Building Cultural Literacy, Museums as spaces for shaping the political world of the future

Samuel Jones

We live in an age of globalisation, an age in which culture is more important than ever before. Recently, along with Kirsten Bound, Rachel Briggs and John Holden, I published a pamphlet that discussed the importance of ‘cultural diplomacy’. More than the opinion columns and leaders in our broadsheets, it is culture by which you and I engage with people from other countries. Culture has emerged not as a subsidiary to politics, but as a space in which politics must be conducted. It is not a case of culture being put at the service of politics, but rather of culture being a determinant part of politics. Recently, twin developments have set a vital new agenda that governments and others have to address. This paper will outline what skills we need to navigate this world, and what this means for museums, and the future of the museum profession.

The first is the amplified frequency of culture: we have the opportunity to experience, see, feel and hear a wider range of cultures and cultural forms than ever before. Tourism, television and, above all, new technology allows us to determine what culture we access, where and when. Writing this, I can switch to my Web browser, download a podcast from MoMA in New York, and when I get the train later today, I can listen to a narration of Jasper Johns’ Flag.

The second development is that, while we can access far more cultures than ever before, we can also shape the way that we engage with them and inflect our own opinion. For example, when I get off the train later today, I can record my own podcast and send it back to MoMA; after listening to the curator, what do I think? It is this expectation that makes culture so powerful a force: culture matters globally because we can see immediately how it matters to us, and how we can shape it to get and say what we want.

Such freedom of approach and inflection might seem threatening to the museum. I argue that, in fact, it points to a new role. The skills and expertise of museums professionals are vital to the new world in which culture, experienced and shaped in more individual ways, is central to how we are going to communicate with each other. As we encounter cultures, we need to understand and relate to them. The realisation of global diversity is one of the major achievements of our age, but it can often bring with it confusion. We need instead to focus on a global conversation.

Museums will be vital to developing the skills by which we can participate in that conversation. Specifically, the knowledge that they impart will be integral to an age in which the voices in that conversation have proliferated and each one can reverberate around the world. The problem is the that in an age of globalisation, our ability to experience, encounter and engage with culture has far outstripped our ability actually to relate to it.

Where then does this leave the museum professional? Heritage, both living and past, and history are more important than ever before because they give context and quality to cultural experience. Museums are not just about the past, they are about the present and the future. The objects and artefacts that they contain and share are the way that we will navigate and communicate the world. In this paper, I will make the case for museums being a central part of how we prepare ourselves for the future. However, I will also set out some of the challenges that this poses to the profession. Perhaps most of all, how we can use new models of cultural engagement and apply the lessons of new technologies to developing environments in which resources are not so easily found. Where, in part, this is a story about developing cultural understanding between cultures and nations, it is also about developing opportunity.

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