Is MERL ‘well-placed’ to foster social cohesion?

MERL is definitely not alone in recognising the value of focussing on place in relation to museums and their holdings. In the Spring 2012 newsletter of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, Vice-Chairman of Trustees John Godfrey raises interesting questions concerning recent social disorder within the UK and the need for young people to feel firmly rooted in the places they live. Exploring his own son’s direct experience of the London riots of 2011, he suggests that “what appears to be central to the disaffection and alienation of so many people… is the loss of a sense of place, of a common sense of shared ownership of the surroundings we share together: our shared landscapes, our shared buildings, our shared lives.” He goes on to make a compelling argument about the potential for the Weald & Downland to play a part in helping to facilitate a sense of place and belonging across society as a whole, and raises the important question of how the museum sector might contribute to developments of this kind:

‘I suggest that… the museum is well-placed to play a significant role in encouraging this sense of place amongst communities in South East England. The museum trustees, at their meeting in November, agreed a new mission statement for the museum as follows: ‘A centre of excellence for the enjoyment, learning and understanding of the built environment, landscape, rural life, and communities of South East England and the South Downs.’ But how do we fulfill this mission, how do we contribute to a growing understanding of the importance of locality in rebuilding social cohesion, trust and responsibility?’

I’m not sure that the MERL project has any firm solutions to offer at this early stage. However, once the data has been enhanced on the museum’s catalogue and the team have undertaken some trials both in the gallery and with our initial community partners, I think we might begin to offer some tentative answers. Our project is not seen as an end in itself but as a platform on which we hope to construct a new model for collections-centred engagement. By enriching the geographic data that underpins the museum’s digital resources and making these enhanced primary sources readily available, MERL can then begin to perfect the tools and techniques necessary to build lasting connections with people in locales where these materials are seen to have the most potential. This would certainly include some of the rural source communities where the artefacts already have an obvious resonance but might also include work with urban stakeholders drawn from the museum’s own doorstep. Here collections could become a useful tool in helping to ‘twin’ rural communities where a sense of place is arguably still manifest with urban areas where this sense of belonging is seen to be on the wane. Using museum collections as a focal point, the sharing of ideas about place and community might help MERL and its partners to foster greater social cohesion and a sense of shared custodianship.

To read the full column cited here see:

  • John Godfrey, ‘From the Vice-Chairman’, Weald & Downland Open Air Museum Magazine, Spring 2012, p.9 [earlier issues of this newsletter are archived here]

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