How Museums Can Change our Lives or The Dream of a Happy Museum, Part 1

During an animated discussion about all things good and bad in museum education with a colleague from Cologne I suddenly remembered a brochure by the Museums Association, „Museums Change Lives: The MA’s Vision for the Impact of Museums“. I had entirely forgotten about it although I had carried it around with me all summer two years ago. This morning I decided I had to find out where I had put it.

I didn’t get much sleep tonight and put all my faith in a cup of tea helping me to deal with the pile of papers sitting on my desk.

The MA’s vision „Museums Change Lives“ initiated – and in some cases cumulated – several ongoing discussions on the potential impact of museums on the communities surrounding them. The big question was if studies measuring and thus demonstrating the economic, social and environmental impact of museums could provide much needed arguments against persevering budget cuts and much lamented closures of small organisations.

The tea is strong – just right – but still a little too hot. I start leafing through the brochure and suddenly remember the goosebumps I got when I first read the statement on the very first page:

“Museums change people’s lives. They enrich the lives of individuals, contribute to strong and resilient communities, and help create a fair and just society. Museums in turn are immensely enriched by the skills and creativity of their public.“

I remember discussing this with my former line manager over a large glass of wine somewhere in England after a long day at work. She is somebody who has moved across the country over the years to work in the museums sector and it seemed to me that some of the aims expressed in the vision made her smile, remembering all the small organisations she had supported and the sort of troubles they faced. And, of course, how can organisations start thinking about things like this if they struggle with the basics like keeping the doors open in the first place?

I take another sip of tea. Good. Then and now, my enthusiasm and perhaps my naivety get the better of me: In the end, I have already seen approaches as described in the brochure put into practice and made some of them work myself. Shouldn’t we all try to build on what is already there and work together to realise the vision bit by bit?

Yes, I decide, I do still agree with the statements: „Museums enhance wellbeing – and I myself have delivered so many projects during which I could observe people changing so much –, „Museums create better places“ and „Museums inspire people and ideas“.

I had forgotten that I had been scribbling all over the brochure’s margins. Unfortunately, good old Yorkshire Tea is letting me down, I am feeling even more sleepy. I flip over some more pages. What is that supposed to mean? I can feel my head sinking lower and lower … Ah well, the dream of a happy museum

© Sandra Brauer

© Sandra Brauer

A museum like in any medium-sized town. No need for outstanding collections attracting thousands of visitors each year. Small but full of interesting stuff. Maybe in a Victorian building once owned by a wealthy citizen who donated his riches to his home town. Probably a few extensions built during a time when there was still money for culture to be had. The latter most likely not pretty but purpose-built. The museum will be somewhere in the city centre, a little hidden maybe from the precincts of the seventies. You need to know where to find it. And everybody living in town does.

Entry to the museum is free. Even to temporary exhibitions. In the entrance area, there are several pots for donations allowing visitors to vote on how they liked their visit today. But most people living nearby are members of the museum’s friends’ association anyway. They support the organisation with a yearly donation.

The Cafe is busy as ever at lunchtime. There are some Mums with their prams who have met up for a quick catch-up and a cup of tea before their monthly get together in the museum’s education space where they sew, crochet and knit. Their children are supervised by a student from the nearby College of Further Education who helps out as part of her course in child care. At the moment, the group is preparing an exhibition of their favourite pieces which will go on show together with objects from the collection to tell the story of how household textiles have changed over the last 100 years.

In another corner, a bunch of teenagers is busy with their smartphones and completely oblivious to the world around them. The Museum has just announced on Twitter that they have hired a well-known DJ for their next Museums At Night event. Finally there’s something exciting going on here! One of the girls looks even more excited than the others and seems to be on the brink of bursting with her news. She’s on the museum’s Youth Panel and it was her suggestion to find a cool band or DJ for this year’s event. She wants to be a journalist after school and can’t wait to tell her girlfriends that, actually, she is going to interview the DJ together with the museum’s Marketing Manager.

Over the last couple of hour or so, several cars have pulled up in front of the museum. People get out to help their elderly passengers out of the car and up the ramp to the museum’s entrance with their Zimmer frames. The ramp was a donation by the local carpenter’s workshop. The coach of the town’s one and only residential home arrives and some staff from the museum come out to give a hand. Everybody knows everybody – the monthly meeting of elderly citizens at the museum is well established and only the worst illnesses will keep them away. Amongst the excitingly chatting older people there are some younger faces. The town’s welfare organisations and the museum have collaboratively created an App allowing all citizens to volunteer their help for elderly people who would like to take part in these meetings or other cultural events but have trouble using public transport. In a lot of cases, bonds have formed so that volunteers, their families and their “adopted grandparent” meet up on a regular basis.

Today, the group is looking forward to visiting the temporary exhibition which features keep-sakes and memories from a lot of them; it’s an exhibition about the tradition of local dance halls in the 1950s. Some of the group members still chuckle when they think back to the faces of the young ‘uns from the neighbouring secondary school during that dance workshop they did together… That’s how you do a proper Jive! The friendly lady from the museum had already showed them the video that had been made of their project and their reminiscence work by some folk from an Adult Education class when she last came to visit with that iPad thingy. Now they are curious to see how the video works in the exhibition space … 

© Sandra Brauer

© Sandra Brauer

The doorbell rings. I jump. The postman. The tea is cold. What was I doing? Oh yeah, that pile of papers …

To be continued.


Solving the mystery of Kulturmasche

So, you ask, whatever does „Kulturmasche“ mean? And what does it have to do with community engagement? I had promised answers and admittedly I have been pondering over these questions since I first started this venture called blog.

When I started my new job as an Outreach Officer for a local Museum in England, fresh out of uni, I had quite a few discussions with friends and colleagues about the purpose of my work – isn’t outreach about luring people into museums?

Museum education, the argument went, is about developing tailored learning programmes for people who (mostly) enjoy vising museums and would like to find out more. Programmes for schools and other groups are enjoyed by the teachers if not all of the students. Targeted yes, special projects rarely.

Outreach is about tailored learning aimed at luring people into museums who would never dream of putting a foot over the threshold – a ploy, a scam, manipulation (these are all synonyms of the German word “Masche“. “Kultur” means culture, by the way). Always as a project, always different, always very few participants. A lot of work. Ineffective. Why bother? If they don’t want to, leave them.

Is this really the case?

In Germany, the term “Kulturelle Bildung“ accumulates a lot of methods and approaches similar to the notions of outreach and community engagement in the UK. It’s a very broad and highly differentiated term, I’ve gathered that much.

But could these approaches also be reproached of being a ploy (scam, manipulation – that is, a “Masche“)? I am intend on finding out:

What sort of outreach and community engagement in the arts (and especially in museums) is going on in Germany? What are they aiming to do? How do they do it? And how does this compare to my work in the UK?

I shall report here.

By the way, I don’t actually believe outreach – or “Kulturelle Bildung“ – to be a “Masche“ in the sense of a ploy, or a scam. I think it’s an approach to learning with a difference – and that’s a way to interpret “Masche“ in German as well.

In the end, for me it’s not about raising visitor numbers but about the people I help to discover culture for themselves – in whatever shape or form. And to encourage them to make it part of their daily lives. For the sake of getting goose bumps when listening to a great concert, the fun to be had when visiting a museum with the grandchildren or the Saturday afternoon gone by in a blink while dabbling in painting.

That’s what I call success when applying the cultural „Masche“.






Talk about virtual volunteering now available online

Quick newsflash: My most recent talk at the Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities conference organised by TNA and RLUK in Birmingham last year in autumn is now online as part of RLUK’s web presence. This is a first for me. I am not soo keen on the video but you can flick through the slideshow and read the abstract (and watch the video if you must).

The talk was about Britain from Above’s engagement programme with virtual volunteers, ‚traditional‘ volunteers and all other very faithful and active users who contributed to, written after the Activity Team had wrapped up their work but before all final evaluation results came in.

Britain from Above was a four year Heritage Lottery funded project run by English Heritage (soon to be Historic England) and its partners, the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland and Wales. It aimed at conserving, digitising, cataloguing and making available online on the first 95,000 images of the Aerofilms collection, those taken between 1919 and 2006. Overall, this unique collection comprises of more than 1.2 million negatives, taken between 1919 and 2006, documenting the changing face of Britain in the 20th century.

You can find out more here: