09 November 2010
Museums are one of the test beds for the big society. 'Vanguard community' Liverpool is to build "a volunteer programme so they can keep museums open longer" - the words of David Cameron in his first major speech on the big society as prime minister. But does anyone care if those volunteers are diverse? Does it really matter who delivers the big society, as long as someone does?
One reason why it matters is that museums must connect with their communities or drift into elitism and irrelevance.
Museums are heavily reliant on volunteers and that is a brilliant opportunity for them to make such links. But they must link with the whole community, not just the white, older person who typically gives their free time to the heritage sector.
Museum volunteering also benefits the volunteers - companionship, skills and career development, and meaningful, interesting work are frequently cited. These benefits should not be the preserve of one social group.
What is more, the Labour government made an explicit link between voluntary activity and 'community cohesion'. This was its term for the 2001 disturbances caused by tensions between white and Asian residents in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, and the 'home grown' suicide bombers who attacked London in 2005. A government report found 'shocking' segregation in the three towns, and concluded that people from different backgrounds must have the opportunity to meet on neutral ground. Museums, as trusted institutions and as spaces where cultural identity is forged and maintained, play a key role in such thinking.
That was then, this is now. The extent to which these arguments for diversity in volunteering grab the ConDems is unclear. However, there is another reason why the coalition might be interested. In the era of austerity it is hoped the big society will fill the gaps as state-funded public services shrink. But if the coalition is relying on the usual suspects, it will simply not have enough manpower.
The big society refers to more than one thing of course - communities taking over and running local public services, making more government data available to the public so they can hold services to account. But bodies are needed. John Mohan, deputy director at the Third Sector Research Centre, has warned that volunteering levels are static and most is done by a 'civic core' who tend to be older, well-educated and live in affluent areas. If more volunteers are required, efforts must be made to bring in a wider section of society. He suggests this is good news for diversity as it will have to receive attention.
Museums constantly strive to attract varied volunteers, but the most recent evidence from 2005 shows just how much this effort is needed. An Institute of Volunteering Research survey of museums, libraries and archives found volunteers were mostly middle-aged or retired - two thirds were over 55 and a third over 65. Only four per cent were from minority ethnic backgrounds compared to nine per cent of the England and Wales population.
Veronique Jochum, research manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says:
"If you look at the statistics, [they] tend to show that participation volunteering isn't very diverse. Certain forms of participation require experience, skills and time - not everyone has access to those. So the big society agenda could reinforce certain inequalities. "
However, if museums can get it right, it seems the volunteers are out there. A micro-mapping project by Dr Andri Soteri-Proctor, research fellow at the TSRC, found almost 300 grass roots organisations in just 12 streets in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. These reflected the diversity of the local community.
"There's an awful lot of volunteering that doesn't appear on statistical national data sets. In areas of diversity you've got a lot of volunteering going on where people might not define their activity as volunteering. For faith groups, it is seen as part of that faith. They were providing projects, but didn't see it as volunteering."
" It looks as if people in more prosperous neighbourhoods are more likely to be involved not because there is something in the air, it's because they've got the resources. We need to have a fuller understanding of social background constraints if we're going to increase levels of engagement."
In particular, he says, recruiting more young people could help bring about a more representative volunteer cadre, as there are many more BME people in younger age groups.
In fact, museums have done just this. Stories of the World is a strand of the Cultural Olympiad and the largest ever youth participation scheme ever held by museums. Under-24s from diverse cultures are invited to explore, curate and market collections, telling stories about the objects that resonate with them. The project aims to leave as a legacy a more integrated society.
In London, Stories of the World involves 1,000 young people and 23 museums. For example, the Jewish Museum has brought together young people from the Camden Chinese Community Center, community group Congolese Action, the Centre for Filipinos, the Irish Travellers Movement and LaSwap sixth form. Participants used objects from the collection to map their own and others' journeys to London. They produced films and digital work which are being shown at the museum.
The Guildhall Art Gallery put on public speaking course teaching the classic art of rhetoric. This culminated with a 'gala debating event' at the Roman Amphitheater, focusing on London as a global city, and whether or not the heritage industry of the city reflects this in an accessible and vivid manner. The Guildhall is also planning a week of project work with people for whom English is a second language. London Transport Museum recruited four teenagers whose heritages range from the Caribbean to Portugal, from India to South Africa. The four are paid a small fee eight week's work spread over a year. Although they are not volunteers in the classic sense, part of their brief is to work with young volunteers and embed a youth perspective in the museum, which will lead to a '2012 exhibition'.
Why are museums not crammed with people like this? Fiona Davison, head of regional museum partnership Renaissance London, says:
"Most museums rely on volunteers approaching them or on word of mouth - known volunteers recruiting friends - a strategy which has the drawback of 'like recruiting like'. Trustees may also recruit people but they have the same profile as volunteers - older white people - so that doesn't help with diversity."
Confusingly, research shows that formal recruitment procedures are equally off-putting, reinforcing stereotypes that only a certain type of person volunteers. The answer is targeted recruitment. The London Transport Museum advertised for its young consultants with Connexions, the youth advice service.
So far, so simple. But there's a problem - there is no way around the fact that projects like Stories of the World cost money. Whilst it looks likely that Stories of the World will receive continued funding under the Renaissance programme, other museum programmes are not going to be so lucky. Museums could be said to have got off lightly in the spending review with a 15 per cent cut, but only in comparison to other sectors.
The NCVO's submission to the spending review warned:
"Even as the ambition is to place more weight on individual and local initiative, the government needs to sustain and engineer the frameworks which encourage that individual, voluntary action... the cuts on volunteering programmes may be destroying the support systems and body of knowledge needed to carry through the government's policy agenda."
That is the big paradox of the big society - volunteering is not free.
"There is an assumption that these things will just happen,"
If that assumption is wrong, museums may end up relying more than ever on the usual suspects, while vibrant projects like Stories of the World become a thing of the past.