ultimately, we simply cannot ignore the failure of museums to respond effectively to the rise of the working classes during the 20th century. This failure has left us struggling as an entire sector to demonstrate our widespread social relevance. This failure has led to our being viewed by society at large as elitist, and quite justly.

I don’t intend to labour the point about the success of 20th century museums in attracting the middle classes and virtually no-one else. There is plenty of evidence.

I contend that this neglect of a large proportion of the population was a result of a failure by the museum establishment to accept any responsibility for providing social value to working class people. The idea of providing value to the whole of the public in return for public funding just does not seem to have been in the museum psyche.

In failing in this way museums fell off the pace of social reform and transformation during the 20th century. It was not until the past three decades that we have seen museums begin to shape up in this respect, as changes in the museum workforce began to impact on attitudes, thus paving the way for a flowering of the democratic museum.

Nonetheless, there still are apologists for the narrow appeal of museums.

What we see time and again is a conflation of the idea of a popular museum, one that has a broad social appeal, with that of the ruination of something that needs to be cherished. Art critics are particularly partial to this tactic, and the volume of bluster brought on by popular exhibitions often reaches deafening proportions. Someone is being betrayed. I’m never sure who it is, but it’s probably people who would rather museums were empty, or at least devoid of people from the toiling classes.

A good example of this is:  “…a museum is supposed to be a space for contemplation, not throngs”. Who said so? Actually the Chief Art Critic of The Times (The Times, 2 July 2008), though I am unclear exactly what authority she thought she had for claiming this on behalf of the public at large who provide the funding for our public museums.

I find it interesting that when critics attack popular exhibitions, they usually begin by railing against what they see as the vacuous content, then give the real game away, in the blink of an eye, by castigating the audiences the exhibitions attract.

I give merely my favourite example, which is 17 years old, but I promise that these sentiments prosper to this day: after we opened the Art on Tyneside display at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, I still recall the venom hurled at the display by art critics, one of whom wrote the following, which I never tire of quoting:

“It was clear from comments in the visitors’ book that, with some sectors of the public, Art on Tyneside has been popular. I suppose one must accept this. If some visitors are so unimaginative that they need half-baked gimmicks to make history come alive, then by all means let them have them. But not in an art museum…

“It is the policy of the Laing to make art more accessible to the people” reads a large notice at the entrance to the museum…Yes, but accessible to which people? Not, certainly, to those who are interested in fine art.”

The lack of interest in or understanding of the audiences for exhibitions like these, and the contempt shown for these audiences, could be dismissed as laughable eccentricity or journalistic hyperbole, but it makes me very angry.

Every Sunday I receive a colour supplement, the arts review pages of which are full of pretentious, insider claptrap about highbrow culture. This is the sneering voice of a spoiled and privileged elite, which is unwilling to countenance the idea that not everyone has had the benefit of their upbringing and education, not everyone shares their tastes, not everyone wants to enjoy their culture in an atmosphere of reverential silence, surrounded by no-one other than snobby art critics.

A few years ago, in an obscure paper entitled Positioning the museum for social inclusion, I tried to get to grips with what I saw as a knowing and deliberate approach to keep museums exclusive. I described this approach as the Great Museum Conspiracy.

I considered four factors: who has run museums, what they contain, the way they have been run, and for whom. I saw at the heart of the Great Museum Conspiracy a power system which during the 20th century, ignored and therefore betrayed working class people, and betrayed the concept of the democratic museum.

 I still see this power system in play, though I do believe that we are shifting into the era of the democratic museum through the combination of factors I considered in that paper.

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