In Scotland today we have nearly 500 museums and galleries in operation, and that is just the official institutions. There are a multitude of heritage groups and community outreach groups that would not appear on this list, nor does it account for the online presence of virtual museums and digital collections. I am fortunate enough to have been brought up in a family and a country that supports the idea that museums are for all, our cultural and social heritage is for all of us to access. We support it with the majority of our museums being free to use, thus creating a space where the socio-economic factor is removed almost entirely. I say almost, because still today when it comes to cultural and heritage access there would appear to be some obstructive factor.
A recent survey performed by The Scottish Government in their 2013 Scottish Household Survey showed that access is still very low. But more saddening for me was the answer to the statement ‘Culture and the arts are not really for people like me’, with the data collected on the basis of educational attainment. 26 percent of those asked who had no qualifications at all, agreed with the statement compared to the 8 percent of those with university education. One of the reasons may be cultural exclusion of an entire group, i.e. the complete disregard and dismissal of their culture.
I am lucky to have grown up in many places in my life but the two regions of Scotland I call home are Greater Glasgow and North and East Ayrshire. I feel privileged to have known so many incredible, capable and socially and culturally engaged people who indeed belong to this lower SIMD group. SIMD is the means with which the Scottish Government quantifies social deprivation in Scotland and what they have used to qualify their statistical analysis of cultural engagement.
I have said that the people I have known have been socially and culturally engaged individuals, but what I’m not saying is that we sat around talking about fine art or museum collections. What I mean by socially and culturally engaged is that they were proud and interested in their cultural heritage, the things that they experienced in their lives that made them who they were. The stories of the great industrial heritage with meaningful long-term employment and the social activities and engagement that went along with it.
I grew up wondering why it was dismissed, why people thought it wasn’t for them to go to Kelvingrove Museum, or The Dick Institute? I had attended both and seen the exhibitions on industrial and working class heritage, so what was keeping them away. What was the driving attitude that put them off? And sadly not too long ago it hit me and I didn’t quite like it. The BBC has a rich history of creating documentaries about Scottish communities and the people who live within them. One such documentary was entitled ‘The Scheme’, first televised in 2010. It has had many reruns and won a Bafta for its blindingly honest portrayal of working class life in one of the most deprived area’s of Scotland and the most deprived area in Kilmarnock. However it was one day when I was in a tutorial that the group got to talking about this television programme. Many described it as poverty porn, the people uncouth, uncivilised and uncultured, but one of the girls in this tutorial was from Kilmarnock and spoke at length to us all about how it was a ‘horrid little show’ that told the worst of North/East Ayrshire and she felt ashamed. I told her I was from Kilmarnock originally too and she looked to me for back up.
“The Scheme” she said “It’s so horribly embarrassing don’t you think?” she looked to me. “Well, no actually. My first house was there. I’m from that scheme” I told her truthfully, “I’m really proud of all of them, actually” I told her. The look that was cast in my direction from the moment I told her this information was not as polite as a tutorial room would call for. She looked at me like I was beneath her and I was upset, I admit, despite the fact that I spent most of my formative years in North Glasgow, the look she gave me wrote me off, but it didn’t just write me off it wrote off a whole community. “Proud?” she made the look again “Proud” I reiterated. And I was proud, I was so proud of this documentary that encouraged the people from one of the most deprived areas in Scotland to open their doors, into their homes to display their lives and their culture exactly as it was. They opened the doors leaving themselves open to being ogled, ridiculed and belittled, but they did it none the less.
My pride in these people is actually neither here nor there, what I realised in that moment was that she was attempting to make me feel no pride or warmth for where I came from. And I realised that it was this sneering attitude that put people off accessing higher learning and cultural activities. Not money, but class, and although the two often go hand in hand, it was this attitude has made the people of the lowest sociodemographic groups feel like the culture propagated in museums is not their culture, but rather the culture of those who make them feel ashamed of theirs. To quote Ben Okri:
“Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”
Future flowerings is what these written off communities need and indeed deserve. Nobody should be ashamed of where they come from, all cultural heritage should be celebrated. And that is why it is incumbent upon those nearly 500 great institutions to reach out to their communities and show them that the space they have created is for everyone. A space that guarantees a future flowering for all.
Robertson, J., Joseph Knight, (London: Fourth Estate, 2003)