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Collections: Social Responsibility, Cultural Sustainability

Stuart Hall argues that to be seen as an essential social asset, it is vital that museums communicate their strengths and that they become embedded in a wider framework of cultural sustainability and community values. 

There can be no question that museums contain some of the most thought provoking and extraordinary objects that have ever existed. Museum collections are a source of inspiration which create thought-provoking visions of our past. They provide testimony to the darkest and brightest of human history. The creativity and imagination of humanity fill the museums of the world.

These objects chart the social, academic, artistic and industrial achievement juxtaposed with the more disturbing and darker moments in human history. Objects provide a visual and tangible record of just about every aspect of human history, discovery and invention. But is this how society sees museum collections? It’s easy to say yes if you work in the museum sector but I’d be less certain of the answer when you ask the public. So what are museums really about? Is it the objects and preservation of heritage, or perhaps the stories they tell? It’s a difficult question. The answer depends on who you are talking to and is shaped by what values they associate with museums.

It is likely that few professionals would dispute the foundation of museums are collections. More debatable is what value the wider community places on collections. The argument is that through collections museums can tell stories about the past and to expose the present. Everyone who has used objects in learning will know that people love to hear a narrative about an object. It’s what turns a piece of broken pot into historical wonder. Even in a rapidly changing world of hi-tech super-fast communication a good story always finds a willing audience. Museums can tell very powerful and complex stories through their collections. It’s the narrative and dissemination of these stories and their relation to the individual that stimulates imagination and engagement.

The most standard method of providing information in the museum sector is through textual object labels. There are a multitude of very good object labels in museums which convey selected information in a very concise narrative. However, it could be argued that people interpret the meaning of any text in a multitude of ways. It is exactly this that allows a reader of fictional novels to create unique imaginative worlds and characters. These imaginative worlds are always different from other readers, although all interpretations originate from the same piece of text. It is a human ability to create multitude of meaning from even the smallest piece of text. Therefore it is possible that any text label is open to interpretation by a visitor. Each visitor takes away different information and responses and these are tempered by social factors such as work, education and lifestyle. Equally a visitor might take very little away from the information as it simply has no contextual relationship to their lives. This is not a condemnation of labels. In my opinion they remain vital to museum interpretation. It is simply stating that visitors take away different understandings of objects.

Let’s consider young people who have just left school. They have just completed a diet of historical education supplemented by museum visits. Upon leaving school they may identify history and museums with certain values and meanings. And because of this often young people do not form a large part of museum audiences. However, in West Norfolk and the Fens young people with very little previous historical interest have become involved in developing material for museum exhibitions. They responded not through an offer of come to the museum to learn about history through film, but rather an offer to learn about film making and drama based around history. The subtle difference is very important. This project used the practical application of technology juxtaposed with museum meaning and value. Fundamentally it’s the same words in the sentences and indeed the same project but it’s how it’s said that changes the value and meaning, making it more engaging and appealing to their interests. At the end of the project the young people all said that they had changed their opinion about museums in a positive way.

The history of the Fenlands of East Anglia is one of interaction and engagement between people and the environment – from early Neolithic and Bronze Age, through the Romans and Saxons to the Fen drainage by Vermuyden and eventually modern farming. Fenland communities have required many cultural adaptations initially through a pre-drainage subsistence economy of fishing, wildfowling and the sale of surplus natural products such as willow. This was eventually replaced by drainage and farming. Drainage brought about a new set of challenges and material responses to the biophysical environment in offering challenges and opportunities to communities.

The consequence of these rich and dynamic changes to the local environment has meant that Fenland museums contain objects that convey a unique story of local culture. These objects record the activities and behaviours of past communities and the environments in which they lived and died. The real story of this interaction between the environment and Fen communities is one of an ongoing battle and partnership of living systems. The isolation of communities has lead to some distinctive museums that range in collections from rural and farmland objects at Ramsey Rural Museum to the social history of Cambridge and County Folk Museum, to the spectacular Victorian packed cases of Wisbech and Fenland and March and District museums. Each museum, although sharing an intellectual commonality with each other, all record an element of Fenland community culture in thought provoking, extraordinary and unexpected ways. The beauty of the small museum is that there is no harmonised and standardised display system, instead there is the refreshing prospect of old and new – something unique and diverse found not just in the collected objects but in an embedded social value.

Although a small amount of funding is vital, it is the dedicated and professional volunteers, with their passion for local heritage and the community, that allow the museums to continue. There is a multitude of reasons why these valuable volunteers continue to turn up every week. It is a combination of social interaction, involvement, self-worth, being valued and enjoyment. But this social capital can often difficult to measure. And while smaller museums often have a clear sense of purpose and identity and obviously act as an important community resource, they lack access to resources such as training. In effect, smaller museums have a subsistence economy where growth is unlikely and stability and sustainability is the most prized outcome. Of course, stability and sustainability are not bad things, especially during difficult economic times. The strong communal and social interaction found in smaller museums provides a useful and flexible model for larger museums to understand how to embed and contextualise museums within communities and the environment. For example, a visitor to one of our museums in Norfolk can enjoy a whole selection of specialist objects. These could be things such as eel glaives, a specialist tool for catching eels at the bottom of muddy fen rivers. Or other regular items include job specific ditching and drainage spades – with long ones, thin ones, oval ended ones, some heavy and some light – all created to carry out a specific job. The museums that display these objects are contextualised not only as local heritage but also into the ecosystem of landscape and biodiversity. They exist as a human response to the environmental conditions of various historical periods.

In Britain there is virtually no ecosystem or landscape that has not been touched or altered by humans. Often even what is considered natural only exists because people manage and conserve its biodiversity. Consequently the ‘natural environment’ is more of a historical construct of social and economic ambitions. Most museum collections can be traced back to a natural commodity and a geographical location. In essence most have an environmental context as well as a social. In local museums these links are mainly regional, although often mixed with the unexpected links to the exotic. Larger museums expand their collections on a more international scale but in doing so then lack space for the regional. Pottery is normally classified into historical periods through its aesthetic and material composition, recognised through its style and geographical provenance. The creation of objects for whatever purpose will have had an effect not only on its source environment but its destination environment. Museum collections have a deep and consistent symbiotic relationship with the environment of the world as well as the communities that created them. Collections are often the survivors of the social, economic and industrial onslaughts of humanity through history, mixed with inspirational aesthetic art and scientific discovery. Museums are treasure houses of the rare and unsustainable, markers of human evolution and discovery. They can be inspirational, creative and educational but they can also be warnings of human greed and cruelty, dark indicators of the duality of humanity.

Increasingly humanity seeks to conserve both natural resources and biological diversity. We now recognise that our long-term future is intrinsically linked to the ecosystems of the world. Many also recognise the value, meaning and happiness that other species give humanity. Although this set of beliefs has not always been the case. Many museums hold extensive natural history collections mainly collected through the barrel of a gun during Victorian times – an uncomfortable truth in these days of aspirations of green credentials and sustainability. Victorian collectors pushed some species to the edge of extinction while other species fell over the precipice with a gentle nudge. While some sought sport others collected in the name of science with the collections adding to the classification and identification of species. It is odd that we somehow are more ready to accept the purposeful killing of species in the name of science than we are for those killed as for sport. The animal collections of Darwin are highly prized as the perquisite to the ‘The Origin of Species’. A book that undermines the beliefs of the Christian church, a challenge to years of established thought. The quest for knowledge and the displaying of natural wonders filled the display cases of museums across the world. Today digital media feeds the television and computer screens of the world with living natural wonders. Humanity consumes natural history programmes with a ravenous appetite. Values have changed – no museum would now sanction the collecting of exhibits by the gun and neither would the public. Most feel uncomfortable seeing old pictures of hunters surrounded by masses of dead animals.

However, what these collections represent is a window into the values of past historical periods, a representation of the historical sociological ideas of communities and museums. Contained in these cases are direct links with the natural world and our changing attitude to it and our role as consumers of natural resources. Ultimately it is a chapter in our ideological shift to ideas of sustainability, but also highlights that humanity still has a huge appetite for the natural world. Natural history collections, like many other types of museum collections, represent mini-windows into the evolution of societies and national identity. Therefore the meaning, identity and value of museums are not simply historical. We can learn about our sociological and ideological roots and our changing attitudes and values not only in the past but also in contextualising humanity to the natural world and environment.

The environment is a important stimulus for communities in developing values and meaning. Recently Lynn Museum, a converted Methodist Chapel in the centre of King’s Lynn in rural Norfolk, took possession of a central tree stump, the last piece of a Bronze Age timber circle dubbed ‘Seahenge’ by the press. The upturned oak stump sat in the centre of a closed oak circle. This pre-historic timber circle first hit the headline in the spring of 1998 when it became exposed to the elements after a preserving cap of peat was washed away during spring tides. The fifty-five timbers had been split in half with the split half facing inside and the bark side facing outwards. In the centre was the upturned oak stump with its roots apparently reaching out to the sky like a giant hand. Clearly this find was exceptional from multiple perspectives. The presence of the oak stump raised its importance to archaeologists and historians as previous timber circles had only contained the imprint in the soil – a tantalising clue of a disappeared object. Therefore the value of the circle to archaeologists and historians was immense, something further focused by its exposure to the eroding elements, which would lead to its decay. To the archaeologists and historians its excavation and conservation was essential as the potential for learning about a past civilisation.

However, these sets of interest values were not the only ingredient in the pot. The removal of the stump from its watery surroundings was controversial. A controversy further fuelled by the press calling it ‘Seahenge’. This title is in itself misleading as it is not a henge, but this more snappy title stuck. A number of individuals viewed the timber circle as a symbolic and spiritual link to our ancestors – a metaphysical representation of a past cultural identity. This view interpreted the timber circle not simply as an archaeological object, but something much more mysterious and spiritual. Indeed some took the view that the circle and its symbolic and inspiring location was a pre-Christian partnership between humanity and environment. As a pre-Christian site its pagan spirituality was, for some, as important as the later great Christian Norman cathedrals such as Ely. Its location on a wild remote piece of coast surrounded by an internationally important nature reserve certainly provides emotional support for this view and feeds the romantic imagination. Its beach location was certainly inspiring. It is a place where elements meet, a battle between land and sea, a landscape of ‘big skies’ and deserted beaches. Another contingent of people just wanted it to be left where it was because of its local provenance and context.

The controversy surrounding the excavation of ‘Seahenge’ highlights how a single entity can stimulate a multitude of opinions and value judgements. However, each view consists of a complex layering of data – some based on fact, some emotive and some based on the misleading. A good deal of value was placed on the timber circle but clearly there was and is no uniform and unanimous agreement to what that value actually was. The use of the word ‘henge’ created an imaginative link to Stonehenge, which although sharing the same time period shares little else in professional terms. This undeniably added extra value to the timber circle and it certainly caught the public imagination, even if it was in a misleading way. One positive outcome from the controversy was that it created interest and fired the imagination. Concerns regarding the possible loss of the circle to metropolitan museums further fired concerns over its removal from the local area. So it is not surprising that any attempt to correct this misleading title of ‘Seahenge’ has not been forthcoming. If you visit Lynn Museum you can enjoy the spectacle of ‘Seahenge’. The title and story is sellable and catches the imagination. Like any other public organisation museums need to access the conscience of individuals and to be present in the minds of the local community.

The timber circle, through its promotion to local stardom, encourages visits to the museum. Once in the museum visitors can also enjoy the other not so famous but equally interesting objects. Of course there is the question of who was right and who was wrong in regards to the removal of ‘Seahenge’ from the beach. There is no simple right or wrong answer. The excavation of the circle has produced valuable and new information about the Bronze Age people who created it. Once the central stump was removed the remains of honeysuckle ropes were revealed showing us how the stump was lowered into the original hole. The circle was only used once the narrow entrance was sealed with a blocking oak post. It is now known that eighty different axes were used making ‘Seahenge’ – clear evidence that it was a community endeavour. The big question is why this intriguing timber circle was created? The generally accepted view of archaeologists and historians is that it was a ritual site for the re-absorption of an important person back into the vital life giving water – a recycling of death into life. The person was laid to rest on the roots of the tree, which took their version of a Bronze Age soul back into the ground. Of course this is only conjecture but ironically the spiritual views of those against the removal of the circle have ultimately converged with that of the archaeologists. The interpretation of the timber circle has not tried to embed the ideas of professional reasoning over spiritual belief but to embrace the argument and to allow professionals and communities a conversation between factual reason and spiritual belief.

The chaotic complexity of the values that surfaced during this development are virtually impossible to unravel but perhaps that’s the beauty of institutions such as museums. They provide the perfect setting to embrace the interest and participation of the community. The beauty of the circle is that there is multitude of values assigned to it.

Museums have through time continually reflected values beliefs and attitudes of societies. The diversity of collections corresponds to the cultural diversity of humanity. The values and attitudes of societies have continually changed, especially true in the modern world. The visual and interactive society of today creates ever-changing expectations and cravings for new experiences. However, in spite of all this, people still crave and need a sense of identity, meaning and belonging. As a cultural depository, museums are ideally placed to fulfil this role through community ownership and participation with collections. Smaller museums often have a strong communal identity and social value extending beyond the historical value of the objects. As such they have the potential to help people live meaningful lives. It is true that many objects in small museums (like those found in Fenlands of East Anglia) would not be deemed important enough for display within national museums. Equally a Greek statue would have no value in a Fenland museum. It would be out of context. But objects in Fenland museums have an additional meaning – they provide visitors, staff and volunteers with a local context and the personal and social benefits that go with that local identity. There is a strong case that museums should be more integrated into existing non-heritage communal services so that the deposits of cultural diversity are used as a social asset. In doing so, the value and meaning of museums would be a commodity defined by communities rather than economics.

Cultural sectors will never compete directly with profit-driven capitalist economics. It is sometimes hard to measure the value of social investment using economic models. Social outcomes are often far more indirect and long-term. Facing the realities of hard economics, globalisation, climate change, poverty and inequality, museums have often struggled to articulate their meaning, identity and value as transforming agents of community engagement. To be truly seen as an essential social asset, it is vital that museums communicate their strengths and that they become embedded in a wider framework of cultural sustainability and community values.

Stuart Hall – Greater Fens Museum Partnership Project Officer, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service / Renaissance East of England

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