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The Status of Inclusion: Centre research theme for 2015/6


Is cultivating a sense of the difference, distinction or specialness of museums, galleries and heritage productive in seeking ‘inclusion’? Or is it better to make the difference of museums, galleries and heritage from everyday life as small as possible? In the Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage Research Theme 2015/6, we seek to focus on the subtlety and complexity of practices of engagement, access and inclusion. We will do this through drawing on a wide range of conceptual resources that will help us test and challenge the political uses and affects of any clear demarcation between professionals and communities, between inside and outside – and even between things, buildings and people.

In more detail:

Status (noun)

  1. relative social or professional position; standing.
  2. the situation at a particular time during a process.

The roles of museums, galleries and heritage in contributing to ‘inclusion’ have been regularly rehearsed over the past thirty years – and the logics which underpin this debate have a much longer history (Bennett 1995; O’Neill 2002). While a regular renovation of language has been seen (from ‘inclusion’ to ‘well-being’ and ‘happiness’ to ‘social justice’), the key question tends to revolve around the tension between, to draw on Raymond Williams, the different meanings of ‘culture’. One strand of thinking – following late ninteenth century poet and critic Matthew Arnold – locates ‘arts and culture’ as the ‘special process of discovery and effort’; ‘the best that has been thought or said’ (Arnold 1869). Another strand emphases the idea that culture is ‘ordinary’, that it is our ‘whole way of life’ and the finding of ‘common meanings’. Williams noted that while ‘some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction’ (1958).

In art gallery, museum and heritage practice the question of how to conceptualise and manage the conjunction is often, if only implicitly, at play. One tradition of practice has sought to mobilise, and even intensify, the significance and distinction of museums, art galleries and heritage in the service of ‘inclusion’; to make museums, galleries and heritage an experience distinct from life for the purpose of generating some kind of social shift. In this tradition it has been claimed that museums can change lives (Museum Association 2014) or can fight prejudice (Sandell 2012). Or that being in spaces associated with distinction can increase confidence and ‘bridging’ forms social capital (following Putnam 2000).

A second trend – derived variously from anthropological and Cultural Studies approaches to culture and radical pedagogy (Friere 1970; Dewey 1934) – has conversely sought to dis-intensify the difference between museums, galleries and heritage sites and everyday life (Graham 2012). In this tradition, classical facades were given new entrances (Laing Art Gallery), museums were set up in shopping centres or alongside libraries (Museum of Croydon), loan boxes and pictures went into people’s community centres and even houses (Glasgow’s Open Museum; Leeds Picture Library). Here, what people could contribute and share was seen as just as important as what they might learn. In more recent years, this has translated into collective decision-making and co-production about collections, exhibitions and archives (e.g. Heritage Decisions 2015). If the first tradition draws on grammar school logics, then the second is a more indebted to radical learning programmes such as the A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School or co-operative and peer-to-peer approaches to adult learning (e.g. Peckett Well; Illich 1971).

The Status of Inclusion research theme excavates the political and pedagogic traditions that inform debates concerning ‘inclusion’ and museums, galleries and heritage. In doing this, the theme draws on the different meanings of ‘status’. Over the year, we will delineate the ways in which the logics of status – significance, distinction, specialness, difference – are operative within museums, galleries and heritage and the ways in which they are calibrated for a variety of political agendas.

Yet we also want to mobilise two other inflections in the meanings of ‘status’ to help us open up our investigation. Firstly – as a Centre engaged with practice-led research, concerned with the teaching of students seeking to work in museums, galleries and heritage – we will pay close attention to the way ‘status’ points towards the professional ‘standing’ and the identities, capacities and connections used in managing and calibrating these ‘logics of culture’. In doing this we will draw on ways of reconceptualising the relationship between museums, things and people, potentially offered by theories of assemblage and actor networks (e.g. Latour 2005; Harrison et al. 2013; Macdonald 2009; 2013) and metaphors of systems and ecologies (Burns 2007; Holden 2014).

Secondly, we suspect that addressing these questions at arms length will not yield new insights. We will play with the second meaning of ‘status’ – ‘the particular time in a process’ – to look with attentiveness at the practices, languages and modes of being that are in play in visiting, learning, community engagement and participatory contexts. In doing this we will explore whether focusing on particular moments within a process of learning or engagement might have implications both for how culture is experienced and how this might be conceived politically in relation to structural accounts of inequality and distinction. We will explore a wide range of theoretical resources that allow us to be attentive to how these process might neither be ‘co-opted’ nor entirely ‘escape’, including new materialism (Ingold 2010; Jane Bennett 2010), non-representational theory (Thrift 2010), complexity (Law and Mol 2002), ‘affect’ (Grossberg 1992; Anderson 2014) and ‘attunement’ (Stewart 1996; 2012). To inflect these theories for our purposes, we will also trace the conceptual genealogy of ‘practices’ from Pierre Bourdieu via Michel de Certeau and explore how such ideas are finding form in research-as-practice literature in visual and performing arts (e.g. Carter 2004).

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