What are rural museums anyway?

Cornwall is categorised as a rural region.

Cornwall is categorised as a rural region.

On 13 June #museumhour debated rural museums, or museums in rural regions. It didn’t take long for the farm jokes to start. The debate was guest-hosted by Cornwall Museums Partnership and Highland Museums Partnership and mainly involved questions about the challenges of working in museums in rural places and the benefits they provide to their communities.

We were also reminded that rural museums also exist in cities (lots of contributions from Museum of English Rural Life in Reading), bringing the whole urban v rural debate a new dimension.

It still bothers me as to what different people mean when they talk about rural museums and what kinds of preconceptions exist about them amongst policy makers, pundits and practitioners when they discuss rurality.

Cornwall is categorised as a rural region and certainly there aren’t the big cities that exist elsewhere and its undeveloped transport system means it definitely feels like it is rural and remote here but there are still a surprising number of towns here with their own urban communities and heritage–some of which are served by their civic museums.

I’d like to explore this more, especially in the context of what civic museums are.

You can read some of the debate on Storify but, as ever, a number of side discussions and points were made that are worthwhile recording too so the ideas can be shared and debated further. It was particularly good to get contributions from Australia and the USA.

Here is a list of thoughts made by me and a couple of others in the debate:

  1. Working in a rural context seems to be 10x harder.
  2. There’s growing discussion of ‪civic museums amongst policy makers but rarely defined. What about civicness in ‪rural regions?
  3. There are hundreds of towns and urban centres in ‪rural regions. Countryside and rurality are relative.
  4. In US, many, many museums are ‪rural museums, in location, coll, or both. Represent important record of life in those areas (Tracey Berg-Fulton, USA).
  5. Largest no. of Accredited museums in UK run by ‪@nationaltrust in mainly ‪rural areas? ‪
  6. I think voices from museums in ‪#rural regions esp in big debates such as ‪diversity tend to be forgotten.
  7. Many cope on budgets that would be laughed at elsewhere, doing great stuff ‪(Mary O Toole).
  8. They are, alas, often the most vulnerable (funding, staffing, facilities). The loss of rural museums =devastating loss of memory ‪(Tracey Berg-Fulton, USA).
  9. Does quality more than quantity of engagement matter more for ‘small’ museums in ‪rural places? ‪
  10. It’s so important to challenge the assumptions inherent in categorisation. ‪
  11. What does everyone think about the idea that museums need to reflect national ‪diversity in some cases rather than regional? From report on ‪diversity in museum workforce esp in specialist roles.
  12. Huge retired population here [Cornwall] so no shortage of people with skills and interest. 37% of pop volunteer (not just museums).
  13. Retired population certainly helps, volunteers who join enjoy it immensely as its counteracts rural isolation (Helston Museum).
  14. Some bonza Aussie rural museums: QANTAS Founders Museum @qfom, Stockmans Hall of Fame @ASHOFAustralia, Carnamah Museum @carnamah (Heritage People, Hobart).
  15. Also problem of categorisation – such as what to do with industrial structures in rural areas (Dr. James Lattin).
  16. Ought to bring ‪coastal perspectives into a future ‪#museumhour debate on regional differences.
  17. Being connected online is a massive antidote to isolation often encountered working in ‪rural regions.

Please join in! Leave a comment and remember you can join #museumhour any time by following the hashtag.

Museums Association visits Cornwall

On 12 May the Museums Association visited Cornwall for the annual Members Meeting in the South West. I’d like to extend my appreciation to MA colleagues for making the long journey from London but also emphasise the importance of such visits to show it is a fully inclusive and diverse-led organisation that is interested in views from everywhere.

Big debates and discussions in the museum sector tend to happen in big cities. It’s good for them to happen in large rural regions like Cornwall too. Cornwall and the South West suffer from a lack of representation and voice in national organisations and perhaps we are not good at sharing our great work and good practice outside our local areas.

As MA Rep for the South West, I’d like to help, in whatever small way I can, to change that so the region becomes another default place to look to where great ideas are put into practice, particularly from small and tiny museums.

Museums Change Lives logo

Share your case-studies

The Museums Association is always looking for great case-studies and stories, invitations for review and features. Museums in the South West should be better represented in the case-studies of the MA’s flagship policy Museums Change Lives. Please consider submitting one. If you don’t know how, get in touch and I’ll help.

Read my review of the South West Museums Association Meeting.

Diversity in the Nation

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like?  Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion?

Diversity is on every major cultural agenda. I have been taking a keen interest in how diversity is represented and expressed by museums and other heritage institutions as I have been a long-time advocate and producer of community-focused programming as a mainstream rather than fringe strategy for survival.

Achieving resilience in your museum or cultural organisation has to have at its heart a commitment to diversify audiences. The reason is that if you want your organisation to survive, and be loved, your communities and communities of interest (not just the obvious stakeholders) need to understand why you are important to them.

At the Museums Association conference 2015, Sir Peter Luff, the Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund gave a stirring keynote speech where skills, diversity and young people were firmly and unequivocally put on the agenda and HLF is changing its funding schemes to reflect these priorities.

Arts Council England is also centralising diversity in its agenda, particularly to support the Creative Case for ‘diverse-led’ arts and culture. The emphasis is also on diversifying the range of people and organisations which apply for arts funding from them, and to ensure that at least 75% of its funding is invested outside London. ACE’s Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette said that arts and cultural organisations must reflect the diverse communities they serve. A report by the Museum Consultancy presents research findings on the state of diversity in the museum workforce.

The much-vaunted UK Government’s Culture White Paper, published in March, “sets out the government’s ambition and strategy for the cultural sectors.” The paper jars heavily with the austerity-led narrative that dominates the cultural sector at the moment. There is a sense that the White Paper was born from a Whitehall Office out of touch with the reality of people’s joys and woes as producers and consumers of arts, heritage and culture. Nevertheless, diversity is mentioned 18 times in its 72 pages.

Diversity has also been much debated in discussions on #museumhour.

The UK Parliament’s Countries of Culture enquiry is ongoing and no doubt several of the oral and written submissions will express concern about a lack of diversity in funded art and culture.

I am less familiar with the culture and diversity landscapes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and internationally, but I look forward to doing a bit of asking around and reporting back.

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like? Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion? How does workforce diversity differ from audience diversity?

The debate took place at the Goldsmith's Centre, London.

The debate took place at the Goldsmith’s Centre, London.

Big debates

On 16 March I attended the Museums Association’s Diversity: A State of the Nation Debate in my capacity as the Regional Representative for the South West. At this point, I’d like to extend my thanks to the MA for sponsoring my travel from deepest Cornwall to London enabling me to attend.

This event took place not long after the MA’s Big Debate on Diversity at the annual conference in Birmingham in November 2015 which I also attended. This was followed by an informal and therapeutic meeting of the Museum Detox network, a very loose group of museum professionals from BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds.

I find these debates deeply stimulating as they make me question my own understanding and beliefs about people and their identities, and in particular how complex self-indentifying is, and how poorly we express and understand it.

However, there were also some concerning features apparent and unacknowledged at both these debates and indeed in the majority of discussion about diversity and what diversity looks like.

What’s missing from the debate. Who is missing? Where do they take place?

Big City types

Both Birmingham and London debates took place in corporate boxes. This is not a slur, just an observation as I believe that place is a fundamental, if unarticulated, component in understanding diversity.

The main proponents of the debates were also from London or large urban metropolitan areas whose perspectives on their own communities are shaped by the people and places they live and work in everyday. Sharon Heal, Director of the MA, spoke fondly of her everyday diversity where she lives in Bethnal Green.

When they think about diversity in museums, for example, do museums from large swathes of the UK that are politically and economically defined as rural, figure in their minds: the South West of Britain, the Highlands of Scotland, most of Northern Ireland, or North Wales?

Beyond the Protected Characteristics

The diversity themes that dominate discourse are around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage that concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Of these race, disability and sex and to a lesser extent religion, were of most interest to those participating in the Museums Association debates. Put crudely, there are more women than men in the museum workforce but few women occupy leadership and governance roles; disability remains poorly represented and catered for, more so a problem for those with hidden disabilities; working and participating in museums remains unattractive to those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

Geographic exclusion, Cornwall and the South West

During the several round-table discussions, we talked about other major factors that present barriers to diversifying the workforce, audiences and programmes.

A top consideration at my table was geography and geographic discrimination or exclusion.

I live and work in the far west of Cornwall. It took me over 5 hours and an overnight stay to be able to take part in both Birmingham and London debates. Cornwall is politically and economically part of the South West even though culturally and perhaps socially too Cornwall and the Cornish are distinct from its South West neighbours on many levels, evidenced by international recognition of its indigenous language, Kernewek, UK Government-ratified National Minority Status and through the devolution of (some) powers to its unitary authority. Note that Nationality is not currently a protected characteristic under Equality legislation but is included, with colour and citizenship under race.

Even beyond Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, with nearly 2500 inhabitants can feel that the UK mainland is a world away. For much of the year you can only fly there (if the weather is right).

I live and work in a highly fragmented region with hundreds of mainly small urban centres and large numbers of rural (isolated) places that are all defined in the context of London and other major metropolitan areas. Large parts of our region are unable to regularly participate in and access the big issues of our time (perhaps with the exception of Bristol), whether that’s diversity, austerity or other matters high on political agendas.

Consequently voices from the region, and especially Cornwall, tend to get muffled or ignored or simply deemed too far and too remote and not plentiful enough to engage with. Within this situation, what hope do minority people have in finding a voice?

Class psychology and professionalisation

The other theme of discrimination and diversity we discussed was class. I felt this was not particularly well-articulated by anyone. I am uncomfortable with the idea that low economic productivity directly leads to low participation in arts and culture. And football tickets are so expensive.

After all, many, many museum and arts jobs are amongst the lowest paid and least stable in terms of security and benefits of all professions. One of our table cited the professionalisation of our sector as a serious factor in the lack of class diversity, e.g. job competitions requiring sometimes not one but two degrees.

I think there’s a separate debate to be had about that as I do not agree that professional qualifications which give people the know-how to take care of our collections and make them accessible to our audiences is blanketly a bad thing. But at the same time not all museum jobs need a degree to do them. And, there still remain fewer jobs than there are people who want them–as I said it’s a related but separate issue.

Perhaps more broadly, class is a psychological barrier that encompasses upbringing, education, comprehension and articulation–do some sectors of UK society lack the social and cultural language to participate in culture? What can museums do about that, especially when they talk about the “hard to reach?”

More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

How do we develop long-term programmes and activities that are more attractive to those not currently engaged (however you want to define that)? What about those not engaged that face practical barriers to participation such as the “Time-poor dreamers” representing in 2010, approximately 4% of the adult population, a higher than average proportion from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and most under the age of 44.

There was a sense from the room that diversity, as imperfect as expressions of it are, is now more mainstream than 15 years ago. More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

Democracy and power

Other features from my table’s discussion that I felt strongly about was democracy and power.  I was surprised no one brought up these fundamental features of social and cultural demography that we all take for granted. This led to a debate about the usefulness of techniques used in peace and reconciliation in post-conflict zones such as deep listening and developmental evaluation.

We didn’t get a chance to discuss these in detail but I think the principle of mutual education through listening is a fundamental challenge in our sector, as evidenced in the Tintagel Controversy.

We need to keep debates about diversity going, both formally and informally. They need to take place in more diverse places and more diverse people need to be invited to take part in them. I am only seeing the usual suspects time and again.

Diversity doesn’t look like anything. It’s a philosophy and a commitment to trusting the idea that embracing difference is a good thing that will lead to better-governed and more accessible and successful institutions and activities.