What can museums do to get more immigrants through their doors?

Reaching out to newcomers: the National Gallery of Denmark. Image: SMK Statens Museum for Kunst (officiel)/Flickr/creative commons.

As the bastions of a local and national culture, museums can often feel steeped in tradition and history rather than the problems of today. Yet in recent years, this has been changing, with some museums embracing a social justice agenda, aware that they need to become more relevant for 21st century society.

As part of my recent work on how museums can address the pressing social and economic needs of immigrants, I carried out research in five museums and art galleries in Copenhagen, Manchester and Paris.

I found that museums have a unique role to play in providing opportunities for immigrants to learn the language of their host country and to gain employment skills. But despite ongoing programmes to provide these skills, they still struggle to attract less-privileged immigrants – and actually reinforce the view of museums as elitist places.

Part of my research focused on Manchester Museum, which offered two volunteering programmes for a diverse range of participants, including immigrants. The In Touch Volunteer Programme ran between 2007 and 2010, followed by the Inspiring Futures: Volunteering for Wellbeing programme between 2013 and 2016. In addition, Manchester Museum and Manchester Art Gallery provide regular free English conversation classes through an ongoing programme called English Corner.

Good for skills development

Museums play a key role in developing the communication skills essential for learning a foreign language. Their objects are particularly powerful in helping learners to bring their everyday experiences and life stories into the class – a strategy called “bringing the outside in”. A 2007 study of English language lessons found such strategies were essential, helping students to construct more complex sentences as well as to speak more fluently.

This process occurred most clearly at an English Corner session organised for a group of refugee women at Manchester Museum. One woman from Somalia, who I interviewed a week after the museum session, spoke almost solely about a bowl from her community used as handling object during the session. She obviously felt very proud that such an object was at the museum and that she was able to touch it and explain its different functions to others.

Butterflies welcome visitors at Manchester Museum. Image: tom_t.photography/Flickr/creative commons.

Museums can also provide immigrants with essential employment skills that can boost their self-esteem and self-confidence. Volunteers on Mancheter Museum’s Inspiring Future programme took part in ten sessions on developing heritage knowledge. They then worked for 60 hours in the museum galleries on handling tables where they were responsible for interacting with the public around a specific artefact that they could touch. The volunteers I interviewed felt privileged to be able to touch these historically loaded objects – it gave them social prestige and turned them into experts.

An independent evaluation of the programme, conducted by the Envoy Partnership, found these volunteering activities boosted the self-confidence of participants. While they all reported feeling low self-confidence at the start of the project, a year after the volunteering experience, most reported that they often felt self-confident, and even more so after two years. They said it was a direct result of the programme.


Some immigrants left out

But despite the importance of these programmes to help develop language and employment skills, most of them actually marginalised or excluded less-privileged immigrants or those who were not fluent in the language of the host country.

Even when programmes were organised with less privileged immigrants, such as refugees and asylum seekers in mind, they often did not come to the museum without being brought in. The official evaluations of the volunteering programmes at Manchester Museum confirm these trends. While recent migrants and asylum seekers were a target group of the In Touch programme, only 13 out of a total 203 participants had refugee or asylum seeker status, and 28 participants were of black or minority ethnic background, which could have included immigrants.

The successor programme, Inspiring Futures, no longer specifically targeted recent migrants and asylum seekers. Its first-year evaluation indicated that 85.7 per cent of participants were white – and those I interviewed were all from the US. The second-year evaluation indicated that the programme had become even more ethnically homogeneous, with under 10 per cent of participants from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The trends were slightly different in Copenhagen, as the programmes I studied – language learning and employment projects at the National Gallery of Denmark and Thorvaldsens Museum – solely recruited immigrants. Yet, those immigrants they did recruit were usually from relatively comfortable backgrounds. When immigrants from less privileged backgrounds were recruited, they showed weaker outcomes and less progression than other participants.

The ConversationMuseums must better understand the issues faced by less-privileged immigrants and the reasons why they do not attend programmes that target them. By developing innovative programmes to provide language and employment skills that tackle multiple forms of exclusion, and expanding their activities beyond their walls, they could start to reach out to these immigrants and asylum seekers.

Sophia Labadi, Senior Lecturer in Heritage and Archaeology, University of Kent.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.