Colin Hynson on a new study of the arts' role in supporting lifelong learning and tackling poverty
Media clamour over the opening of new library and museum venues over the past few years has been due less to the buildings' content and innovative design and more to the social and economic role they will play locally.
The openings in Manchester of Urbis, a museum of the built environment, and the Imperial War Museum North, and in Gateshead of the Baltic centre, have been hailed as leading the way back from the economic decline of the communities or cities they serve. This perception of the role of the arts and cultural industries in our society has emerged as the dominant view, most clearly since 1997.
For the New Labour government, the arts have three clear but interlinked functions: economic regeneration, contribution to the creation of a learning society, and the development of a new kind of social cohesion and inclusion based on shared cultural experiences.
In fact, this view of culture as a tool that can help soften and narrow the sharper edges of social inequality is not particularly new. Many great municipal museums and libraries were founded in the 19th century by city councils or individual philanthropists, such as Andrew Carnegie, to provide education and culture for working men and women. This function began to fade as social inequalities narrowed but has come to the fore again as widespread poverty has reappeared since the 1980s.
This book provides a critical analysis of the Government's view of culture, social policy and lifelong learning. This does not mean it is full of criticisms. Jane Thompson acknowledges that New Labour's heart is probably in the right place in wanting to tackle poverty and social exclusion, but she rightly questions the emphasis on culture's role in addressing these issues.
She notes an inherent contradiction between the Government's desire for culture to take a leading role in the creation of social and economic well-being and the squeezing out of cultural opportunities in our schools with an increasing emphasis on literacy and numeracy. On top of this, initiatives in lifelong learning, such as the University for Industry and Learn Direct, have a strong training function, while the kind of learning available at our museums, galleries and libraries tends not to be particularly vocational.
As if to emphasise how the leaders of the cultural sector are responding to this government imperative, Thompson details the plethora of publications from government departments and agencies and from museum and library bodies. All show how culture and the arts can and should be used to help tackle social exclusion and poverty.
For librarians the most important document in this field is Empowering the Learning Community, published in 2000. For museums and galleries there are two major publications: Museums and Social Inclusion: the Gllam report (2001) and Including Museums: perspectives on museums, galleries and social inclusion (2001).
For Thompson, cultural organisations really do have the power to transform the lives of marginalised individuals and communities. And she offers some inspirational examples of how cultural experiences have given some people new hope and a new purpose. But as she acknowledges, it is only too easy to find individual examples to justify a particular project.
She finishes with a series of recommendations to the Government and the cultural sector. The Government should realise, she argues, that social engineering cannot take place without a redistribution of the resources available, and that education has a function beyond the utilitarian.
Cultural bodies must also change, she points out. A commitment to increasing access and developing new audiences through strategies such as outreach, user (and non-user) consultation and re-defining styles of presentation should move from the margins to the core of their thinking. Such steps could make a real and sustainable difference to people's lives.
Colin Hynson is education officer for Norfolk museums and archaeology service