Our distorted society needs our museums

2017.01.19 Simon Brown

Many of us have watched horrified as the standard of public discourse has rapidly descended in recent years.

It would be naïve to assume that powerful people in public institutions have never lied. But there has been a clear shift to a more brazen, arrogant and shameless language. The language and actions of powerful decision makers are moving away from truth, and towards emotional manipulation. They seek to engage through emotional connection, rather than logic, analysis and fairness.

Public conversations are increasingly hijacked by political figures. Not to engage with the issue, but to galvanise support from those who already agree with them. An entire industry of opinion has been enabled by this behaviour. Opinion writers produce deliberately inflammatory pieces, to get an emotional reaction and the publicity that comes with it. National newspapers including the Sun and the Telegraph are printing pieces with openly racist, discriminatory language. Racist, discriminatory political figures can then cite these words as public opinion.

We are all able to list countless examples of this. It is arrogant, self-serving behaviour by the very people whose job it is to serve the public.

Public figures seek to distort science and history, in order to legitimise their actions. Modern fascists such as Tommy Robinson feel able to speak to crowds of supporters, directly in front of the cenotaph. Climate change deniers are sufficiently emboldened to publicly criticise schoolchildren for protesting about inaction on climate breakdown.

This behaviour matters. It influences public opinion. It leads to selfish and short-sighted action in our leaders.

One of the great privileges of working in museums is that we are public servants. Everything we do is for the benefit of the public. As trust in other public bodies collapses, museums remain among the most trusted institutions in the country.

We can and must be part of the solution. Museums represent public life in the past, the present and the future in all its glorious, grubby multiplicity. Museums show that nothing that matters is simple, and life is all the more beautiful for it. Museums are public spaces to engage with the things that affect all of us, with openness, depth and rigour.

You cannot deny the existence of dinosaurs when you are in the presence of one in a museum. You cannot deny the huge depth and scope of the transatlantic slave trade when presented with its enduring legacy in a museum. You cannot deny the deeply dangerous and destructive consequences of fascism when confronted with it in a museum.

Museums are already engaging with the issues that public figures are seeking to distort. Manchester Museum’s display of a life jacket used on a refugee travel route is a way of discussing the refugee crisis. The National Trust, the Museums Association and others being a visible presence at Pride shows to people who feel threatened by abuse that they are not forgotten in our museums. Leeds City Museum’s collecting of migration stories counters the toxic dominant narratives on migration. Museums all over the country are prioritising programmes that make their spaces open, accessible and welcome to all. They are showing how public space can, and should be, administered for the public benefit.

We spend a lot of our time worrying about the practicalities. About funding, maintenance, leaking roofs. But we are only fulfilling our purpose as public servants by remaining relevant and trusted. We are in the privileged position to be a positive voice in public discourse. We must continue to surpass our own expectations- it is as vital now as it has ever been. 

Simon Brown is a curator at Newstead Abbey and the National Justice Museum, both in Nottingham. He is also a board member of the Museums Association.

Chatting shop: the importance of developing ourselves

Charlotte Pratley, Director at Culture Syndicates CIC, reveals the ideas behind Culture Now and requests your help in creating this new support network.

Many years ago, a group of tenacious museum lovers formed a group to support their career development. Those individuals went on to become some of the most influential people in our sector, including David Fleming, Director of Liverpool Museums. At the famously bleak end of 2016, a new support group was born. We even managed a Chinese and a tour of Manchester Museum from 5 year olds taking part in Museum Takeover day.

Like many CPD activities, chatting shop with old and new heritage buddies couldn’t be directly attributed to revenue so I’d had to argue my case to go. Yet, as I’m reminded every time I step out from behind my desk, the inspiration and knowledge exchange that comes with making connections was invaluable for my personal and professional development. Naturally, that extends to my organisation as I bring new ideas and perspectives back to the office.

As the sector settles into its post-recession form, we’re learning that a dynamic, networked and entrepreneurial workforce is needed. Character Matters found that the resilient museum of the future will depend on nurturing workforce cultures of curiosity and self-efficacy yet the most commonly cited reason for workers not accessing Career and Professional Development (CPD) opportunities is “I am too busy/I have no time.” 71% of heritage workers self-initiated their CPD in full or partly despite low confidence across the industry in career development (1).

Google spend millions on developing and retaining their workforce. Admittedly, their 2015 turnover was almost nine times that of the UK heritage tourism sector but we need to learn some lessons on good business here. They found five common elements of high performing teams (2 & 3):

  • Psychological safety (being listened to and supported to fail openly)
  • Dependability (people can be relied upon)
  • Structure and clarity (everyone understands their roles, plans and goals)
  • Meaning (everyone has a clear sense of purpose)
  • Impact (everyone believes their work has a positive impact on the organisation)

In times of trouble, it’s not hard to understand why these suffer. However, creating an outstanding and relevant arts sector will rely on investing in workforce development. Funders and policymakers are giving us clear steer: projects that do not relate to diversifying and developing our workforce, in order to build solid businesses, will not be funded.

The Culture Now steering group are seeking to create the sustainable arts landscape of the future. We’re supported by our organisations and policymakers, including Arts Council England and the Museums Association. Our organisations are making significant changes on a local scale. For example, Transport for London run fantastic programmes to develop freelance staff and recruit more diversely; Museum Development run training directly informed by a business diagnostics tool for museums; and Culture Syndicates undertake valuable consultancy work that act as paid training opportunities for sector entrants and beyond. But these deep programmes of engagement cannot support the broader heritage workforce.

In particular, we’ve noticed that emerging to mid-level career professionals lack support in heritage and the arts. Culture Syndicates’ interns reported a variety of struggles, such as how hard it is to form networks when you are starting out or coping with rejection from job applications. Fortunately, Alex has brought us together to address these such issues with the creation of Culture Now; a platform for emerging to mid-level creative professionals to make change; a network for support and knowledge sharing; and an advocate for better workforce development.

We want to signpost existing opportunities so that we aren’t duplicating activities. We want to elevate the needs of the workforce in policymakers’ agendas. We want to meet up, have a drink and chat culture. So what does that mean we do? Well, we’re not sure. We can tell you our opinions (and will hopefully get a chance to do so soon) but we’re aware that the best way to start is to better understand the problem. So over to you – what issues are affecting you in your career in the cultural sector?


  1. BOP Consulting & The Museum Consultancy, 2016. Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours and Skills in the UK Heritage Workforce [online]. Available at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/ACE_Museums_Workforce_ABS_BOP_Final_Report.pdf [Accessed 25.01.17]
  2. Dubner, J., 2016. How to be more productive (rebroadcast) [online]. Available at www.freakonomics.com/podcast/how-to-be-more-productive-rebroadcast/ [Accessed 20.01.17]
  3. Ambler, G., 2016. Google identifies five norms that make up successful teams [online]. Available at www.georgeambler.com/the-five-norms-that-makes-for-successful-teams/ [Accessed 20.01.17]
  4. Oxford Economics Ltd, 2016. The impact of heritage tourism for the UK Economy [online]. Available at file:///C:/Users/N0661672/Downloads/20160927_-_the_impact_of_heritage_tourism_on_the_uk_economy_-_final_repo.pdf [Accessed 25.01.17]
  5. Statistica, [date unknown]. Annual revenue of Google from 2002 to 2015 [online]. Available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/266206/googles-annual-global-revenue/ [Accessed 25.01.17]