How can museums stay relevant to the UK’s rapidly changing population?

Visitors to the British Museum. Image: Getty.

In the age of Brexit and government funding cuts, the UK museums sector runs the risk of being as outdated as the objects they contain.

“Cultural capital is the biggest barrier to people coming to museums,” says Tony Butler, executive director at Derby Museums: the “it’s not for the likes of us” argument is one museums have to contend with a lot, he says. Instead, museums are often seen as something for the likes of the Jacob Rees-Moggs and Boris Johnsons of this world – older, whiter, posher people.

This image obviously does a disservice to the contents of a museum and closes off a whole world of knowledge to large parts of the rapidly changing urban populations who surround those institutions.

But the museums sector is trying to address this: this summer saw the culmination of a project that intended to act as a catalyst towards change. Open Up Museums saw around 100 museums present their findings on how they are going about to improve diversity in their audiences and workforce; these have since been compiled into an online guide.

“We were all concerned that – although there are lots of reports on how to improve diversity – because there is lots of churn in the museums sector, the knowledge gets lost. So we wanted to create a permanent resource,” says Pam Jarvis, director of consultancy Sam-Culture and one of the orchestrators of Open Up Museums.

The recurring theme in projects that have successfully improved diversity, according to the online resource, is thinking about who the audience is, reaching out to them to ask what they want and tailoring accordingly. This may seem obvious - yet it still sadly needs to be spelt out. “Some museums suffer from a huge colonial leftover,” says Jarvis. “With their stories of great white men, it doesn’t accord with what people want.” Tapping into local history, and giving voice to all sections of society within that history, is a great way to bring in local audiences to your regional museums.

A number of museums, some of which were involved in Open Up Museums and some which weren’t, are channelling this thinking effectively. Take the Black Country Living Museum which is collating an oral history of locals’ experiences of migration – 17 per cent of people in the museum’s catchment area are from BAME backgrounds – after discovering this is what locals wanted to learn about from its two community advisory panels.

Meanwhile the Holbourne Museum in Bath is reaching out to Syrian refugees in the area. After conversing with local refugee charities, and talking to key members of the Syrian community, the museum hosted a popular family arts day based around its exhibition ‘From Bath to Baghdad’, which put on specific arts and textiles activities it was thought these Syrian families would enjoy. Part of this project’s success also stemmed from covering the cost of transport – a factor which the museum discovered through its community engagement work was a big barrier to visiting. But after visiting the exhibition, many of the participants expressed a wish to come back.

But engagement shouldn’t end at asking what people want though, as several museums around the country have discovered. Derby’s status as the home of Rolls Royce was a fact the Derby Museums group seized upon to widen its audience; the group encouraged the public to come in and help build the cases for the artefacts in the new natural history gallery.


“We live in a city of engineers and want to draw on the knowledge that exists in our communities,” explains Butler. Derby Museums also gets locals passionate about history to co-curate and volunteer in the galleries too to make it a more dynamic experience for visitors. “We systematically put co-production at the heart of what we do,  and there is more engagement and support as a result.”

In other words, getting locals involved in all aspects of an exhibition means they are more likely to visit, recommend others visit, or – in the case of the most knowledgeable volunteers – actually be the reason more people want to visit.

Another way to make content more relevant to diverse populations of the UK’s cities is to actually ensure a diverse workforce. Using Arts Council funding, Colchester  & Ipswich Museums ran a three-year project that saw the group revolutionise the way it hired trainees and apprentices. Instead of just relying on traditional application forms with a shortlist invited to panel interview, it also asked all applicants to record a video of them discussing a historic topic of interest. It also didn’t advertise the role in typical places like the Guardian, but instead posted ads up in places like the local libraries.

“Video interviews meant that candidates could chat more and we could get to know them better,” says Lib Fox, project co-ordinator, at the group. “The people we ended up taking on actually only scored middle of the road,” in the traditional written applications.

Among the cohort the museums employed in the first year, only half had degrees; what's more, they included representatives of several races, someone who identified as gay and someone from a low socio-economic background. In other words, it worked.

Changing workforce make-up has already had a positive effect on the trust – for example, a trainee from China overhauled the trust's Chinese display. “They improved interpretability around the exhibition, and that brought in another group of people who would not normally have showed up before,” says Fox.

How museums use their physical assets is also a savvy way to engage local groups. Historic manor Compton Verney is situated in a very rural part of Warwickshire, and has to entice people from urban dwellings. To do so, it’s making the most of its gorgeous parks and “really pursuing the health and wellbeing agenda” according to chief executive Professor Steven Parissien. 

As a result, Compton Verney has created an early years’ forest school on site and pioneered a dementia café. A “gallery of paintings can be intimidating,” says Parissien; but by using the natural space, it can entice a wider demographic to the site and then encourage them into the museums.

The Jerwood Gallery, Hastings. Image: geograph.co.uk.

The Jerwood Gallery, a museum of contemporary British art in Hastings, adopts a similar ‘wellbeing as a driver’ approach. The museum has big light and airy galleries – this works well for the elderly with conditions such as dementia who need to avoid being overstimulated. Jerwood also runs a programme with a local children’s hospice whose patients have similar needs.

So many organisations are trying to take the right steps in terms of diversity. The obvious question is, what’s next? How will an online resource that has distilled all the learnings on the subject affect change?

To Jarvis’ mind, “The next step is for the funding bodies involved in Open Up Museums to make sure it is implemented.” Those who control the purse strings, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council and so forth, are the ones who can ultimately influence all museums to embrace diversity.

The people want to speak. Let’s hope all museums and their funding bodies are listening – or museums could end up a relic.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.