Book of the week: The battle for arts and minds

Bread and Roses: arts, culture and lifelong learning
By Jane Thompson, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, pound;15.95

Media clamour over the opening of new library and museum venues over the past few years has been less due 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 the 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.

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 also have to change. 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. Steps such as these could make a real and sustainable difference to people's lives.

Colin Hynson is education officer for Norfolk museums and archaeology service. To read this article in full, see this week's edition of the TES.

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