Being Authentic

I recently went to an event run by Cape UK about the Arts Council Quality Principles for working with children and young people. ACE has invested a lot of time and money in defining and testing these principles since 2012 so I was curious to hear how local pilot organisations have been getting on. There's more on the seven principles and the thinking behind them on the ACE website, but essentially the aim is "to raise the standard of work being produced by, with and for children and young people" across the art forms ACE is responsible for. The seven principles are: 


  • Striving for excellence
  • Being authentic
  • Being exciting, inspiring and engaging
  • Ensuring a positive, child-centred experience
  • Actively involving children and young people
  • Providing a sense of personal progression
  • Developing a sense of ownership and belonging.


I have to admit to a sense of deja vu as I glanced through the seven bullet points, and a feeling of 'yes, and?'. ACE covers a vast range of organisations and art forms so any statements of quality will of necessity be general, but that brings with it the danger that they become so broad and so open to interpretation that they lack any meaning and practical use. To play devil's advocate for a moment, aren't these statements more or less what everyone in the cultural sector aspires to in their work with audiences? There's a risk of it coming across as all motherhood and apple pie. Shouldn't we trust artists and cultural learning practitioners to do their jobs well? Who strives for mediocrity anyway?


I think, as with any of the other frameworks I've seen in my 20 years working with museums (Inspiring Learning for All, anyone?), museums need to take this challenge on and figure out how we can make a broad set of statements really work for us as a driver for improving the quality and evidencing the value of what we do. While the desire to retain independence and an unwillingness to conform to ecicts from above might be in the cultural sector's DNA, it's nevertheless true that some of cultural learning on offer to young people is not as good as it should be.  As we delved a bit deeper I began to think about the meaning of the quality statements for museums in particular and how they could help to shape and challenge our work with young people. How can museums use the quality principles to critically examine what we do? Beyond that, how can the principles help museums to articulate their uniqueness and set themselves apart?


The statement that really resonated with me is "Being Authentic". There can be few museum practitioners who have worked with young people for any length of time without encountering the question, "But is it really real?" The look on a child's face when you say that yes, it really is a real dinosaur bone/ piece of Roman pottery/ Victorian chamber pot/ chunk of meteorite tells you all you need to know about the power of the authentic object to catch someone's imagination. It's the thrill of the real. It's why a replica, however good, is never going to offer the same experience as an encounter with the real thing. It's museums' USP.


However, authenticity has to go beyond the collections and inform our people and processes too. This is where museums really can learn from other cultural sector disciplines: dance, theatre and the visual arts in particular. For them, authenticity is not just about the content of their work (for example, using the same script or choreography with a group of young people as they would with actors or dancers) but about how you approach it: going through the processes and practices you would with professionals; respecting young people as if they themselves were professionals; not giving them the watered-down approach, the experience-lite. Clearly the approach needs to be tailored to the needs of the group, but the principle of being true to their art form and their professional practice and offering as authentic an experience as possible was key to the practitioners in my discussion group. 


So what does this mean for museums? For me, it's about thinking harder not just about the content we offer young people but the way we approach our work with them.  It means ensuring that the objects in the handling collection don't  just consist of all the stuff the curator doesn't want but are carefully selected, properly curated and cared for.  It means not relying on replicas unless it's really necessary. Beyond that, it means opening up our processes, showing young people what happens behind the 'staff only' door and ensuring that the learning brief isn't the sole responsibility of the person with 'education' in their job title but engages staff and volunteers from across the museum - particularly those people who know the collections and work with them every day. It means that a family learning programme that involves hiding visitors away in a side room to do craft activities that have no real connection with the collections probably won't cut it as quality. It means working harder to be authentic not just in what we offer, but the way we offer it. 


I think I know what you're going to say. That this would be all well and good in times of plenty, but these aren't those times. There's no money, there are fewer staff than there were a year or two ago, we're under pressure to earn income and demonstrate the value of what we do. I'd say, well, we don't have to change everything overnight, but shouldn't we be thinking about what greater authenticity would look like and what changes are within our power to make to get there?  I've written elsewhere on this blog about the impact that offering young people an authentic behind-the-scenes experience can have. I'd hazard a guess that a greater focus on authenticity would resonate with audiences, help them understand what museums are for and what it is we do, and over time, and maybe (being Utopian for a moment), help build a bigger, more connected museum-loving constituency of users that cares deeply about our sometimes archaic-seeming institutions and wants us in their lives. Now wouldn't that be a great thing?


posted by Emma | 0 comments

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