The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Debates

Amy's CFP here reminded me of something I was going to post earlier this week. It's election season in North America, and us Canadians also had a leadership debate on the same night as the VP debates in the US. This was the English-language debate with the leaders of the major parties (sort of, see below), and the arts came up as a surprisingly hot topic. Museums, of course, featured...

The way the debate was set up was as a sort of round-table discussion, with the moderator taking pre-selected questions from "ordinary Canadians" on the major issues facing Canada today (our media is so saturated with US goings-on, that I'd forgotten we have our own issues!) and each party leader had a certain amount of time to answer on behalf of his/her party.

A brief aside so you know what's going on: The way the Canadian system works, briefly, is that whichever party gets the most members of Parliament elected, gets to put their leader in charge as the Prime Minister. De facto, we have the Conservatives and the Liberals as the major parties, but the Bloc Quebecois (a separatist party), and the New Democratic Party (the even more socialist version of the Liberals) were also there, though they likely won't be the Opposition party. Surprisingly, the leader of the Green Party, who have less than a handful of seats in the Parliament at the moment, was also invited. Her participation was actually boycotted by the PM, who said she was irrelevant at first, but then there was such a hoohah, that they had to invite her anyway.

The (Conservative) Prime Minister has gone on a bit of an anti-arts rampage recently, saying that he was trying to appeal to the working classes, not the "ivory tower" people who go to "gala events". (The sentence that launched a hundred Facebook protest groups, hah!) His administration also cut a massive amount of funding to the arts, although he counters that they added a certain amount of money to other programs. So naturally, all the other party leaders jumped on this as soon as the topic turned to the arts. the Green Party leader particularly singled out the cut to a program that subsidized art transportation costs for galleries and museums, and actually understood that such a cut meant that there was no longer opportunities for people across our (enormous - second largest nation in the world territorially) country to have their horizons broadened by new and different perspectives in culture.

Our PM smugly replied that his government only cut the "ineffective" programs - to which the Bloc Quebecois leader surprisingly cleverly retorted that if so, why wouldn't the government account for which programs were seen as ineffective, and exactly why? As you can probably guess, this quickly degenerated into name-calling, partisanship, and empty promises on behalf of all the leaders, but the question was still a good one: what makes certain arts programs "effective," and how is that to be measured? Most importantly, who gets to decide?

It's not just a rhetorical question, aimed at making us all feel warm and fuzzy inside about what we do and what we believe in (I assume that despite occasional wobblings, most of us are still pretty optimistic and enthusiastic about the arts and culture). In the weak global economy, with governments adopting protectionist, reactionist accounting policies, its a question the answer to which could determine all our futures in the museum profession. What do you think?

2 comments:

Ceri said...

I have to say that I think it is possible to measure the 'effectiveness' of museum and gallery programmes... I am biased (slightly!) as in my 'day job' we do evaluate museum and gallery programmes and projects and it is becoming more accepted that whilst it is complex, the 'impact' of involvement in a museum programme or project can be captured ... I guess this impact can be related to 'effectiveness' when looking at a specific project or programme which is related to an identifiable outcome for participants - which both participants and the museum/gallery can buy into. I think 'effectiveness' here has to be 'measured' from both the participant's perspective and the museum / gallery's perspective for it to be meaningful. There may be all sorts of unintended outcomes as well which are of value to be captured. However I know that there are many concerns with this type of research - the subjectivity (what does effective actually mean?), the reliance on participants and their version of 'reality', the capturing of multiple viewpoints in ways which are reliable and transparent, the investigation of the context and can it be generalised to other instances...? It can be complex to attach particular outcomes to the activity - how do we know except from the participants' word that the museum / gallery led to this outcome? Which is why I think it is still only possible to gauge effectiveness when outcomes are defined... general visits to museums, galleries may be more difficult as no outcome is 'agreed' between the building and the participants when they enter so who is to say that an encounter has been effective in that occasion? So to sum up, my argument would be that measuring effectiveness is possible and desirable as long as both organisation and participants have identifiable outcomes at the beginning which both agree to achieve - so in effect it would only be possible with specific programmes or projects with identifiable outcomes. As a researcher however I would advocate a more holistic approach, so that unintended outcomes would be captured as well as intended... which may also help make the decision as to whether the project etc had been successful???

J said...

I love hearing "from the trenches," as it were, because the practical perspectives are second to none. I love your point about negotiating evaluations on both sides, Ceri, because obviously both parties have radically different goals to be evaluated. But the question remains: who has to compromise, and which goals (for effectiveness or otherwise) are measurable/measured?