Connections/Disconnections - International conference
Museums, cultural heritage and diverse, communities
Saturday 22 June 2002
The Victoria and Albert Museum's 'Connections/Disconnections' conference in 2002 brought together a number of national and international experts to contribute to a daylong debate around the relationship between museums, collections and communities.
The ideas that were offered and the case studies that they described range widely from a passionate call for 'inreach' rather than the traditional 'outreach', to revelations about hidden items within the V & A's collections themselves, from an account of early African American photography to the impact of work around identity with young Asian girls in a Northern mill-town.
Viewed in a historical perspective - before the full implementation of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act or the fall-out from 9:11 - they demonstrate some of the building blocks around the construction of the inclusive museum, and some of the pioneering thinking. Today's museums now see themselves more as the 'sites of dialogue' called for by Professor Gerald Corsane. But the prerequisites for real dialogue still remain to be forged - a process in which the papers from 'Connections/Disconnections' still have a place.
Introduction and Overview by Naseem Khan OBE
The balance of power
1.1 Museums, In-reach and Intangible Cultural Heritage, by Gerard Corsane
1.2 Questions of Cultural Authority: Drawing on Diverse Perspectives and Interpretations, by Dr Vivien Golding
1.3 The Story of Immigration and Settlement in Hackney: Designing Museums Capable of Reflecting a Diversity of Voices, by Fiona Davison
2.1 Cultural Diversity and the V&A, by Eithne Nightingale
2.2 Remapping the Museum: Initiatives for New Audiences, by Susan McCormack and Lauren Parker
2.3 SW7 to SW9: a Case Study of Exhibitions in Black Culture, by Carol Tulloch
2.4 Connections and Disconnections: Relationships Between Collections and Communities' by Raj Pal
2.5 Producing Black and Asian Performance at the Theatre Museum: A Users Guide, by Susan Croft and Stephen Bourne
3.1 Reflections on the History of Black Photographers, by Deborah Willis
3.2 Sustaining Sikh Audiences, by Amandeep Singh Madra
3.3 Hidden Histories: Black History in the V&A, by Dinah Winch
3.4 Separate Senses, by Rajiv Anand
3.5 Shamiana - the South Asian Website, by Julie Cornish
3.6 Big Screen in Little China!, by Yeu-Lai Mo
A Conference Programme
B Contributors' Biographies
View the conference papers
Finding sites for dialogue
When the conference, Connections/Disconnections took place in 2002, it was at a phase that in retrospect, seems transitional. A number of far-reaching actions were just at the point of being put in place, in both the world of museums and of culture at large, but they had not yet come to fruition.
The Museums Libraries and Archives Council's Renaissance for the Regions had just been established with its new and tighter form of organisational structure. However it was only later that social inclusion was brought in as a policy, turning museums' attention more fully towards the matter of diversity. Arts Council England's million-pounds project, decibel - aiming to raise the profile of artists from a Black and Asian background and the need for new inclusive strategies - began formally in the following year. The1976 Race Relations Act had recently been amended so that public bodies would be required to show that they were working towards racial equality, and its rulings had not yet penetrated the sector.
The papers that were delivered at the conference existed in this transitional context, and should be seen as the work of pioneers. They are in the process of seeking to explore and lay down foundations for a future methodology. Time has elapsed since the conference: the case studies described have ended, in many cases individuals have moved on and new developments have shifted the debate. But this does not mean that the papers are dated and irrelevant. The issues that they identify are paramount, and still continue to generate debate. But the tone has changed, and has a different and a sharper resonance.
Concerns persist - what is national identity, what are roots, identification, citizenship? But the questions come with a quality of anxiety that was hardly present in 2002. They connect with a new focus on 'Britishness' - tacitly seen as a counter to Islamic terrorism - however that is to be defined. Other European countries, also responding to immigration and fears of terrorism, have formulated official 'canons' listing the works and elements that make up their own particular heritage cultures. This defensive call on heritage has to challenge museums and - in my view - this shift of ground has not been well enough responded to as yet. It is noteworthy that while the web-based forum, Spiked, attacked the conference's thesis of open museums for a flimsy trendyness that would disempower the museum's objects, in 2007, its sister TV programe (run by the Institute of Ideas), attacked it for undermining national British self-esteem. This small indication is one that suggests a change in the goalposts - and maybe even the name of the game.;
In 2002, the Connections/Disconnections papers felt no need to argue the case either for the inclusive museum or against a partisan view of history. They accepted without question that museums should open their doors more. Influenced by post-Macpherson convictions, they focused more on questions over how 'to include' most effectively. What were the devices, techniques and strategies, and what was the theory behind the strategy? How could the balance between museum and users, curators and community, be shifted and become more democratic?
Although the papers exist within a sharper and more hostile environment today, they are not without allies. On the international stage, UNESCO's 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions aimed 'to promote respect for the diversity of cultural expressions and raise awareness of its value at the local, national and international levels.' Now ratified by the necessary number of nation-states, it is mandatory. Closer to home, the EU has marked 2008 as the Year of Inter-Cultural Dialogue, and the Council of Europe - with its even wider constituency of nations - will publish its own White Paper on Interculturalism early in that year. Experience might have made us cynical about the impact of such moves, but their growing number provides a sense of direction and context. It will not be that easy to ignore.
There is also a greater sense of internal enquiry. The new Cultural Leadership Programme, funded directly by the Treasury, focuses on the way that museums and other cultural institutions operate, and the skills that effective leaders nowadays need. Courses, workshops, seminars, conferences for hundreds of individuals within the cultural sector are challenging old models, with their stress on a contractual transaction with a work force rather than its transformation. Meanwhile, the Diversify bursaries, set up in 1998 by the Museums Association, are slowly building up a new body of Black and Minority Ethnic curatorial expertise and, in the process, raising issues of real equality at a management level.
Other developments have served to affect the landscape. The report in 2005 of the Mayor's Commission on African and Asian Heritage, 'Delivering Shared Heritage' for the Greater London Assembly, came out of long debates with the sector and the communities. The work of the high-powered Heritage Diversity Task Force that followed it took its recommendations as its basic meat. Made up of senior representatives from major museums and other stakeholders, it has sought to determine practical ways of implementation. Even more importantly, it has elicited commitment to them from leading museums. Although this involves London museums and bodies, its arguments and initiatives have a far wider relevance. But the slow speed underlines firstly how slow democratic change can be, and secondly how vital it is to take a long view.
Lastly, a major anniversary has made a difference. In 2007, the territory was shaped by the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. For that year, museums across the land engaged thoroughly with the issues around slavery, and many of the projects have been striking and effective. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the process museums as a whole discovered new ways of working with new audiences. Prominent cultural theorist, Stuart Hall,is not the only person to have perceived huge significance in this. In his talk in London's South Bank Centre in mid November, Professor Hall singled out the 'dramatic impact' that 2007 had had on schools, and noted an improved connection between community and museums. But he also pointed to a new reality. Slavery was being discussed and understood in a different way, he argued - no longer a simple black/white issue, but with a more subtle, mature and layered understanding that did not shy away from looking at the violent interdependence of the master/slave connection and disconnection. It could at last show, he argued, 'a coming to terms' with the past.
Activities around Abolition could well constitute one of the 'new sites of dialogue' recommended by Gerard Corsane in his contribution to Connections/Disconnections. If so, these papers from the V & A's 2002 conference have played their part in marking out the ground for dialogue, and continue to do so. The nature of that dialogue carries many suppositions - a common language, an agreement on boundaries and trust: all valuable and none easy, but the fundamental basis nevertheless of a civil and inclusive society.
Naseem Khan OBE