Education in museums: what should happen next?
With Loyd Grossman in the chair, three leaders in the cultural sector - Mark Jones, Director of the V&A; Professor Lola Young, former Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority; and Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery - debated the future of education in museums and galleries at the V&A.
This lecture, arranged in association with the RSA, the Campaign for Museums and the Madeleine Mainstone Trust, was part of the programme for Museums and Galleries Month 2004.
As Director of Learning and Interpretation at the V&A, I just wanted to say a few words before handing over to Loyd Grossman, the Chair of this evening's event, and those few words are to provide some context.
The Madeline Mainstone Trust was established to commemorate the work of Madeline Mainstone, Head of Education at the V&A until her early death in 1979. The Trust has a small endorsement fund, formed by contributions from museum professionals and other supporters, which is used to support visits by young museum professionals from the United Kingdom and Holland with an interest in education to study practice in each others country.
In addition, the Trust encourages the development of museum education and wider awareness of its work through two lectures each year. One is a keynote presentation at the annual conference of the Group for Education in Museums. The other is an annual lecture at the V&A; in 2004 this lecture was held on 5 May as part of the Wednesday Late programme, in the Lecture Theatre at the V&A.
I do just want to mention one other dimension to this, which is the support for this lecture from the Royal Society of the Arts. As many of you I am sure are aware, this is the 250th anniversary of the RSA. It's wonderful that in this year one of the events that we're having is this lecture tonight in association with the RSA. The RSA has done a lot with museums as part of their celebrations, including the creation of a trail to celebrate those objects which are connected with the 1851 exhibition here at the V&A, but also trails at nine other museums as well.
So we have the Madeline Mainstone Trust with it's distinguished origins, the Royal Society of the Arts, and of course, also the fact that this is Museums and Galleries Month. I will now hand over to Loyd, who absolutely needs no introduction. But I would like to say that he has been a stalwart and articulate interpreter and supporter of museums now over many years. We couldn't have a better person to act as Chair for tonight's discussions. Loyd, welcome.
Welcome to you all. We're thrilled that the lecture this year is part of the festivities around museums and galleries month. What we're going to be discussing this evening, rather what they are going to be discussing this evening, is the future of museum education. This really follows on from a rather heated debate we had in Liverpool last year around this time about the nature of museum education, so now we're going on to the future of museum education. It's very appropriate that we should be doing this at the V&A because, of course, unlike any museum that had ever preceded it, the V&A wasn't established just to house a collection, the V&A was established to embody an idea, and the idea was the value of education. So we're particularly pleased to be at the V&A this evening.
The format is pretty straight forward. Each of our three speakers will speak briefly, and then we will throw them to the audience for questioning, debate and discussion. Our three speakers are Mark Jones, who is Director of the V&A, Lola Young, who was formerly Head of Culture for the Greater London Assembly, and Sandy Nairne who is Director of the National Portrait Gallery.
Well, as Loyd has said, the V&A was the first museum in the world that had education as its primary purpose.
It originated in the School of Design, founded in 1837 as a result of the House of Commons urgent plea that training in art and design must be funded by the State if Britain was to compete successfully in international markets.
Then as now it was recognised that artists and designers needed access to the best examples of contemporary design from around the world. Indeed more money in real terms was spent on acquisitions for the School's collections than is available for the V&A now.
The foundation of a museum in 1852 carried that mission, the belief that visual choices shape our lives, to the public at large. Henry Cole's ambition was that the new museum should be a 'school room to the nation'.
But I cannot pretend that that commitment has been unwavering. The Warder's handbook for 1952 is refreshingly frank. It reads
Children are a difficult problem. Any child may visit the Museum if he or she behaves properly; but … Warders should call upon any child who will not behave to leave the Museum, and if complaints from parents follow, Warders will have the full support of the Director.
Much has changed since then. But I want to talk now, not about the V&A in particular but about education and museums in general and how their contribution can and should develop. We should, I think, start with a question. What is it that museums have that is different from the offer available elsewhere. What is museums' USP?
First, I think, authenticity. We inhabit a world in which the boundaries between fact and fiction are increasingly blurred: one in which it is difficult to distinguish between history and propaganda - did the USA really win the Second World War single handed as Hollywood would have us believe? Between drama and documentary and docudrama, news and comment or indeed invention, and achievement and celebrity. As a result people are less and less sure about the reality of other lives in other cultures and other periods of human history. And this matters enormously because it is only if we understand and respect other patterns of experience and other ways of living that we can understand our own position and the choices that we have to make. When you encounter an African mask, a coin made and spent at the time of Christ, the brushmarks made by Rembrandt or the sampler sewn by an eleven year old girl in early Victorian England you are brought face to face with the reality of other times, other places and other lives. And the excitement of encountering and experiencing and investigating such things is hard to beat. So for me the key question is how we can make that experience more available to more people.
The spirit of the times is in our favour. Ours is an increasingly visual culture: one in which more and more communication works through images first and text second. Advertisers now expect consumers to decode images, which are as sophisticated and multi-layered as renaissance imprese. And technology allows images, and therefore objects, to be made available and shared in ways that were never possible before. Museums and galleries have used the new technology to good effect, as the impressive increase in user figures for their websites demonstrates - there are more than 6m visits to the NHM website every year. And they are reaching a new audience - 20% of V&A website users have never been to the museum.
My belief is that the new technology is as significant for availability and understanding of objects and images as the invention of movable type was for the availability and understanding of text. Before the invention of type most people encountered books only in sacred locations (and the parallel between museums and cathedrals has been so often drawn that it has become a commonplace), where they were interpreted by a priestly class. After the invention of type books became present in the home and in the schoolroom and people began to read the bible for themselves with sometimes uncomfortable results.
So there is a revolution around the corner. But, even after the useful investment provided by the New Opportunities Fund and Culture on Line, we in museums have hardly begun to tap the potential of new forms of communication. There remains an enormous amount to be done. We should really be working to ensure that comprehensive and integrated museum resources are available for the study of art and design, science and technology, the natural environment, social history and world cultures, from nursery school to postgraduate study.
To do this would require collaboration on a larger scale than has yet been attempted, in England and indeed in Europe as a whole. No one wants to visit a whole series of separate websites in order to garner the material they need. And unless the resources we offer are easier to use, richer in content and more fun than the nearest available alternative, they will not be taken up by the majority of pupils or teachers. This can only be achieved if there is sufficient investment in the creation of the basic resources required, through digitising and captioning museum collections (and just as in an exhibition the captions will only be any good if they are intelligently originated for this purpose), and in building an array of educational resources relevant to the curriculum and fashioned to meet the needs and interests of different abilities, regions of England, ethnic groups and social backgrounds.
We know from research into the visitor profile of long established city museums with broad collections and well established educational programmes that at least half the population can come to regard themselves as regular museum users, and this across all socio-economic groups (48% of Londoners visit a museum at least once a year according to the ACE survey Arts in England, Attendance, Participation and Attitudes in 2001). We also know that any and every ethnic group will be attracted to a museum that puts on exhibitions or events that are of specific interest to them. We know, too, that habits of museum visitation are formed early in life and are passed down from generation to generation. If museum collections were used from an early age by every child in every school, and backed up by real visits, the proportion of the population using museums would rapidly rise above 50% and stay there. More importantly education would be better resourced, and participants more inspired.
I am aware that little of this is entirely new. In fact I myself have been involved in such things since founding SCRAN in Scotland in 1996. It seems to me though that the People's Library Network demonstrates what a lot can be achieved, relatively economically, with proper planning and co-ordination and that there is a real opportunity here which we have not yet seized.
AMICO, a collaborative venture by 35 or so American and Canadian museums, is an example of what can be achieved without enormous grants or elaborate structures. With over 130,000 objects available it has been widely subscribed to by universities, and some state education departments. It has recently been taken over by ArtStor, a venture generously backed by the Andrew Melon Foundation.
This is welcome. But ArtStor is addressed more to the needs of researchers than to those of learners in general and it reflects, very naturally, in this and other respects the culture of those that created it. I believe that it is important that we have plural voices in this field as in any other. The more relevant [and this often means the more local] the content of such resources the more readily they will engage users interest.
It seems to me that it should be a priority for the museum community in England, and indeed in Europe as a whole, to seize the opportunity to create digital and web based resources, derived from museums and galleries, which are so well thought out, comprehensive and fascinating that they find a place at the heart of educational provision. Don't let's wait too long before getting it done.
I'm tempted to say, 'Oh, right, I just agree with what Mark said', but I think rather more is required of me, and I'm going to take a slightly different tack. I'm going to pose quite a few questions. I don't necessarily promise that I'm going to answer them all, indeed, I hope we'll have quite a lively discussion about what some of the answers, or at least suggestions of answers, might be. But I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I absolutely believe in museums, in objects, in collections and in a form of education, although what I come to is to say let's scrap this kind of way in which we talk about education now and think about how we might jump out of that box, and how things might change as a consequence at some point in the future. I've tried to stick to my ten minutes. I've got ten points, ten minutes, and to keep myself on track I've got my little titles, so forgive me if I keep to that!
My first title is 'Murder at the Funfair and Mystery at the Museum', and this is because I was watching a detective series the other evening, set in Australia, and it was interesting to note these contrasting spaces, on the one hand a fair ground, and on the other hand a museum, each of them serving the unfolding of this homicidal drama. Both were depicted as spaces of conflict and death, each reminding us of the temporary nature of existence.
The fairground featured throughout the story was a place of noise, of chaos, of simmering violence and gruesome murder, performed, of course, in a ghost train. The museum, on the other hand, was a collection and exhibition of bones. That's all it was, human and animal bones. This is set in contemporary times by the way. And it was the site of the memory of death and, through a rather convoluted plot line, a very distant memory of birth. It was very ordered, with no exhibit allowed to be touched or moved out of place, no-one admitted without signing the book. I'm sure the warders' guidelines that you read out, Mark, would have been much appreciated in this particular institution. But simmering under the surface here was the repressed lust of the very uptight curator for the foxy, young female assistant, and the seething jealousy of a betrayed sibling. The middle-aged male curator was a sinister character, at one time a murder suspect, but ultimately a victim. Now I don't want to read too much into that, but I thought it was interesting because of the way in which there was something there, something about this simmering under the order and the absolute categorisation that was in the museum (although I would say it was not necessarily a great incentive to want to join the profession). There was something about the way it captured this sub-text of what a museum can do, it can help to unlock these feelings, these emotions, and I think I want to hold that there, to think about the place of emotion and feeling, both individual and collective, and the ways in which that can be drawn on and informed by what goes on within a museum.
Second headline, 'What is a museum for?' There's quite a lot of debate going on about this at the moment, whether it's at the Museums' Association, or the Campaign for Learning in Museum and Galleries, or the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, or individual organisations, there seems to be a fair bit of discussion along the lines of, what kind of organisation do we want for the twenty first Century? What should a museum be like in the twenty first Century? It's a very fundamental question, and one which needs to be fully explored in order to think about what education should, could or might be in the future. But I think it would be a shame if, after all these debates, we simply return to our current way of organising things in museums, simply return to the current organisational structures and way of naming the kinds of work we do.
Is education at the centre of the work of museums? Well, to me it is, it's absolutely the fundamental core of what a museum is about, but I have to say that this isn't always a popular thing to state, and that's partly because peoples' conceptualisation of what education should be can be quite narrow, with a focus on more or less formal education, often based in schools or other kinds of educational institutions, and/or community-based organisations often conceived of as working with children and young people, although there's sometimes a nod to the notion of lifelong learning and education. It's often also a model which is based on pouring lots of knowledge into empty vessels-us. Also, not all organisations have recognised the centrality of education or attempted to let education run the organisation, rather than it being the other way round. For me, as an exercise, I think it's interesting to try and think about what aspects of a museum's work are not connected to education, or what I would call a very broad concept of education perhaps. I would certainly be one which would include scholarship, curating, collecting, displaying the collection, working with schools, yes, but also debates, exchanges of ideas, exploring of feelings and emotions, and feelings related to cultural identities.
'Education, education, education'. Partly in response to government policies that place access and social inclusion at the heart of what cultural institutions do, there has been a proliferation of educational and outreach programming in museums. In many respects this policy focus has simply allowed or encouraged people who had formerly been working and struggling for the importance of education, to get on with that work in a more conducive atmosphere. Education officers were, and sometimes still are, often junior members of staff and accorded little real power or resources. Financial resources for education work were, and sometimes still are, frequently project-based. This is something that I'd like to see disappear. The idea that education is a project that you do, and it's time limited, should certainly diminish.
'Stick and carrots'. Well, what are the incentives for changing that approach to education and learning in museum. Monitoring and evaluation goes hand-in-hand with most of the education work that is produced, but what do we do with all that information that is gathered? How widely is it disseminated? Should funders be asking more questions (dare I say) and making more rigorous assessments of the kind of work that is produced?
Moving on then to 'Risks and rewards'. If we want museums to take risks, though, a blame culture where "failed projects" are ruthlessly disposed of is not helpful. A culture of risk and innovation can be stifled by over-burdensome bureaucratic procedures, even though they are designed with good intentions, and this is particularly relevant in the current situation, where a significant proportion of work may be project-based, and therefore, you are continually on this treadmill of producing the information required in an application form.
'The museum ecology'. It's really hard to make generalised arguments based on a concept of 'the museum sector' because of the variation in status, resources, professional practice and so on of different institutions. Something that I've observed in lots of the discussions in which I've taken part, is that very often the discussion is about national museums and, yes, they're great, they're excellent, but they're not the only game in town. So many organisations, so many museums are so much smaller and have so much less resources. They don't have education departments, they don't necessarily even have education officers, and they're trying to struggle along to produce this work that is expected of them. Often when critical comments are made people will speak up for the sector, and give examples of genuinely exciting and engaging projects and programmes, and that's absolutely right. Whilst these do exist though, there are some less well thought out pieces of work that go on, and we shouldn't pretend that they don't.
As a result of the report 'Renaissance in the Regions', the potential of hubs to bring together small, medium and large organisations in equal partnerships is yet to be fully realised. This is unsurprising given the under-resourcing of that particular big project, and I think that in the future what I'd certainly like to see (and I think we're moving towards that, or at least towards thinking about how it can be made effective) is bringing together large, medium and small organisations, some of which may not even be registered museums at all, in order to share their expertise, share their skills which may lie in different areas, in order to produce work of a very high standard for as many people as possible.
And, moving on, 'Museums and the wider cultural ecology, and beyond culture'. It's been particularly interesting for me working recently on the Olympic bid, in respect of the cultural festival element of that. One of the points that's come up again and again from people taking part in consultative meetings is that, if you work in one sector in a particular profession, you don't get the opportunity to have meaningful engagement with colleagues working in different parts of the sector, or with artists, or with archivists, or with administrators and bureaucrats. So the opportunity for everybody to sit down together and talk in a mixed group is a real bonus. And again, I think from these juxtapositions you can get some very interesting, professional collaborations across the borders of different professional expertise which ought be encouraged, and I'll come back to that in a slightly different sense shortly.
Eight. 'Raising aspirations'. This is something that Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture has recently been talking about, tackling and identifying what she called, "the poverty of aspiration which compromises all our attempts to lift people out of physical poverty". She says this should be a priority, and she argues that culture can contribute to the alleviation of this particular lack. From this statement and other clues, I sense that there is going to be a re-casting of the whole access, outreach and education agenda, and I hope that as a result, the idea of education will be further expanded and also interrogated, not confined to school and formal education, and that the role of museums will likewise be subjected to ongoing debate and analysis.
Point nine. 'Ways of interpreting raising aspirations'. It's salutary to remember or to note that even within London, if you live in North London or East London, or you're a young person from a particular kind of background, the idea of coming into the West End is just not on the cards. Hopping on that bus and doing your own thing in the West End in the afternoon, whether that's in Trafalgar Square or in a museum or whatever, is just simply beyond some peoples' level of aspiration. So I do think it's important that in the museum sector we engaged with that raising of the ambition, the raising of the sense of possibility that some of those, particularly young people, have.
It's also important to encourage people to question and to criticise, but not in cynical world weary way, but in a way that speaks of a love and a desire for things to be better. Collections - by provoking responses which can range from, and include all of, intellectual emotional responses, visceral anger, shame, joy, pleasure - can all contribute to our emotional and intellectual education and development, and enhance our lexicon of experience, the way in which we talk about our identities. For people to walk through a museum, wherever it is, I think it's really important for them to have responses which might be, 'Oh, I didn't know that', or, 'I've never seen that before', or, 'That's different to what I thought', or, 'I don't believe it and you've got to work hard to convince me that it's true'.
And, finally, point number ten, 'Cultural Diversity'. Obviously, there's loads of issues that I haven't been able to discuss and some that I've barely touched on, but one I do want to flag up, although it's fraught with difficulties and a very complex area, is this issue of cultural diversity. I think we've got a real need to think much more complexly about what we mean by this, what it means, what the shifts in meaning of that term are, what the implications are for thinking about our collections, how they're interpreted, and our professional practices in education and learning and elsewhere. All of those things need to be thought through, and thought through in a very multi-layered way, not in a way which suggests that here is a pot called cultural diversity and once we've filled that up we can move on to the next thing. But that's not to say we should lose sight of some very practical issues that are to do with representation in the workforce, on boards of governance, in training and employment and so on.
And my very last point, I thought it was particularly instructive to hear Mark reading from the warders' handbook, and no doubt there are some people who wish we could return to those days but, fortunately, I don't think that's on the cards. But it's instructive because it signals how far we have come, that that could raise a laugh, that could be read out as a joke which most of us will get. So what will education in museums look like in ten years? Well, as I've suggested, perhaps we'll have people working in the sector who aren't called curators, or education officers, or have education departments and programmes, which isn't to say that museums, whatever they might be called, aren't the centres and foci of learning and education, but to say that it informs the whole of the institution, the whole of the organisation, in a way that everything is a department of learning and education, everything relates back to that. We will have a strong and confident cohort of perhaps well paid professionals with skills and knowledge which reflect much more accurately the kind of society that we'd become, and in which we will be living. A group of people who can work with, and communicate at a very high level with audiences and colleagues alike, by unlocking the power of the object for everybody to enjoy.
I wanted to talk very briefly under two heads; one is the term engagement, and the other is the term entitlement, and in each of those heads I've got three fairly simple points to make.
I want to start with engagement. My first point lies within the broader framework of interpretation. I can't help but think back a bit, and I remember my desire as a Junior Curator at the Tate, to think about how we might provide some very simple introductions to some of the rooms in which we'd hung modern and contemporary works of art. I used to study some of the texts in the Science Museum and the Museum of Mankind, challenging subjects like the nature of Aboriginal spirituality taken on in two hundred and eighty words. Such efforts appeared to me to make it essential to try and talk about Malevich and the nature of whiteness. But I remember coming back in about 1976 and putting an introductory text into a gallery in what is now Tate Britain, and within twenty four hours the Director told me to take it down. Such texts were not appropriate he thought, to the rooms of the Tate.
We have moved on a long way, but the assumptions about interpretation should not be confused with the nature of knowledge. You'll remember very well that the famous survey of the Dada and Surrealism Exhibition at the Hayward some years back, surveyed people as they entered the exhibition and asked them questions about the movement and the nature of the art, and did the same as they left the exhibition, conclusively proving that they knew a lot less when they came out than when they'd gone in. So let's not confuse the questions of knowledge with the questions of interpretation, but let's acknowledge that we've moved on a long way.
The second point within engagement is about spaces, and of course, we can't really think about spaces without thinking about behaviour. Mark has already made some very adroit points about behaviour, although, one is still struck that the two great spaces of surveillance in modern society are, of course, the museum and the shopping mall. Both of those spaces are under constant twenty four hour surveillance, both of them have standard behaviours, standard reactions, and indeed, both of them may now offer very similar pleasures. But if we think about what is or isn't the right or appropriate behaviour, it's to do with what people make as choices. Many years ago, in a survey at the Tate, one of the researching staff was trying to find out about orientation, and finding people passing through the Tate (this was the Tate Britain site) clearly turning their plans and having great difficulty in finding where they were going. The researcher would then approach the visitor and say 'are you lost?' and the person asked would pause and then say, 'no, no, I'm not lost' and would continue with difficulty, but the researcher would approach someone else and say, 'excuse me, are you lost'? Again, the same response, 'no'. Of course, it took some time for the researchers to come back with the result we all know: which is that nobody's lost in a museum because they're not trying to get anywhere. The very nature of our behaviour and activities is not to do with trying to find somewhere. It's not about finding the perfect pair of shoes, although here I reckon there is no way of finding the perfect pair of shoes. But it is about the sense of having some information on which you can make choices. Choice affects the nature of space. We change behaviour, whether we have dedicated education spaces, whether we allow people to do all kinds of outrageous things in traditional galleries, or whatever we choose to do, those things go together.
For the third point, we should think digital. I had the opportunity to develop the Tate's digital programmes, and I won't repeat the general issues, because I agree with every word that Mark says about the importance of digital developments. But I did have the chance to do some work with artists in thinking about the use of digital space. This produced the wonderful spectacle of mongrel, an artist collective, producing a samistat version of the Tate site, in which all kinds of diseases that had taken hold of the old prison, lying under the foundation of the Millbank site, were sited and re-inscribed back on Hogarth's paintings, causing immense confusion to all visitors who thought they were on the real Tate website. A further example lies in the wonderful work of Susan Collins who proposed, very simply, that there should be not just the four physical Tate sites, but the most logical extension of Tate in Space. Once we'd launched into the website, the fifth Tate site, after Tate Liverpool, Tate St Ives, Tate Modern, and Tate Britain should be Tate in Space. We had an enquiry from the British Aerospace Organisation saying, actually there were restrictions about flights and they did want to know that the Tate had in mind. But Susan's point was very literal, that we could actually be somewhat imaginative. And this is the point about digital engagement - it must be imaginative and creative.
My second term is entitlement. Lola's already given us some of the lead here, because one's bound to start with cultural questions, and those cultural questions are both about the shifts of culture within museums, but also how we shift within cultures outside museums, and shift through and in response to them. The first point is over governance, something that no-one in the past ever really talked about. I only understood governance in my early days in museums, when on the third Thursday afternoon of the month I would see the Chairman's Rolls Royce turn up in Atterbury Street. and I found it very hard to be on site, and I'd find myself other business to do. I was very junior at that time. And, later on, the said Chairman actually referred to the very idea of those trustee meetings being a peculiar kind of enjoyment. Now, I wouldn't want to deny any trustee, not least the trustees and their Chair at the V&A, the crucial pleasures of this work, but what has vastly changed is the consciousness of thinking about questions of governance which bring with them questions of ownership, and indeed questions of entitlement. We cannot simply consider the questions of changing cultures, without asking how we are going to try and get those things to work together.
There was an example I really invented but I'll offer it anyway. The fishing community in St Ives was for a period flying the Canadian flag, because the fishermen thought the Canadians, who were fighting with the Spanish in the fishing wars when the EU wasn't prepared to do so, were a rather more sympathetic nation to belong to. So all the fishing fleet in St Ives harbour had Canadian flags. And there was the moment when at Tate St Ives there would be a Canadian exhibition to provide a point of resource and reconciliation and position recognition for the fisherman of St Ives. This is an invented story. But the invention is there for a purpose, because in many of the community engagements we know so well, a point of change comes about through people taking part when their politics relate to their livelihood.
My next point has been touched on by Lola with her reference to Tessa Jowell and the announcement this week from the Secretary of State, of putting aside instrumentalism. We live at a very interesting moment, to have a Secretary of State actually getting up and being prepared to talk about cultural values in a more direct way, while not rejecting the important responsibilities relating to the uses of public funds. And the fact that DfES and DCMS have developed a joint education strategy, the fact that we're actually seeing joint initiatives come through in some funding streams, however interrupted and project-based some of them are, these are really important initiatives and we shouldn't lose sight of that.
Finally, I come to the question of process in relation to entitlement. Entitlement isn't just about a kind of grand idea, it's about the process that probably links us back to engagement. A tiny example from the Portrait Gallery is a programme which we're developing further now with support from DfES and the Dulverton Trust, is that of video conferencing. Video conferencing is deeply low-tech, it's fantastically cheap, it's a way of working interactively. First we were doing it with hospital schools and allowing kids to talk two ways. The crucial point is two-way. I spent a lot of time at the Tate developing all kinds of web casting. Web casting is fantastic but it's pretty pricey, it's quite complicated and it does feel pretty one-way. You can send a message back, you can ask a question through a moderator, but video conferencing is wonderfully direct, you've got people talking, engaged in a two-way process, and that, for me, is the analogy of where we've got to go. We've got to develop an idea of two-way if we're going to get anywhere at all.
And as a coda, I've been thinking a lot in the last ten days about the nature of footballers, star footballers in particular, and David Beckham, one particular footballer who has taken his place upon the walls with the great and the good. In contemplating how one talks about the questions of aspiration, I've probably caused Thomas Carlyle, one of the great founding spirits of the National Portrait Gallery, to be spinning in his grave. But I hope he's not spinning too fast, because I think even Carlyle would have recognised that in creating great portraits of great people now, we're going to run into some interruptions of a kind that blur fact and fiction. The questions of the dramatis personi, the questions of who's really taking part, is he asleep or isn't he asleep? Well, I can tell you his mother tells me that he is asleep. She was with us last week. But whether or not David Beckham's asleep, the fact is that we're causing a kind of interrogation, the kind of engagement, the kind of entitlement to a debate that I think we all wish to seek.
Thank you, Sandy. I wondered why you'd spent so much time thinking about Thierry Henry. We've had a very interesting range of speculation about the future. I would remind every one of Alvin Toffler's immortal words, 'The trouble with the future is that it comes too soon and never in the right order'.
So, questions from the floor. No matter how celebrated you are, please identify yourself before you ask the question; we do have some roving microphones.
Patrick Towell, Simulacra:
I had a question really for all the panelists because you talked about the core function of education in museums, and you also talked about the excitement of digital publishing. Is the role of museums to be publishers? Because digital publishing is complex and very fast evolving, and requires a lot of capital; and because you've also hinted that there are sustainability issues with the production of digital materials. So is it core in museums' function in delivering its education remit to be publishers? If it is, do you feel happy charging for some of that, and if it isn't, what kind of strategic partnerships can you make with the private sector to deliver that but not do it yourselves?
I had a wonderful year and a half trying to set up a dot com between Tate and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and one day I'll write a little history of that. It didn't work out, surprise, surprise. But a great many other things are working out, and I think that your question is very pertinent in a sense that the other question is, should museums form television stations or independent production companies? To which my answer is mostly no. It doesn't make a lot of sense to try and do that, no more does it really make sense to try and become independent digital producers when there are a lot of very good independent digital producers around. What we haven't yet got, which Mark was alluding to, is the balance of investment actually going in the right places. Frankly, I think we're only in phase one and a half of about five phases of digital and publishing developments that we can see ahead of us. We're really only at the beginning, scratching the surface that has involved digitising a lot of museum collections, beginning to have some information, trying out a few suggested routes, starting off the very, very, very crude beginnings of E-learning. There's a long, long way to go, and like Mark, I think it's incredibly exciting. But what we haven't cracked is obviously the economic model that's going to support us. And no, I don't support a lot of charging. I've argued with AMICO from the beginning and have refused to take part in AMICO because of that.
I think publication is something that has characterised museums from the beginning, and it's always been one of the major ways in which museums have been able both to interpret their collection, to provide knowledge about them, and also to reach people beyond the museums' walls. Museums have sometimes published themselves, and sometimes they've published through commercial publishers. For me, that's not really a theological question at all. Currently, the V&A has it's own publishing outfit and it's profitable, so clearly, that's very good. Can digital publication be sustainable? Yes. I think that both SCRAN, which is a Scottish organisation, and AMICO, have demonstrated that subscription can provide sufficient income to sustain such organisation. Should they charge? For me, there's no theological difference between charging for a digital library and charging for a book, and certainly we, in the V&A, like everybody else, charge for books, and it seems to me that it may very well be that sustainability can only be achieved if people have to subscribe to web-based libraries.
Rob Dickens, Trustee of the V&A:
All three speakers mentioned engaging, then connecting and the education process, but when you're dealing with young people who have an array of attractions in front of them, no-one has mentioned how you attract young people into museums in order to engage them. It seems to be a key part of the equation that no-one's dealt with yet.
I should say, for those of you who don't know, that I don't work in a museum, so in a sense I can say what I like, I can say what I think a museum should do, but it's not me that's going to have to try it, and I can speak of some of the things that I know that do get young people engaged. Many of you who are here who do work in museums will be able to give your own examples as to how that happens, alongside Mark and Sandy. If I could start by saying what I don't think it's about, because it's quite a tired debate so I just want to get in out of the way. To me, it's not about any kind of notion of dumbing down or the Disneyfication of a museum, and I also think that again (as I said before) that education isn't only about young people. There are different ways of thinking that will come from working with a wider variety of professionals that can help this process, one of which is working with artists, maybe designers, people who work in digital media, people who work in a whole range of other professions. I think, also, that museums should not work in isolation from schools, from other community-based organisations, from some of the things that children and young people are interested in. But the hard to reach group that we kind alluded to, those who don't aspire to or think about museums as places that are interesting and have something to say to them, have to be convinced; you have to use a range of different ways of saying, well, actually it is worth your while to come. Some of them still won't come but, you know, not everybody has to go to football matches. I'm not saying everybody has to go to museums either, but I think a whole lot more people could be attracted in and a lot of that work is already going on.
Sandy, aside from commissioning portraits of world famous footballers, what's a good way of bringing younger people into museums?
Well, part of it is taking a museum out to young people. The question in relation to young people is not to assume that if you just change the activities in the museum that they'll then flock in. Certainly, the kind of work we're developing in the Portrait Gallery is to work with community organisations, young peoples' own organisations where they've got a chance to mould and shape what happens themselves, and that means us partnering with local organisations. If I just cite an example I was close to earlier in the year, working with Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden (where we had a partnership exhibition of works from the collection). Seeing the number of young women who'd been bunking out of school, getting the chance through their organisation to look at Cindy Sherman's work and reflect on their own images, and their own self-portraiture, and to be given a position in the display of the Portrait Gallery material as part of the organisation, was fantastic. It was an obvious example of a kind of engagement, and indeed entitlement, that wouldn't otherwise have occurred.
Mark, attracting young people, a question of programming or partnerships?
It's clear, isn't it, that it depends what you do. If you look at the people who've come to Vivienne Westwood, they're on the whole very young. If you look at the people who came to Gothic on the whole, much less young, unless you had an evening for Goths, in which case they got younger again.
Did you have an evening for Goths?
You did, fantastic.
What's odd about this, is that it's generally perceived that museums have a problem in attracting young people. But if you look at the statistical evidence, museums don't seem to have that problem at all, and in fact, if you divide people up by decade, the most popular decades for museum visiting are 15 to 25 and 25 to 35, and the area where we have the most problem in attracting as many as you would expect is in the over 55s. So there's a complete gap between the reality of the figures and the perception that people have, and I sometimes wonder whether we don't concentrate almost too much on youth, and too little on examining why people who, on the face of it, would have every reason to visit museums, like, say, people who've retired, are not visiting in larger numbers. Maybe it's because we spend so much time on attracting young people.
Mike Coin, System Simulation Limited:
I really wanted to ask a question which draws upon some of the things which the other two speakers have been talking about, because it seems to me that there is a challenge in terms of museums and other cultural institutions exploiting the technology which is already available, and which is providing all sorts of very exciting possibilities. But equally, there's a challenge to the museum profession to develop their interpretative skills in actually making use of that, because perhaps for the first time for a long time the technology has ceased to be as frightening as it was in the past. It's ceased to be about some of the mundane cataloguing tasks, for example, that dominated technological developments in the past, and it's providing all sorts of opportunities for opening up interpretive talents that are part of the professional bag of tools. I was wondering whether it's necessary to put as much stress on that side of the developments that are taking place as on, as it were, the hard technical side.
Absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more. I think one of the great problems we've had is that people have concentrated on hardware and on networking, when actually that's not the key problem at all. The key problem is the quality of the interpretation. Museums really oughtn't to be afraid of that at all, because organising an exhibition is like working on the web. That's to say that anyone who's organised an exhibition will know that one of the frustrations is that in physical space, in real physical space, you can only organise things one way. But you know that the objects relate in many more ways than that, and that they can play off against each other. Ideally, one would like them to play off against each other in three or four or a dozen different ways, thus eliciting all kinds of meanings which you have more or less to suppress in the layout of a single display or a single gallery. What the new technology enables us to do is to play with those possibilities in a way that hasn't really been available to us before. One of the biggest disappointments about what we've done so far, is that working in this medium has been regarded as a kind of a bit of drudge, and something which people have to get on with, but it's not the thing which has engaged the brightest people in the senior positions in museums directly. People are very willing to take on the organisation of a major exhibition, but it's seldom that you find a star in the curatorial firmament taking on an equivalent of interpretation on the web, and I'd like to see that change.
I'm over 45 and still an occasional museum visitor. I wonder whether the panel would care to comment on the contribution made for the vast majority of the population of England for whom local museums are much more accessible than national museums, and whether they would care to comment on the relative funding of the national museums and local museums.
Someone must always mention the F word to spoil our fun. Lola, funding of local museums versus the national?
Funding of local museums. Well, you know, an easy cheer and yes, it is inadequate. But I certainly don't want to set up the funding of local museums against the funding of national museums, because I don't think that's terribly helpful - and that's not just because I'm sitting between these two! I think that from my perspective, having had some kind of overview of the cultural sector at large, there are very definite inequities within the sector, and that's due to a range of reasons. This is not about apportioning any blame, but I think that certainly in the past, and perhaps still currently, the arts sector has been very efficient at articulating its voice, its demands, and I would say rightly so; perhaps the museums sector has found that rather more difficult to do for a whole range of reasons. Just as there are in the museums sector, there's a huge range of organisations in the arts sector, and I guess you could imagine that same question coming to an arts audience as well. The problem is, as many of you will know, that a lot of local museums are dependent on local authority funding. People talk very much about the role of culture and cultural institutions in regeneration and a more local sort of tourism. And yet the relevant government bodies or government departments are still not giving the money to those local institutions that would enable them to thrive, to develop, to feel more equitable in a partnership with a larger institution. So I think we've got a lot of lobbying to do, and making of the arguments for the museums sector as a whole still. But I think there are particular sub-sectors as it were, within the sector at large, that need extra work.
Yes, I think local museums are seriously under-funded on the whole, and I think that the one really big commitment, an additional commitment that government has made to funding museums, Renaissance in the Regions, is intended to address that. I think that's an excellent thing, and one can see from the first phase of that (which unfortunately, extends only really to three regions so far) that it's making a big difference.
But it's a much, much smaller amount of money than is needed.
Yes, its not enough, and I think we have a huge problem in this country about museum funding in general, which I would put down in part to the slowness of museums to come together and argue their case convincingly, but it's a problem which affects national museums as well as regional and local museums. In the case of the V&A, since 1997 our funding has increased by eight percent, the Retain Price Index has gone up by nineteen percent, wage levels have gone up by thirty four percent and the cost of running government has gone up by forty one percent. Now that isn't a position which is sustainable in the long-term, indeed, inevitably that means that it becomes increasingly difficult to do what we think we need to do. It seems to me that, if you look at other European countries, or indeed, at funding in Japan or China or North America, Britain spends inexplicably little on its museums and galleries.
Sandy, a final word.
The only word that makes sense is to seek some way forward for education through those local museums becoming more active and more demanding. I'm pleased that the Secretary of State is talking about the cultural values of museums, and we need to hammer back to the Treasury why we need that funding across the whole piece at all levels. What I have experienced is smaller and local museums getting better and stronger about what they demand of national museums in terms of loans, engagement and partnership, and that is extremely encouraging. It is certainly one way of demonstrating why that funding, if we can get hold of it, will be well spent.
Well, many thanks to Sandy Nairne, to Lola Young and to Mark Jones. Thank you very much indeed. We are extremely grateful to the Trustees of the Madeline Mainstone Trust for sponsoring this lecture, very grateful to the V&A for hosting us this evening. We hope you enjoy the rest of Museums and Galleries Month, and thank you all very much for joining us. Thank you.