Background: After the launch of the Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport Sajid Javid, recent report, a few of us had a … healthy discussion on Twitter. Whilst I love Twitter, sometimes the 140 characters really limit a good debate, hence this Guest Blog. What are your thoughts?
Diversifying cultural audiences
The nature of adversarial politics has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Where once parties argued into the night over positions that were ideologically opposed, we now seem to operate in a consensus where the argument is just who is better able to fix the problem. It’s like we all secretly agreed a narrative overnight, and now there is just accepted wisdom on the environment, on the economy, on health, on welfare, and even on culture.
Over the past few days we have had the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Sajid Javid, followed by his shadow Harriet Harman, telling us that culture is for everyone, but that too many institutions are elitist, and that they must start trying to draw in people who are not just the white, metropolitan middle classes. I agree with the first bit, but I’m not convinced on the rest.
Elitism or Egalitarianism?
While there are still exceptions, our cultural institutions from the British Museum and the Royal Opera House, to your local museum or gallery do more than ever before to make cultural experience affordable or, in many cases, free. Yet there is a notion that by maintaining any kind of intellectual or cultural rigour in this, they are indulging in ivory tower elitism, excluding the poor, excluding minorities. Yet I would argue this is the very opposite of elitism, this is a wonderful form of egalitarianism that harks back to Victorian pioneers of museums, galleries and libraries. The idea is that anyone, whatever their background, has access to culture, to knowledge, and to those accompanying experiences.
Elitism is pretending we must ‘dumb down’ these experiences to make them relative to the target audience. I don’t believe you need to be educated at Eton to appreciate the works of Mozart, or Shakespeare, or Breughel. Nor do you need a degree in the classics before looking on the remains of past civilisations. Whenever I’ve sat in a meeting arguing for academic rigour in a free public exhibition only to be accused of elitism, I remember that I grew up a working class kid on a council estate. I remember my parents encouraging my interests in archaeology and palaeontology. I remember that museums were my best resource for that burgeoning love. If they had talked down to me, I’d have known it, and I’d have rejected the elitism underpinning such an approach. But they didn’t, and I loved them for it. They treated me the same as everyone else who came through the doors. Public cultural institutions cannot, by their very definition as public, open to all, be elitist.
“The prerogative of a metropolitan elite”
So we come to the argument that, on Twitter, led to my writing this piece. Why are museums, despite everything I’ve just said, still predominantly the preserve of the white middle classes?
As a white, now middle class, heterosexual man I always feel that sense of guilt venturing into this territory. Do I have the right to comment? But that is a dangerous thought pattern to ever fall into, and it fosters precisely the sort of segregationist mindset we are trying to avoid. So comment I must.
I spent ten years working in Greater Manchester, as diverse an area of Britain as you will find. In that time we worked repeatedly with schools, with community groups, to try improve engagement from ‘hard to reach’ ethnic minorities. I worked on projects designed to diversify the workforce. Yet despite this, and despite the fact similar brilliant work has been done up and down the country, we are still having the same conversations. Our best efforts have improved things, but not enough to stop politicians talking about it. Are we still not doing enough? While we can always do more, and always strive to do better, I believe cultural organisations are really striving to do their bit.
Culture is for everyone
I actually think there was much to admire in the new Culture Secretary’s speech, and on one thing in particular I am in full agreement. There is a fundamental problem that for many people, traditional cultural pursuits are ‘not for them’. By this I don’t mean they are incapable of enjoying art, museums, or classical music, of course they are. But at home, at school, in the media, those are avenues that are bracketed as being for other people. This surely fosters an attitude to such culture that makes it seem alien, no matter what is done to try assuage that.
I don’t know Mr Javid or Mrs Harman, and I have no reason to think their motivations are not genuine. But despite what may be the best of intentions, their speeches may actually have the opposite effect. Because someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time in museums and galleries simply hears politicians talking about how elitist, exclusive, white and middle-class they still are. Instead, they should be talking about all the great work these institutions are already doing. About how open and diverse cultural organisations can be. About why such places make them passionate (and if they are not passionate about culture, they should find a new brief). They should be working with colleagues in education to push for far greater opportunities in schools to get out of the classroom and into cultural centres. Providing funding to help more cultural organisations go into schools and open up a world of art and music.
A career in culture and heritage can be immensely rewarding, but rarely is this reward financial. So to diversify the workforce we must first build a groundswell of passion for culture amongst the next generation. You need passion to drive you through the harder points of your prospective career. I’ve met and worked with people from all sorts of backgrounds who have that, so it’s not a pointless and fruitless task.