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Why Should I Care?

Participation is fundamental to engagement

An 'invited reflection' in Museums & Social Issues, A Journal of Reflective Discourse; A Culture of Sustainability 1(2) Fall 2006, California

10/06 Jon Hawkes <email> <web>

'A society's values are the basis upon which all else is built. These values and the ways they are expressed are a society's culture. The way a society governs itself cannot be fully democratic without there being clear avenues for the expression of community values, and unless these expressions directly affect the directions society takes. These processes are culture at work.

'Cultural vitality is as essential to a healthy and sustainable society as social equity, environmental responsibility and economic viability. In order for public planning to be more effective, its methodology should include an integrated framework of cultural evaluation along similar lines to those being developed for social, environmental and economic impact assessment.'

The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: culture's essential role in public planning

As reflected in this excerpt, my life's obsession is not sustainability but democracy, and not just nominal democracy, but rather one that is direct and participatory. My background is in the arts (as a performer) and my interest, as an artist, has always been in inventing new ways of seeing the world and our place in it (an arrogant and unachievable ambition perhaps, but hardly surprising from someone who came of age in the mid-sixties). I am convinced that sustainability (environmental, cultural, social, and economic) can only be achieved through governance of this kind. Why? To turn to the title of this essay, if you're not connected, you don't care. Unless one is part of the story, there's nothing to care about.

Globalisation has two sides: at the same time as we are told that we are all planetary citizens, we are also atomised and separated. The primary beneficiaries of globalisation also benefit from a world in which the maximisation of consumption is embraced as the moral right and responsibility of every individual. This means that we live in a world of contradictions. On the one hand, we have rhetoric of freedom and luxury and on the other, behaviours of insularity, selfishness and hate. I'm convinced that if there is a solution, it's intensely local and thoroughly activist.

I use the term 'culture' in what is known as its 'anthropological' sense, the sense in which it is used in the 1996 UNESCO Declaration of Cultural Rights. In this context, the concept 'culture' describes:

While this outline is fine as a dictionary definition, it misses the heart and the guts of culture. A more folksy description goes like this:

This description demonstrates that culture embodies those facets of our being that make us human; it embodies our essence. This usage of 'culture' can be summarised as 'the social production of meaning', or simply 'making sense'. Of all the things we make, 'sense' is the most important; we need to recognise and facilitate this process in the ways we organise our society. It seems to me that the transformation of heritage is fundamental to this process - we are in a constant dynamic of reshaping what we 'know' as we experience and learn new things. What we make of our heritage is our culture. In a constant cycle, not only does heritage becomes culture, but culture becomes heritage. Yesterday's stories are rewritten for today; and today's stories are remembered tomorrow.

I think museums have a choice:

To be custodians of the sense that has been made


To be facilitators of the sense that is being made

And, yes, I do think these ideas are mutually exclusive - not only is an object worthless unless animated by a story, but a story isn't a story without a listener, and a really good story-teller is a conversationalist, not a lecturer. The tales of old have no point unless they have a dynamic relationship with contemporary life - unless they are an active part of making today's sense - unless they're connected.

How do we know that our efforts to connect are working? I'm convinced that it is both possible and necessary to evaluate engagement qualitatively as well as quantitatively. But to do this we need to be able to give the idea of engagement a more useful meaning than the pretty fuzzy one it has now. This is not as easy as might first appear. I will illustrate by examining another, related, fuzzy buzzword: participation.

A few years ago, our State government in Victoria, Australia, launched its new arts policy, Creative Capacity+. The local liberal broadsheet, reporting on the policy the following day, appended 37 column centimetres of editorial to a photo twice the size of the copy. Fair enough, a picture can often tell the story much more effectively than words. The editors got it exactly right: the picture was of eleven schoolgirls looking across a fence at three very old skeletons. This, to announce a policy with the goal of 'Arts for all Victorians: A Culture of Participation'. Looking at bones from behind a fence is perceived as an appropriate image to illustrate participation. In a brochure entitled Arts Count that accompanied the policy document, we were told that 68.3% of Victorians have been to the movies, 37.5% have been to a library and so on. It turns out that statistics like this are the measure of participation.

One wonders whether the number of people who attend football games would be seriously accepted as a measure of participation in sport. Yet this is exactly what's happening in the arts and heritage sector. Even before our Premier launched the policy, he announced that the admission price to the Melbourne Museum was to be reduced as an indication of the government's commitment to participation. Let's imagine for a moment the Minister for Sport proclaiming the cornerstone of Victoria's new sports policy as being a reduced admission price to the Museum of Sport. It wouldn't happen. How is it that we know exactly what it means to participate in sport, but get totally confused when we use the same word to describe our relationship to other cultural activities?

I am not using this example to denigrate the function of cultural institutions like museums. We need keeping places. As public services, they should be able to offer free access to the citizenry. What I question is how the concept of participation is applied. Twenty years ago, 'participation and access' were key concepts in the development of public planning. After more than a decade in the cellar, they are now re-emerging as support terms for this year's key concepts, 'engagement' and 'capacity'. There was a time when participation and access were ideas with widely accepted meanings. These meanings, for better or worse, have stayed in the cellar.

Current usage of 'The Arts & Culture' in public rhetoric displays both a counter-productively broad definition and a reduced appreciation of the need to distinguish more relevantly between types of engagement. For example, museum attendances are referred to as 'participation rates'. Reading a catalogue is participation. Buying a postcard in the gallery shop is participation. Being a volunteer attendant is participation. Experiencing an interactive exhibit is participation. Being part of a reference group is participation. Actively contributing to the content of an exhibition is participation.

Being able to analyse the cultural significance of types of engagement is severely restricted when they are lumped into categories so wide that critically different activities all appear as one. This is not a very useful way of looking at the world. As an alternative, I have developed a framework that I believe makes sense of engagement; one that makes it easier to recognise key engagement factors and that can then usefully inform strategy development and program design.

I suggest that all the afore-mentioned 'participations' are types of engagement: some are about making culture, some about ingesting it and some are more creative than others. Being able to distinguish between types of engagement is necessary because their differences are profound in essence and, from a policy-making perspective, in resource needs, social impact and application of sustainability strategies. All these various types of engagement require different approaches.

There are two streams of cultural engagement: participation and reception, producing and consuming, breathing out and breathing in; we make culture, culture makes us. These streams run constantly in both directions. In our daily lives they are always in dialogue, eddying around in our consciousness: we talk, we listen; we make, we learn; we show, we watch. A large part of life is the rhythm of movement between one mode and the other, of often being in both at once.

Nevertheless, envisaging them as distinct functions as illustrated in Modes of Engagement is both reasonable and useful.

This framework offers a simple way of visualising the varying, but related, modes of engagement with cultural action. It shows a horizontal distinction between the two modes of engagement: we make culture (participation) and culture makes us (reception). Then there is a vertical distinction that can be made on the basis of creative intensity. To the most intense, we apply the term creative; to the least, the term managed. Across this spectrum from production to consumption, our imagination engages at shifting levels of intensity. Both participation and reception can be creative; both can be managed.

The apex is maximum empowered, active and direct creativity. The base is a directed and mediated engagement with little control in the hands of the engaged apart from passive choice and sometimes even that is missing, and little imaginative stimulation. These splits create quadrants that combine to provide a reasonably comprehensive, realistic and simple way of approaching cultural engagement, built on an analysis of what actually happens in the world, to meaningfully reflect real-world events. This matrix offers interesting measurement possibilities and identifies the mode in which maximum engagement is possible, providing a useful planning and evaluation tool.

The grey areas separating, or joining, the quadrants symbolise the overlaps, simultaneities and constant transformations between the modes. I argue for policy makers and program designers to find ways for the communities they serve to engage in the north-east quadrant. Here are some ways for museums to think about this:

If most of the answers include the phrase 'professional specialists' then I suggest you're in trouble. You may be efficient or have a spectacular media profile, you may be respected by government and attract endowments but what have you missed? Probably the first connections a museum should concern itself with are its own:


The function of social memory is critical to cultural vitality. To remain healthy, memory requires exercise, not simply in the revisitation of memorabilia but in the active social application of our memories to the matter of our daily lives. This is a function squarely in the domain of heritage keepers and it will take more than increasing visitation, improving interactive exhibits and experiences and extending community consultation. These are all important, but they can't be claimed as manifestations of active community engagement. They are valuable but none of them land in the creative participation quadrant.

For the keeping places to achieve active community engagement, they must assiduously facilitate communities telling their own stories. The stories cannot be limited to those of long ago, though these are important, but we need the stories of now, of the connections between the past and the present and the future. We need to constantly remind ourselves that there are an infinite number of ways in which stories can be told - in words, in images, in movement, in music, in objects.

I will conclude with something I wrote in The Fourth Pillar:

'Knowing where we have come from helps us to discover where we want to go. Our social memory and our repositories of insight and understanding are essential elements to our sense of belonging. Without a sense of our past, we are adrift in an endless present.'

We are born into complex surroundings. Our environment is more than paddocks and rivers, trees and climate, roads and buildings. We are also surrounded by memories, attitudes, songs and stories. These inheritances are as much a part of our environment as the earth beneath our feet and the air we breath. They make us what we are. To know who we are, we need to know what made us. What we become is deeply influenced by this heritage, both physical and spiritual. The meaning we make of our lives - what we call our culture, grows from this soil. The culture we make, the life we lead, the hopes we nourish, will be the richer from our understanding of our roots.

Losing touch with the stories of our predecessors risks our humanity and threatens our environment and our culture. It is impossible to make new stories, new songs, if we have forgotten the language, misplaced the music.

10/06 Jon Hawkes <email> <web>

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