David Fleming argues that when we succeed in creating democratic museums, we scale the heights of social achievement; and when we fail, we betray the whole of society.
Many, perhaps most, museums were set up to be democratic. Many have failed, over many years, as they succumbed to pressure from interest groups to ignore the principles upon which they were founded, and instead seek to serve elite minorities, social and academic.
Museums in the UK haven’t been helped by the fact that the British are not very good at democracy. We have actually only been a democracy for just over 90 years, and that’s stretching a point. In 1918 the British electorate grew from 8.4m to 21.4m, though while all men aged over 21 were given the vote, women had to wait until they were 30.
The voting age was equalised for both sexes in 1928, adding 5m more women to the electoral roll. But before we congratulate ourselves too heartily for these reforms, it is worth reminding ourselves that in terms of female representation in Parliament, Britain’s performance is comparable with those of Afghanistan and Iraq.
All electoral reform from 1832 onwards came about through pressure from below, and the reluctant surrender of power by governing elites acting in self-preservation. We have never had a great republican upheaval like France. This has had a lasting impact on popular British politics, resulting in a passive form of citizenship.
British democracy essentially gives no more power to people than to vote for MPs every few years, and it is built upon a political party system which offers menus of policies in the form of manifestos. Arguably, the formation of a Coalition Government in the UK in May 2010 actually weakened this power, because voters found themselves with a Government that had to do so many deals in order to create itself that many manifesto commitments were shelved. In any event, the ability of the citizenry at large to make their voices heard is strictly limited.
Moreover, in the 1980s central government emasculated local democracy in the shape of local government. Between 1979 and 1994 no fewer than 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities, with £24 billion a year (at 1994 prices) transferred to unelected agencies such as Development Corporations. This process of de-democratisation continues.
So, let us not pretend that British democracy is anything other than a rather watery brew. My contention is that the fragile nature of British democracy has profoundly affected the development of museums and has blighted the creation of a democratic museum sector in this country.
I want to look at the obstacles to the full flowering of the democratic museum, and to the consequences of this stunting of growth. First, I want briefly to consider the nature of democracy, so that we can be sure what we mean when we speak of the ‘democratic museum’.
Democracy? No thanks
The Victorians thought democracy an exceedingly dangerous notion, fit only for other Europeans and for Americans. The vast majority of the British people were believed by the governing elite to be entirely incapable of exercising any semblance of political judgement. As GK Chesterton wrote, the Victorian elite saw democracy as “government by the uneducated”.
One response to the lack of appetite for democratic reforms, as illustrated by the limited impact of the 1832 Great Reform Act, was the petition presented to Parliament in 1838 known as the People’s Charter. The six-point Charter called for universal suffrage, secret ballots, annual elections, the payment of MPs, equal electoral districts, and the ending of property regulations governing the membership of Parliament.
With the exception of annual elections, all of these demands were eventually met, but at the time they were treated with contempt. Thomas Macauley, the eminent historian, wrote that: “universal suffrage…is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation…England would fall from her high place among the nations”.
Many politicians and activists have sequestered to themselves the term ‘democratic’, because of its enormous motivational and propaganda value. Among the most notorious of these was the Communist Party of Kampuchea, better known as the Khmer Rouge, which created the state of Democratic Kampuchea in 1976.
The Khmer Rouge then presided over three years of increasingly bizarre repression which cost the lives of millions of Cambodians, all in the name of a Maoist and Marxist-Leninist transformation programme which was designed to turn Cambodia into a rural, classless society – a perversion of the ideal of democracy.
Nonetheless, the term ‘democratic’ connotes liberalism, enlightenment and progressive thinking, reason and individual liberty. Not mob rule, but mass engagement: in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “government of the people, by the people and for the people”.
And so we come to democracy and museums. I have been interested in the notion of the democratic museum for many years. Indeed, it was because I believed erroneously that they are democratic institutions that I started working in museums in 1981. I got it into my head that I could use my history qualifications to empower working class people.
My basic misunderstanding about museums was that I thought they were places where people like my parents and sister, who left school with no qualifications and with a limited confidence in their own intellectual capacity, could discover new avenues to learning and self-improvement.
Somehow, in my naivety, I had got the idea that these great public institutions had been created for that end. I realised when I began to work in museums that I was being delusional. I realised that museums were dominated by educated people who didn’t share my views. Their approach to museums was not dissimilar to Macauley’s perspectives on democracy.
Many of our museums were founded in the middle and later decades of the 19th century. Among the complex motivations was the perceived need to provide to the new industrial working classes opportunities to extend their knowledge, thereby to encourage responsible citizenry.
The popularity of Mechanics’ Institutes’ educational programmes, devised specifically for industrial workers, stimulated public interest in the notion of museums. Government even went so far as to enable municipal authorities to provide museums, in 1845. Thereafter followed a rush of municipal museum foundations.
It is interesting, and no coincidence, I fear, that so many museums were created precisely at the time when there was such determined resistance to creating a more democratic political system. Many of our museums – and the same can be said for all those created right up until the First World War – were created by a society which was dominated by a small, rich, male, educated elite, and where the majority of the adult population had no say whatsoever in the governance of the country.
Ostensibly, many of these foundations were for the benefit of the industrial working classes, but I suspect that in actuality, right from their earliest days, museums thought and ran themselves more like private clubs than public institutions founded for the benefit of the masses.
Museums may have been set up in an atmosphere of enlightenment, but this does not mean that they were democratic in nature, and I believe exclusivity is in their DNA.
Many decades were to pass before a combination of developments opened the way for museums to come to resemble democratic institutions. I will come to that shortly, but first let’s look at the c-word – “class”, a term with which we are never comfortable in museums, and which successive Governments have wishfully assured us is becoming a thing of the past.
There are those who believe we are now a classless society, though only people who never spend time in the council estates of Liverpool or Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle, or London, could subscribe confidently to this view.
What is true is that since the 1960s class distinctions have blurred, and traditional social class bonds have weakened. This process of democratic transformation has occurred during our lifetime, which might explain why, to some, talk of class differences may sound no more relevant than the Spanish Armada.
It would be anachronistic to describe the “lower orders” prior to 1800 as “working class”, but from the 1820s this latter term came into popular use, as the new manufacturing society grew. From the 1850s the typical Briton was an industrial worker, and the first working class MPs, both miners, were elected in 1874. By 1900 the working classes had become a respectable sector of political society.
The working classes were diverse in nature, with skilled workers at one end of the spectrum, and people living in abject poverty at the other. In 1918 they were mostly manual workers employed in manufacturing. Working conditions were harsh and long, housing was poor, there was really no state system of secondary education for other than a small minority, welfare services were limited.
Over the next five decades or so there was a steady improvement in the material condition of the working classes, with a growing standard of living, improving housing, better health, more education and, thanks to the post-war Labour Governments, the coming of the welfare state.
Security of employment grew too, though real poverty and social distress were never banished. Even politically the working classes saw a change for the better, with six governments formed by the Labour Party between 1918 and 1974, and the growth of the influence of the trade union movement.
These developments led to what some have described as a decline of the working classes, or, put another way, the loss of a distinctive working class identity. As incomes moved towards equalisation, and as the numbers working in manual roles declined, we witnessed a homogenisation of living standards, perhaps even an embourgeoisement of the working classes.
The mass unemployment which returned after the mid 1970s, added to the growth in the numbers of married women going out to work, led to a deepening fissure between those who were still earning and other groups – unemployed people, old people, single parent families, unemployed ethnic minorities.
This social polarisation created what some commentators have referred to as a new social underclass. The enterprise culture of Thatcherism deepened this social fissure even further, and the notion of the solidarity of the working classes evaporated.
The loss of authority of the trade union movement (to this day fierce critics of the Thatcher regime can be found commending the destruction of trade union power during the 1980s) and the unelectability of the Labour Party both shifted perceptions of the working classes, and led directly to the creation of New Labour – a political party which certainly did not promote itself as the party of the working classes.
As unemployment reduced again in the 1990s and in the early years of the 21st century, we now find ourselves in an evolving social and political landscape, one where, despite the survival of working class sentiment, it is becoming more difficult to speak of the working classes and their cultures and preoccupations, though we are happy to use the term ‘popular culture’, which to all intents and purposes has supplanted the term working class culture, while meaning much the same thing.
In a country where nearly 4 million children are living in poverty, in families which struggle to afford basic things like healthy food, school uniforms and shoes, in families which don’t have books or computers, or the £8, £10, £12 or £15 for admission to a museum exhibition; where in some areas more than 30% of children have parents who are unemployed and claiming benefits; where a child in a northern city will live six years less than a child in a wealthy London suburb, it is, in my mind, a gross misrepresentation to claim that we do not have a host of social issues to resolve which are based on inequality and class differences.
Ultimately, we simply cannot ignore the failure of museums to respond effectively to the rise of the working classes during the 20th century. This failure has left us struggling as an entire sector to demonstrate our widespread social relevance. This failure has led to our being viewed by society at large as elitist.
When Government produced its Policy Guidance entitled Centres for Social Change; Museums, Galleries and Archives for All, in May 2000, it utilised the definition of social exclusion used by the Cabinet Office’s Social Inclusion Unit: “a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health, poverty and family breakdown”.(1)
The document, using language that became familiar in the years when we became more and more uncomfortable with the term working class, went on to report that only 23% of people from social classes DE visited museums compared with 56% of people from classes AB.
I don’t intend to labour the point about the success of 20th century museums in attracting the middle classes and virtually no-one else. There is plenty of evidence.
In my own experience I remember tackling this directly at Tyne & Wear Museums in the ‘90s, when half a decade of concerted action by a dogged staff, under the initially sceptical gaze of socialist politicians, shifted the balance of museum visiting away from ABC1s towards C2Des.(2)
I contend that this neglect of a large proportion of the population was a result of a failure by the museum establishment to accept any responsibility for providing social value to working class people. The idea of providing value to the whole of the public in return for public funding just does not seem to have been in the museum psyche. This has meant that museums, instead of acting as the engines of emancipation we know they can be, have, knowingly and wilfully, contributed to the perpetuation of inequality.
In failing in this way museums fell off the pace of social reform and transformation during the 20th century. It was not until the past three decades that we have seen museums begin to shape up in this respect, as changes in the museum workforce began to impact on attitudes, thus paving the way for a flowering of the democratic museum. As the gap between rich and poor in the UK grows once again, so that it is now as large as it has been for more than a century, there is a distinct timeliness about this.
There are those, of course, who resist this democratic movement. We see time and again a conflation of the idea of a popular museum, one that has a broad social appeal, with that of the ruination of something that needs to be cherished. Art critics are particularly partial to this tactic, and the volume of bluster brought on by exhibitions of Kylie’s outfits, James Bond props or, frankly, anything viewed by Brian Sewell, often reaches deafening proportions. Someone is being betrayed. I’m not sure who, but it’s probably people who would rather museums were empty, or at least devoid of people from the toiling classes.
I find it interesting that when critics attack exhibitions such as these, they usually begin by railing against what they see as the vacuous content, then they give the real game away, in the blink of an eye, by castigating the audiences the exhibitions attract.
The lack of interest in or understanding of the audiences for popular exhibitions, and the contempt shown for their audiences, could be dismissed as eccentricity or journalistic hyperbole, but personally it makes me very angry.
These are the sneering voices of a spoiled and privileged elite, who are unwilling to countenance the idea that not everyone shares their tastes, not everyone has had the benefit of their upbringing and education, not everyone reads broadsheet newspapers, not everyone hates the St Pancras embracing couple, not everyone gets Mark Rothko, not everyone hates Jack Vettriano, not everyone wants to enjoy their culture in an atmosphere of reverential silence, surrounded by no-one other than snobby art critics.
A few years ago, in a paper entitled Positioning the museum for social inclusion, I tried to get to grips with what I saw as a knowing and deliberate approach to keep museums exclusive.(3) I described this approach as the Great Museum Conspiracy.
I considered four factors: who has run museums, what they contain, the way they have been run, and for whom. I saw at the heart of the Great Museum Conspiracy a power system which I venture to suggest, during the 20th century, ignored and therefore betrayed working class people, and betrayed the concept of the democratic museum.
I still see this power system in play, and though I believe that we have shifted into the era of the democratic museum through the combination of factors I considered in that paper, we must be aware that at times of economic pressure, elites always reassert their cultural supremacy. The democratic museum is about to come under renewed attack.
The Democratic Museum
So, what does a democratic museum look like? In its purest form it has the following characteristics:
• it attracts diverse audiences which are representative of society at large, through diverse programming which operates on many levels, 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 even embrace political stances in a transparent manner; it may 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 (some day someone will explain to me the logic behind publicly-funded museums routinely levying a significant admission charge for special exhibitions, when if they structured their budgets differently they wouldn’t have to do so).
And let’s be absolutely clear: the democratic museum is not anti-scholarship; not anti-collections; not anti-research; not anti-quality; not anti-intellectual. In fact, the democratic museum demands scholarship, collections, research, quality 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.
It is the local authority museum sector where we see the potential for the democratic museum in clearest relief, and I am delighted that progress continues to be made in this respect as museum professionals all over the UK show commitment and courage in broadening audiences and creating real social value.
This does not mean that national, university and independent museums cannot aspire to democratic heights. All it takes is a positive attitude, determination, a social conscience, and an understanding that poverty still exists and publicly-funded organisations have an obligation to working class people.
We are determined to create a democratic national museum in the Museum of Liverpool, due to open to the public in summer 2011. Nothing less will satisfy us at National Museums Liverpool. It is simply not 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 allow it. That’s true democracy.
There are times when we should remind ourselves of the enormous capacity of museums to impact on the lives of people, and that there are no inviolable rules governing just how we do that. We may see that when we succeed in creating democratic museums, we scale the heights of social achievement; and when we fail, we betray the whole of society.
Dr David Fleming OBE – Director, National Museums Liverpool
Notes | References | Bibliography
1. Centres for social change: museums, galleries and archives for all, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2000
2. Fleming, David, A question of perception, Museums Journal, April, 1999
3. Fleming, David, Positioning the museum for social inclusion, in Sandell, Richard, ed, Museums, Society, Inequality, 2002