Modesty against the cuts: museums + public + democracy + personal

How people sharing personal experiences through a museum digital storytelling project use ideas of courtesy instead of rights to revise institutional legitimacy; a hopeful kind of modesty which might come in handy in reimagining a public service ethos in the face of the UK’s public sector cuts. 

Helen Graham
2 October 2012

Museums + Public + Democracy

It’s very easy when you visit museums not to realize what bizarre institutions they are. Museums take stuff – everything from old masters paintings to your nan’s old radio – and in doing so make a twin promise that they will both make these objects available to visitors now through displays and exhibitions and (here is the bizarre part) preserve them forever. Because of this impossible promise, museums are institutions based on a certain kind of connection between the ‘public’ and ‘democracy’. Museums are open to all, accessible to all and aim to represent all but they also do this on behalf of all. The latter idea – of balancing out individual rights of access with those of everyone else now and everyone in the future – has been put into practice by drawing legitimacy from representational democracy and professional expertise. A version of democracy forged in ideas of ‘public interest’ and the ‘greater good’.   

Of course – as is the case across the public sector – this settlement has been questioned and has been added to with ideas of participation and individual rights. The implications of this wider shift have become urgent for museum practice as more and more it is personal items and memories which institutions seek for collection and preservation. Not so long ago oral histories focused on asking people how pieces of industrial machinery worked, now museums ask people how they fell in love in the work canteen. In other words, museums are asking a bit more.

The question I explored at the ‘Creating Publics, Creating Democracies’ workshop was how the personal nature of museums’ contemporary collection strategies might be affecting the ‘public interest’ settlement. However, rather than leading to an increasing assertion of individual rights, in research with people who had shared their own personal stories more modest ideas emerged. At the workshop I explored the way in which people’s desire to be treated by the museum with courtesy might signal a way of enlivening democratic accountability beyond the coldness of ‘balancing interests’ while still keeping the basic idea of ‘public interest’ intact. Hence, ‘modesty against the cuts’.

Museums + Public + Democracy + Personal 

At the workshop I explored this question of how the personal is affecting museums’ public interest settlement through a reading of Culture Shock!, a digital storytelling and contemporary collecting project which was led by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (2008-2010). The Culture Shock! project took the widespread desire to display and collect individual people’s personal items, stories and memories to a new level. In Culture Shock! workshops people not only chose which personal stories or memories they wanted to record, they then developed scripts, scanned in photographs and used imovie software to edit these together into a kind of slide show with sound. These stories were not simply displayed, they were – like the old masters or your nan’s radio – accessioned into the museum’s permanent collections, with over 550 stories being collected for perpetuity over two years.

My involvement with Culture Shock! came about through my role as a researcher on ‘Art on Tyneside’ (an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project led by Rhiannon Mason with Chris Whitehead, Newcastle University). ‘Art on Tyneside’ worked with people from across the North East to develop media exploring place, art and identity for a permanent display, Northern Spirit: 300 Years of Art in the North East, at the Laing Art Gallery (opened October 2010) and a small number of Culture Shock!’s digital stories were included in the final display. 

From the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ perspective the value of the digital stories is that they are personal; unique and precious testimony. But, of course,  their value also lies in the fact that by making them part of the collections the museums can display the stories both immediately and in the future; whether in exhibitions, in shopping centres or on big screens in town and city centres across the North East. Because of this the project had at its heart certain ethical and political questions about how the institution might legitimately manage the relationship between using personal stories for the ‘public’; both in the sense of the museum being ‘open to the public’ (for display) and in the sense of the museum managing heritage and culture ‘on behalf of the public’ (in the public interest, for the greater good).

To manage the storytellers’ informed consent, the museum used a copyright form. This was seen as an ethical practice. The form was used so that everyone involved would be very clear that their story would be displayed publically. Yet the copyright form also offered a kind of implicit political argument. The form hoped to convince participants that – once copyright had been signed over – the museum had the right to redisplay their stories without having to come to check with storytellers first. This was justifiable, one member of staff argued, as it would avoid too much additional public money being spent only on one set of people. In this way the copyright form appealed to representation democracy’s evocation of the ‘public interest’ or the ‘greater good’ which requires individual interests to be balanced with the interests of everyone else. So through the Culture Shock! project’s copyright form the ethics of being ‘open to the public’ (for display) were coupled with the politics of museums being ‘on behalf of the public’ (the efficient and reasonable used of public resources).

Yet in the focus groups with Culture Shock! participants I ran with Alex Henry, then Culture Shock! Co-ordinator, this implicit argument was not quite accepted. It was and it wasn’t. For Henry Holden, one participant, the public interest argument was very compelling; ‘I am very happy to hand over my story, it was free for me to do and it was paid for by public funding and money from Trusts. I am happy to hand over my story to the museum to do whatever it likes with it. I am very happy to say that’. Equally, a number of Culture Shock! participants fully accepted that the museum shouldn’t have to come back and check every time it redisplayed their story: ‘That’s what the form is for’, as Mary Cleary argued. But when we discussed the possibility of the museum using the story in the future, the word ‘courtesy’ repeatedly came up. As Cleary said, ‘as a courtesy it would be nice to know, but I wouldn’t expect the museum to come back and seek permission’. Michael Young also noted that the museum did not need to seek renewed permission, ‘but I would still like to know as a matter of courtesy if they were using my work. It’s good for bragging!’. And John Kilpatrick said, ‘it is a courtesy. How would it be if I came up here for an opening and there was [his friend’s] story and he didn’t know’. Young and Kilpatrick both also said that they liked to know how the story was going to be interpreted  - not to ‘be prescriptive’, as Young put it, but again, just because it would be interesting and a courtesy. Courtesy here conveys some kind of social contract over and above a legal or rights-based contract with the museum.

Museums + Personal + Modesty

This request for courtesy has a great significance in the context of a dominant contemporary discourse of rights and personalization, where the locus of democratic legitimacy seems to be constantly in danger of shifting from the logics of public interest idea towards (some) people’s individual interests. Indeed, when placed in this broader context courtesy does seem a modest claim. Modest in the everyday sense of the word: not too much or unassuming. Yet, in this case, modesty wasn’t exactly unassuming. 

The museum implicitly took for granted that collecting personal stories rather than objects wouldn’t change the nature of the institutional ‘public interest’ settlement. Yet the very personal nature of the knowledge solicited, picked at the settlement a little. Culture Shock! participants seemed to desire a personal relationship with the museum in a way which draws democratic accountability towards them as individuals. However, using the idea of courtesy to express this allowed more personal treatment to still hold together with the political idea of ‘on behalf of the public’ (the public interest/greater good argument). This modest claim was made in a relatively loose way, a subtle bottom-up civilizing – be courteous – as a way of coaxing a newly responsive democratic life into museums’ longstanding and specifically public purposes.   

…and modesty against the cuts

Here – in modesty – may lie a way forward for those of us in the UK today trying to defend a public sector ethos, redistributive taxation and the public funding of health, social care, libraries and museums. The expectation of courtesy both calls the settlement between ‘public’ and ‘democracy’ into question through asserting personal, social and, therefore, asymmetrical lines of accountability: ‘it’s my story, it would be nice to know if you’re using it’.  At the same time modesty – courtesy, not rights – indicates a subtly modified settlement where the personal and asymmetrical pulls of accountability articulate with ideas of ‘public interest’, a settlement which might just enable ‘public’ and ‘democracy’ to freshly hold together as the battles over taxation and public funding rage.


Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank those Culture Shock! storytellers who came to the focus groups we ran: Mary Cleary, Henry Holden, John Kilpatrick, Barry Martin, Pip McKever and Michael Young. Thanks also to Iain Watson and Alex Henry for their comments on a longer version of this article and to the organizers and participants of the ‘Creating Publics, Creating Democracies’ workshop for their inspiring suggestions. 

The research discussed here was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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