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Dr David Fleming: “What does the democratic museum look like?”

man in glasses and shirt and tie outside museum

Dr David Fleming

What follows is the last in a five part series looking at museums and democracy, this time explaining what a democratic museum should look like and where its priorities should lie.

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 5

So, what does the democratic museum look like? In its purest form the democratic museum has the following characteristics:

It attracts diverse audiences which are representative of society at large, through diverse programming which operates on many levels, including the emotional level, and these audiences have developed the social habit of using the museum regularly.

It places an emphasis on people and identity.

It has social goals and is socially responsible, because it understands that it is using public funds.

It involves the public in many ways, not solely as visitors, through consultation, advice and participation – it is integrated into the lives of its communities, it contains their voices, it is based on dialogue.

Its governance is not elitist, and is accountable to the public.

It is not afraid of controversy, debate and opinion; indeed, it welcomes these and encourages varied reactions; it may embrace political stances in a transparent manner; it may even fight for social justice.

It does not have admission charges, neither for permanent displays nor for special exhibitions, and therefore it does not have a two-tier system of access.

I could be describing the Museum of Liverpool, which opened to the public in 2011, has since been visited by almost 3 million people, and in 2012 was the most popular museum in England outside London.

We are in a city that I once described as one where “democracy has gone mad” – where opinions abound about everything. It was never an option to create anything other than a democratic museum, in this city, of this city, and to a degree by the people of this city, because they wouldn’t have allowed it – National Museums Liverpool would have been castigated in the Liverpool Echo and on Radio Merseyside. That’s true democracy.

And let’s be absolutely clear – the democratic museum, the Museum of Liverpool, is not anti-scholarship; not anti-collections; not anti-research; not anti-excellence; not anti-intellectual. In fact, the democratic museum demands scholarship, collections, research, excellence and intellectualism. We must not be deceived by people who claim that popularising museums means rejecting these things, who claim that democracy equals dumbing down, who claim that creating social value through access and inclusion is uncivilised.

I realised many years ago that no two museums are the same, and we cannot reduce the challenge of providing the museums society deserves to simplistic labels. The term ‘democratic museum’, though, is not merely a simplistic label; it refers to a museum that has a wide range of attitudes and approaches, that does not have an exclusive and narrow role.

Different types of museum can be democratic. What they will share is a belief in the entitlement of the whole of society to the benefits museums can provide, and a determination to take positive action to deliver that entitlement.

But for those people who celebrate the democratisation of British museums, and who delight in the fact that museums are becoming places that everyone can use and benefit, regardless of their background, beware, because there is a backlash under way.

Six years ago we saw the publication of the McMaster Report, commissioned by the then Labour Government. The Report argued that we ought to stop all the measurement nonsense that required cultural organisations to prove their social relevance by, for example, showing that they had an appeal to diverse audiences, and return to a culture of judgement, where “excellence” is all that counts.

This was a clear attempt to turn back the tide of broader social relevance, and promised a return to the days of our being preoccupied with comfortable inputs rather than difficult outcomes; an attempt to take the spotlight away from the needs and views of museum audiences, a spotlight some of us have fought hard for in the teeth of indifference, contempt and hostility.

What I said at the time was:

“If the report encourages reactionary and undemocratic forces to scuttle back into the shadows and lose all over again a sense of responsibility for delivering social value to the whole of the public, dressed up as delivering excellence, then the report will have done the public no favours, and government will have scored a spectacular own goal.”

I believe that this is exactly what happened and now, as everyone’s budgets are under severe pressure, what is sought from publicly-funded organisations isn’t so much evidence of social impact, as evidence of our ability to offset public expenditure, and to attract overseas tourists.

The current obsession with tourism is very alarming. It seems that providing an affordable and life-enriching cultural service to British taxpayers has become subordinate to making as much money as possible from overseas tourists. There’s nothing wrong with a policy that encourages overseas tourists, but there is something very wrong when we appear to have no other policy. This commercialisation of our culture is depressing, and it does not strike me as the intelligent policy for cultural activity that is needed if cultural organisations are to play their part in ensuring we have a healthy, well-educated society – helping promote the “national good”.

If we are to attain this we need brave, intelligent politicians who are strong enough to set social agendas that do not fall prey to the exclusivity that is part of the DNA of many cultural organisations.

I would like to end with a quote from a Scouser, which if I were being unkind I might suggest puts me in mind of the attitude of many of our great cultural organisations to the public:

 “…and you think you’re so clever and classless and free

But you’re all f******* peasants as far as I can see.”

 

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