Over the course of his 30-year career, Mark O'Neill has become an authority on the role museums play in promoting social justice and inclusion. Mark has written extensively on the topic and, as Head of Glasgow Museums, was at the forefront of the city's transformation into a hub of culture and art. Today, he sits on our board as a Non-Executive Director. Mark recently wrote this piece about caring museums.
One of most pervasive new trends in museums is an interest in how they can contribute to health and wellbeing, especially for groups who are subject to lack of opportunity, stigma or are otherwise vulnerable, whether this is as a result of poverty, ethnicity, disability, or mental ill health. From the Hermitage in St Petersburg to the Happy Museum movement in the UK, museums are exploring how the power of engagement with culture, particularly resonant objects, can enhance human flourishing. At the level of policy, the World Health Organisation and the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport have commissioned reports about culture and health. Most of this work – and the research about its impacts – focuses on short-term projects which enable museum staff to work intensively with small groups over a period of months. While some early results of pilot projects may be promising, it is not clear how museums could offer wellbeing services on a scale likely to make a difference at a population level. One possible strategy is offered by Leicester University scholar Nuala Morse in her new book, The Museum as a Space of Social Care. Nuala spent long periods over five years embedded in the ‘community engagement’ team at Tyne and Wear Museums, in order to study their philosophy and working practices. The resulting book offers a genuinely new approach to museums, where the practices and ethics of care are no longer the preserve of a specialist team, but become a core value of the entire institution.
Nuala describes the range of work undertaken under the heading of ‘engagement’: co-production with community groups to make sure that displays are relevant to those who don’t traditionally visit museums; representing cultures which may have been ignored or treated as ‘other’ by museums; programmes devised in partnership with health organisations to support people with mental ill health or people recovering from addiction; programmes for people over 55; and creating a network to support people in exploring community heritage and archive collections, exhibitions and events. Activities like these are very common in museums, though few have undertaken them as systematically as Tyne and Wear. The book’s argument is that the quality all these activities have in common is caring. This is distinct from activities which promote learning, or which encourage people to contribute to the museum by giving their stories or objects or volunteering. Nuala draws on a range of theories about spaces and cultures of caring to explore the ethics, practicalities and emotional work involved. She, and the museum practitioners she has interviewed, are clear that they are not social workers, either in terms of skills or the focus of their engagement. Nor is the work of care a kind of ‘treatment’, administered to the vulnerable and excluded as a kind of cultural welfare. It is a shift from creating opportunities where people can contribute to the museum, to an exploration of what a museum can do alongside, in solidarity with, its communities, to help create a better society.
Anyone who has worked in museums will recognise the book’s account of how the process of caring for people and for objects are separate and often seen to be at odds. This might seem to be a simple matter of specialisms, but the result is that that the work of caring for people often happens in a separate sphere, and the groups involved only ever visit the museum when they are accompanied by the engagement team. The vision with which the book concludes is of museums where all staff are involved in the act of caring – for stories, memories, people, communities and place as well as objects and buildings. In such a museum the atmosphere of caring is so pervasive that all except the most vulnerable can visit without being chaperoned. Given the emphasis on customer care in the most professional museums, this might not seem like a paradigm shift. But moving beyond the ‘managed heart’ of performing customer care to creating (and recreating every day) a real atmosphere of caring involves change throughout the museum, not just the employment of a specialist engagement team or training for front of house staff. In involves an emotional openness, a sense of humanity and empathy which cannot be part of a ‘strategy’ but is a different way of being for the institution and its staff. This may be seen as a threat to the traditional, introverted, institutional culture which lies at the heart of even the most visitor-centred museums, but now, more than ever, it seems worth the risk of caring.
Realising this vision is to a large degree a matter of changing human behaviour and attitudes. But it is also a question of design. Even if the principles of Universal Design, which are intended to provide an experience of equal quality of all, are applied rigorously and imaginatively, there is great scope for creating exhibitions and spaces which communicate care and make people feel safe and welcome, no matter what their background or circumstances. And this complements rather than diminishes the task of design and storytelling to enable experiences of awe, wonder, curiosity, disagreement, reflection or any other of a thousand possible responses to encounters with objects and stories in the company of family, friends, carers and strangers. Perhaps, instead of collecting memorabilia related to people’s experiences of COVID, museums should try to capture the sense of caring which emerged during the pandemic, and with it, an optimism that humans can, despite everything, learn to care for each other and the planet better than we have done before.