Museums increasingly emphasise the social value derived from active use of cultural heritage. They have reviewed dramatically their cultural role in the recent years and made any effort to bring new material culture into museums as well as new audiences. The strong interest of the museum sector in diversifying the profile of their visitors explains a growing body of research on young people’s participation and engagement with museums. Despite the number of the studies and some evidence that museums can improve ‘soft skills’ such as attitudes to school, self-confidence, social skills, there is no so much appeal for researching potential ways of museums to enhance academic and social resilience of young people.
In the light of rising levels of child poverty and widespread welfare and education reforms, I want to stand critical towards the cultural policies and practices in working with young people and museums’ questioned capacity to develop services and programmes that might help young people become more resilient. I have recently read an interesting article about a three-year empirical research with underachievers in a deprived urban community (aged 13-19), which provided me a valuable insight about engagement in museum programmes for young people who have traditionally been excluded by the museums. The author of the article Dr Tsibazi – a senior lecturer at the University of Winchester in England – points at the hidden tensions that underpin the notion of young people’s inclusion in museums noting an ‘underlying perception of youth deficiency reinforced by the demand of museums to measure social impact’ (2013).
Cultural policies tend to homogenise socially excluded groups that have complex interlinked problems. Considering this tendency, young people and especially those of minority or social marginalised status can easily be homogenised in a group of passive victims or “deviants” who need correction because of their age and identity, institutional power and social relations. I do wonder how this is perceived or experienced by young audiences in a museum, gallery or a heritage site. If young people marked out as needy or failing, could they come to understand themselves this way? Does this social reality give an explanation about the apparent under-representation of young people as visitors in museums and heritage sites?
Dr Helen Cahill (a university professor in Australia) helps me to explain the likeness of a ‘perception of youth deficiency’ on the tendency of classroom-based modes of learning to reinforce a sense of shame or failure as problems become personalized (O’Brien and Donelan 1999). She highlights the value of learning and suggests the positioning of young people at risk of exclusion in roles of participation through practical or service-based modes of activity by doing their learning within a project that has a purpose that is larger than the self. By taking seriously this respect, our ideas about young people’s learning and inclusion go beyond the confines of institutional spaces and young people’s agent role within their communities and societies.
In my view, thinking about oppression and social justice has equal value to contemporary critique towards the ‘risk and rescue’ discourses and the utilitarian agendas that underline the controversial purposes of the ‘social work of museums’ (Silverman 2009). As an example, the social resilience model is widespread in the youth arts interventions and those working within this model aim to strengthen protective factors and reduce risks factors very often through arts and cultural engagement. Although a sense of belonging to a community can act as a protective factor to the lives of young people, the model is characterized by several assumptions over the meaning of community and identity or the lack of definition of ‘culture’ but most importantly by assumptions over the balance towards resilience and the capacity to cope with adversity and challenge. The limitation of the resilience model is that ‘it does not shed light on the means of which one is likely to attain or enhance protective attributes […] some elements defined as risk factors (single parent status, living in poverty, illness of the parents or refugee status) may be the very experience which helped to generate compassion, a sense of social justice, and the capacity to endure, persist and strive for goals’ (Cahill: ibid, original emphasis).
My real concern is clearly related to assumptive views, personal motivations and final actions of museum policy-makers, educators and practitioners to work for and with those groups of young people who live in the most adverse social circumstances, and how this ‘perception of youth deficiency’ is played out in the world of museums. At a second level, there is a timely raised debate to start and throw light on the means of which young people engage emotionally and bodily with museums regardless of race, ethnicity, class or sexual orientation. You_topias aim at being the ‘topos’ (space) of understanding targeted museum programmes for vulnerable young audiences and driving partnership working with other agencies from a range of sectors (namely, youth justice, education, social work).
We want to inform collaborative and creative museum practices and help young people, institutions and communities to swift the dominant paradigms of museum programming. The point is whether museums are capable of safely and fairly supporting the resilience of young people ‘not only through how much history one learns but also how their quality of life can be improved’ (Marstine 2011). Do you really believe museums can bring about social change to young people who are socially disadvantaged?
- Marstine, J. (ed) (2011) Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-first Century Museum, Routledge, Oxon.
- O’Brien, A. and Donelan, K. (2008) The arts and youth at risk: Global and local challenges, Scholars Pub, Cambridge.
- Silverman, L. H. (2009) The social work of museums, Routledge, Oxon and New York.
- Tzibazi V. (2013) “Participatory Action Research with young people in museums” in Museum Management and Curatorship, 28(2), pp153-171.