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Museums in super-diverse societies

Several experts discuss the challenge that the rise of cities’ cultural diversity represents for heritage institutions.
Most of the world’s cities have always been diverse and Baghdad would be a good example. So it ought to be in the DNA of every city to be able to handle cultural diversity, that’s really what cities are about. The fact that that’s no longer the case is a demonstration of the way politics has been moving in recent years. However, there are two key challenges, access and participation. Access from various members of the community to museum and heritage and other kinds of cultural spaces and the degree to which they participate in them. And this is something cities around the world manage in various ways. Some are very good, some are less good. Key issues around pricing for example.
In cities like London where many of the museums are free to enter, participation is pretty good. But even in a small city like my own, Brighton, in the UK with a population of around 250,000, we find that many people in the periphery of this small city still don’t access the heritage and artistic areas of the city. This is a real issue, then. Social divides seem to replicate in these spaces in ways that we might not predict as policymakers or others. I think there are two key challenges here, access and representation. Who has access to museums and cultural spaces? And then also who gets to tell those stories? Who gets to represent their past and other people’s past’s?
This remains a contentious issue for many European countries, not least, my own at the UK. The key challenge then, is to ensure that cultural diversity is not ghetto-ized into a particular speciality museums and restricted spaces within cities. It needs to be equally accessible to all of a city’s citizens. Yes. Well, the quick answer is a great one. It represents a major challenge because at the moment, you are going away from the concept of a homogeneous culture where everything can be represented that comes from the past and goes into the future. A kind of restructure sense of nationhood. It comes up as a very complicated question. Who should be represented, in which way and where?
So cultural diversity, by definition, challenges the homogeneous notion of the nation state. And that means that we need to make a decision and we need to argue one kind of representation against another kind of representation. So you find very exciting and different concepts of what it means to be a culture inside museums. And I could give you plenty of examples. You can, for example, find the museum in Catalan in Barcelona, which is trying to construct a multicultural society but excluding the Spanish, if you like because it makes a case about Catalonia. Or you can find museums in Scandinavia, in particular, who are now very much trying to be extremely representative and all embracing.
But you still find also very traditional, mainstream museums where cultural diversity is excluded altogether. Well, I think it’s an enormous challenge but I would say also a great opportunity for museums to rethink their policies and working practises. I think you know, in a historical framework, which is very obsessed with identity, it is apparently a daunting task to envision how heritage preserved in a museum could become a vehicle to promote mutual understanding, intercultural understanding, cross-cultural interaction. And this is basically because of two reasons. The first one is historical, most museums in Europe were created, established at precisely with the opposite goal. They were created to represent and validate national, local, or group identities.
And the second one, the second reason why it seems a bit problematic to talk about heritage and intercultural audiences is a semantic reason. I mean, heritage is very closely connected with the notion of inheritance. So inheritance is given at birth. You cannot acquire a heritage developed throughout your lifetime. But you can only inherit it. So the challenge for museums, in this respect, I think is to think differently about themselves. First of all, are they mainly spaces for conservation or can they become spaces for conversation. for collaborative meeting making?
Can they go beyond the policies, which are traditionally, I mean with respect to migrant communities, which are traditionally aimed at targeting individuals and groups according to their ethnicity or can they start working on identity as the start rather than the end of the conversation? Another question museums should ask themselves is can they facilitate new connections between people and objects thereby you know, initiating new knowledge, new relationships, and new interpretive communities? I think that this can be done because some museums have started to do it across Europe. And of course, it takes time, capacity building, and involvement at the institutional level. So it’s great you know big work but it can be done.
Cities became contact zone of multiple ethnicities, diverse generations, people from all walks of life, and different backgrounds. And this creates risks but also it’s opportunities. so I would like to suggest one example of the MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. This fantastic museum is in a historical, multicultural neighbourhood called, El Raval. This is a neighbourhood that has been historically populated by immigrants from whole parts of Europe but also outside Europe, some North African migration. And the museum a few years ago was reshaped with a great, fancy architecture and he’s got a great, big square in front of it. And on this square there are lots of young locals skateboarding, grouping, chatting, drinking beers.
But these people don’t enter into the museum. And I asked the director why was that because they know they are right the art on this neighbourhood. And the director told me that there are so many micro-communities that it’s difficult to tailor to identify which segment of public they should be addressing. So this is possibly one of the challenges for museums but you also represent some opportunities. I think libraries, in particular specifically, public libraries have been the forefront of not only cultural services but more and more social services.
And the proximity of so many people of diverse background and culture in the city also represents an opportunity to rethink institutional roles and services and address contemporary challenges of social inclusion, cultural dialogue, and migration that you create a way.

Jasper Chalcraft, (University of Sussex), Ulrike Meinhof, (University of Southampton), Simona Bodo (ISMU Foundation), and Perla Innocenti (University of Northumbria and University of Glasgow) explain why cultural diversity represents a challenge for museums.

How to ensure access and participation in a museum? How to turn museums into spaces for conversation? How to reach out to excluded communities?

In your opinion, have museums understood the challenges of cultural diversity and taken appropriate actions to address them?

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Cultural Diversity and the City

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