Carol Rogers and Claire Benjamin from National Museums Liverpool

Where the Roads of Strategy Lead—Thoughts Post-programme

Miki Tsukada (Setagaya Art Museum)

This was my second time to participate in the British Council’s exchange programme for museum educators. The first programme I joined was in 2006, now eight years ago, with a mixed group of museum educators from Japan, South Korea, and Thailand. Both this year’s programme, composed solely of Japanese participants, and the 2006 programme were structured in a way to gain first-hand knowledge into the general trends of current education programmes at British museums. It was especially meaningful to able to see the endeavours of not only London’s major museums but also those of regional art centres.

Compared to eight years ago, there was a notable difference in the clarity and confidence in which the staff at each museum delivered their presentations, using insightful language and engaging visual materials. It was clear that everyone, from museum directors to on-site staff, had a clear understanding of their institution’s mission, the aims and intended audiences of its educational programmes and the ways in which to meet their goals. All were devoted to the evaluation of educational activities and took pride in their successes, some of the larger institutions even going to the trouble of hiring specialised staff in these areas.

The local community programmes of the museums we visited naturally included educational programmes that cater to schools. In addition, programmes targeting socially, economically, or culturally excluded groups such as the unemployed, poor families, immigrants, or otherwise were on offer as if a matter of course. Methods of reaching these groups varied, from casual invitations, massive picnics and DJ events to steady, long-term efforts in which artists repeatedly visit small groups to foster sustained dialogue. To British museums, engaging with the community is synonymous to taking part in the challenge to address social issues such as exclusion and division, a far cry from the temperament of “local engagement” at Japanese museums, which generally conjures up images of subdued activities and their predetermined outputs (at least for art museums).

It was interesting to see that the elderly had been newly added to the list of those easily excluded from society. The cases of museums in Manchester, which declared itself “Age-friendly Manchester” just ten years ago, and Liverpool, which began developing programmes for aged museum-goers around the same time, were especially thought provoking. In addition to programmes that specifically target the elderly (including those with dementia), these museums conduct programmes for medical doctors and care home workers which have proven exceptionally popular. Museums ensure that the programme costs, including staff costs, are paid for by hospitals or by public money allocated to the health and welfare sector.

The strong conviction that museums have a valuable role to play in today’s super ageing society comes across in their powerful presentations. At the same time, each presentation is carefully polished to persuade doctors and caregivers of the benefits of the partnership and to successfully secure funding. Nothing was more compelling than the words of Carol Rogers, Executive Director of Education, Communities and Visitors at National Museums Liverpool: “Just to be clear, culture has never gotten enough of the budget—not now, not ever. It is only a sliver of the pie. But when healthcare and welfare get exponentially larger shares, it’s only natural for us to lean over and say ‘Well, hello there.’” Her remark conveys the hardiness and unyielding, strategic thinking of museums in ageing regional cities.

Thinking back to the presentations full of shrewd positioning and strategy, I noticed that much of the language used resembled that of the world of social business, one that addresses social needs that public services have failed to address. Whether it be unemployed youth, families living in poverty, immigrants or the elderly, there are groups of people who suffer from social exclusion. Social entrepreneurs develop programmes that provide support and aid these people to overcome the difficulties they face. They identify various sources of capital for programme development and implement rigid evaluation processes essential to demonstrate programmes are producing results worthy of continued investment. Assuming that serious social businesses operate on these general concepts, the spirit of social entrepreneurship was evident in almost every presentation we heard during this exchange programme.

Under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party government of the 1980s, cuts in public spending and principles of free-market competition were imposed to shore up a flailing British economy. These policies had a profound impact on the areas of arts and culture, upon which museums are founded. Advocating ‘New Labour,’ Tony Blair and his administration maintained essentially the same lines from the end of the 1990s and into the new millennium. Under these circumstances, business concepts such as ‘cost performance,’ ‘stakeholders,’ and ‘accountability’ have entered museum vocabulary and permeate everyday activities. Over the course of the programme, I heard time and again that museums are strapped for cash now more than ever, even after two administrations and the London Olympics. When museums, which are neither commercial business nor charity, must survive in such dire financial circumstances, it may not come as a surprise that the ways in which many museums offer their educational programmes resemble social businesses—for better or for worse.

The arts and culture can certainly contribute towards finding solutions to social problems. However, ultimately the core of art is abounding chaos or mystery and the experience of overwhelming, bewildering awe when revealed. I remind myself out of self-admonition that experiencing this essence of art, the peering into the deeply fascinating void, is where education in the arts and culture begins, and, thus, art is not about solutions but about enigmas. And, come to think of it, everyone I met on the programme undoubtedly understands this. They are able to behave so dynamically and strategically because of their belief in the world of art, a world worth holding on to. A remark made by one of the group on the final day of the programme struck me as surprisingly memorable: “Each man to his trade. We work in the arts, and that’s what we’ll do till the end. That’s how it has to be.”

I am deeply thankful to the British Council for coordinating an opportunity full of rich experiences, and to my fellow programme members, with whom I enjoyed intriguing discussion both day and night.

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