Museums value in society

I was pointed at a new DCMS report called A review of the Social Impacts of Culture and Sport. It’s a reasonably academic paper but easy to read, that sets out to effectively review research into the social affect culture and sport have on the populace. I’m not particularly interested in the results for sport; they’re fairly self evident from a health and social anthropological viewpoint (membership of modern tribes, the feeling of belonging, self esteem etc) but I am interested in the conclusions on the cultural side, specifically the museum aspect. I am not a museum professional but I am married to a museum professional and know a lot of museum professionals. Heck, I even read FRS (Financial Reporting Standard) 30: Heritage Assets when it came out. But I am an outsider looking in.

The issue the report found with social impact and museums is an odd one. It’s headline finding (p.10) is a little disingenuous:

“The most obvious way in which MLA promotes social capital is through the use of volunteers. “

This is preceded by:

“For social capital, education and wellbeing impacts, the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) literature is more aspirational than evidential, with many references identifying the sector’s potential for social impacts, via MLA professionals’ perceptions, but few providing empirical analysis of the sector’s contribution to social impacts. “

This is all taken from the executive summary and broadly supported by the detail some 90 pages further on:

DCMS report
I find it worrying that the report effectively bases it’s conclusion for the social impact of museums on the evidence it can find, rather than highlighting the apparent lack of research in other areas and calling for more.

Museums find themselves in a difficult position as it is, most lack the funding to do much, and those that can do work in this area, like St Albans Museum’s work with the local Asian Women’s group, certainly lack the funding and resources to publish a paper on the impact it has made.

We’re in danger of having a discussion about falsifiability  with regards to the assertion that the obvious social benefit from museums is derived from the only area that has hard empirical reporting but suffice to say I believe this is flawed.

Perhaps it needs to be regarded in the wider picture of the narrative of austerity and cuts, both at a national government and local government level. The “big society” idea may have talked about social inclusion but at it’s heart it was really about making cost savings by making most professional positions redundant and getting well meaning volunteers in to do the work for free. Big society was and is a main driver of the newly reinstalled (and unfettered) administration’s attempts to cut local government back until it costs next to nothing.

Either way, the social worth of museums has got to be a hell of a lot more than somewhere for people to volunteer.