In PS Public Service Review Issue 23 2012: Chris Torch, Trustee of the European Museum Forum, explains to Editor Jonathan Miles why museums and culture have a central role in European development
The digital edition of PS Public Service Review (article on page 92-93)
The role of museums goes far beyond the capacity to engage visitors culturally and historically. They also have an educational, social and economic influence. And that influence is only set to expand in the coming years. Striving to raise the standards of museums in Europe is the European Museum Forum (EMF) – an independent network of museums and museum associations, under the patronage of the Council of Europe. Talking to Editor Jonathan Miles, EMF Trustee Chris Torch explains why, even in the current economic climate, museums are hot property.
Education, culture and social identity all benefit from the work of museums, contends Torch. “I don’t think there is a contemporary museum today that does not have an educational programme and close relationships with schools. Children and young adults learn through museums, more than any other cultural institution.” The digitisation of museum collections has further enhanced accessibility, engaging young people through the internet and social media.
Torch also underlines the fact that museums act as meeting places, physical buildings that people can move through at their own speed and in their own time. “Museums are often connected to cafes, restaurants, theatre performances and to educational programmes, so the cultural and interdisciplinary aspect of museum work is very important in holding together unity and a local and regional sense of identity,” he explains.
The link to history that museums are integral in keeping alive is another important function, says Torch: “The famous philosopher George Santayana once wrote: ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ and we have a huge need to understand how things have been done historically, what mistakes have been made and how improvements can be imagined. Without historical knowledge, we have no chance of defining the future.”
However, the role of museums in developing and safeguarding cultural identity can be something of a double-edged sword, he believes: “It’s fruitful that people are mobile and learn about each other’s history and contemporary lives. However there is a tendency in some nations, especially the smaller language nations in Europe, to build some kind of national identity that might in itself be a threat to the whole European idea. That is the reason why there is a populist investment in a historical museum, rather than in contemporary artistic work.
“This national identity aspect is potentially fractionalising,” he continues. “There is an exaggerated focus on a national and ethnic cultural heritage and history, rather than on the broader European one. I would consider it two steps back. Museums are ‘in’ right now from a cultural investment perspective, but we have to be careful that they also represent diversity and European values.”
Museums very much have a positive wind behind them in terms of funding, being seen as places of attraction that bring in visitors and fuel the tourism industries that play a large role in many European economies.
Museums are often part of partnerships designed to get support from the European Union’s Culture Programme (2007-2013). With a budget of €400m this project aims to enhance Europe’s shared cultural heritage through the development of cross-border cooperation between cultural operators and institutions.
The EU’s Structural Funds also affect museums, but they are often used more in the corners of Europe, rather than in central Europe. They are being invested in the creation of cultural centres that often include museums, with funding being made available for the construction, building and launching of cultural heritage objectives.
“There is a general agreement that culture should be an aspect within all areas of the EU’s work,” explains Torch. “The EU is working with social funds, integration and international relations. The Directorate-General for Education, Audiovisual and Culture (at the EC) should advocate for the cultural factor in all its work, enabling museums with innovative approaches to extend into new areas of society. Hence, the EU has a network of transnational initiatives, and museums that are interested in both European integration and globalisation naturally put themselves at the centre of European development and relations with the rest of the world.
“The policy of the EMF and other branch platforms is that the European project must at its very essence be a cultural project. We encourage the EU to support and invest in this vision,” says Torch. “The focus on economic development and revitalisation is intimately connected to the cultural sector, because people develop their attitudes about Europe and the rest of the world through culture and education. This includes research institutes, museums and the entire sector where people are culturally engaged. This must be a central part of any revitalisation policy when it comes to both the economic and social cohesion of Europe.”
Cultural heritage is a collective knowledge base, and without this knowledge, we are sailing a ship without a compass, Torch asserts. Educational and cultural investment is essential for the European project. “We have to stop speaking about support to cultural institutions and initiatives (including museums) as ‘subsidies’,” he argues. “It is rather a question of investment in people’s capacity to create their own future and make proper decisions.”