Honestly, this report confused me a bit.
I picked it up because I thought it would be about economic impact and the creative sector. It wasn't.
Then, the first half (the findings), had me prepared to write a review all about, essentially, the death of the chamber of commerce (and implications for communities and even museums, if you bear with me).
But then the second half (case studies) focused on two museum-type organizations that were doing great community work, really serving as creative hubs and putting the findings into practice.
I'm not sure I can totally reconcile the two, as my responses are so different. But here goes.
Note: this report focuses on Creative Hubs in the United Kingdom.
Part 1: The Findings
Fundamentally, how do communities support creativity, individual entrepreneurship, and thinking? How do they provide infrastructure, resources, nuts-and-bolts advice, and places for what the authors called "structured serendipity" and "curating happenstance" (two phrases I love, by the way; I sometimes see those ideas coming from museum-goers in my research as well).
This report focused on "creative hubs" as relatively new, loose organizations that address those needs, as places that bring together "diverse talents, disciplines, and skills to intensify innovation … places that provide a space for work, participation, and consumption" (p. 7). They are physical places and/or networks, but essentially small communities that incubate small businesses, help grow creative industries, and make places better.
In the UK, three emerging factors contributed to the development of hubs:
As I read these findings, however, I kept thinking about chambers of commerce. In a way, these creative hubs are becoming a nimble, flexible, relevant 21st-century chamber of commerce. Let me explain (and I'll bring in a museum hook).
When I worked within museums, I found the local chamber of commerce to be only somewhat useful. In the 11+ years I've been an audience researcher, I have found them completely irrelevant. Local chambers have failed me … and I suspect a lot of others. They feel creaky and stuck in the 80s, to be honest. Yet the creative hubs described in this report are very appealing to me.
So if I were to create the 21st-century chamber of commerce, it would actually look a lot like these creative hubs. Dynamic co-working spaces with innovative programs to stimulate the mind, creativity, and innovation. Maker spaces and pots of tea. Meaningful social programming that helps me, and others, tackle community issues. Practical services that help me deal with the nuts-and-bolts of running my practice, so I can focus on the things that matter. I don't want to go to a "mixer" to network, but I do want to be in a mutually supportive environment. And I suspect there is a growing need for that environment that goes right back to those labor market and industry shifts the UK, and the US, is experiencing.
I also think museums can be a vital part of new creative hubs in the US. The intellectual stimulation, the creative and technical inspiration, are all things that museums can excel at. Additionally, my data and research keeps reinforcing that community engagement and museums are deeply intertwined, so these creative hubs can be beneficial to museums. And museums can better support their community. And museums can actually be these creative hubs.
Which brings me to the case studies.
Part 2: The Case Studies
After I read the findings part of this report, I was tempted to just barely scan the case studies and set the report aside.
That didn't happen.
The first main case study was for the Site Gallery in Sheffield. And to be honest, the programming is what I would expect of any community-focused art museum, from classes to exhibits to lectures to teen programs (such as those that Mary Ellen Munley has studied in her excellent Room to Rise).
What was most interesting, however, was seeing its programming discussed by non-museum researchers, using language that clearly values the types of outcomes and impacts that I hear from museum-goers in my work. The ability of museums (in this case, art) to connect. Transform. Relax. Escape. Create. A potent reminder that these are important outcomes that we need to try to measure, even when it's hard. And that these outcomes matter.
For the Site Gallery, it meant deep integration with their community: Sheffield. Nimble, savvy thinking, and responding to needs … in ways only they could. The story was similar for Birmingham Open Media. Interestingly, however, the third case study, FuseBox in Brighton, was more of the new chamber of commerce model that the first part of the report had me envisioning.
Read or skip? This is actually hard to answer. Reading the findings, I would have said a "skip, I've got this covered for you." But I did an about-face when two of the three main case studies described organizations that look a lot like art museums (and, to be honest, there is no reason a science center or history museum couldn't do likewise).
So if your community is crying out for a creative hub, and you want to deeply integrate your museum in your community … read this. It could give you the inspiration to pursue this for your community, in ways that your community needs and that further your missions.
If all of this sounds nice, but nothing else. Then skip. It isn't for you and your museum.
Full citation: "Creative Hubs: Understanding the New Economy." Research report published by the British Council and City University of London. Released 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Big question for museums: What happens when some of the key values we hold dear … community, empathy, understanding … are considered old-fashioned relics among the broader population?
Why I picked it up: I like David Brooks. I don't agree with him on everything (especially politics), but I understand why he has those viewpoints because he is rational. This book, however, isn't political at all, but instead an assessment of society shifts that are rather insightful. I didn't approach this book as a "museum" book, but I did wonder if he had any takeaways that matter to museums
So … does he have takeaways for museums? Short answer, yes. Though you have to hunt for them.
Overall premise of book: Brooks begins by talking about "resume virtues," such as skills for careers and external success, versus "eulogy virtues," which are about character and relationships. In our society, he suggests we are overly focused on the resume virtues, and that it has been at the expense of the eulogy virtues. The results has been a "slip into self-satisfied moral mediocrity."
The shift has taken place largely in post-WWII America, with a mindset that has gone from "nobody's better than me, but I'm no better than anyone else" to "I'm pretty special."
How? He blames the Greatest Generation, which gave us rampant consumerism, a new ethos of the self, and the self-esteem movement. Now, he acknowledges that these are not all bad things (the self-esteem movement helped many people, for example), but it has played out in ways that has swung the pendulum too far towards narcissism, a desire for fame, and individualism at the expense of common good. This also leads to entrenched opinions and attitudes and an inability to acknowledge when we are wrong (does this sound familiar in today's society?).
We need to rebalance. To gain humility. An old-fashioned concept that is his recurring theme.
But what does that mean to him? Brooks takes issue with the idea that individuals should find themselves, follow their passions, set personal goals, and figure out how to get there. That is the life map of the individually autonomous. Reality requires something different. Instead, he suggests that we allow our life and experience to guide us to work to solve problems and needs. It is a shifting of personal mission from furthering oneself to finding a vocation. A vocation isn't chosen, like a career, but answering a call. Stumbling upon a need and being uniquely capable of serving it.
My museum take: When Brooks talks about finding a vocation, and serving it, lights were going off in my head for museums. I don't use these words when I advise museum boards and staffs, but the message is the same. Museums should not be striving to fulfill institutional goals because they simply can. Their work has to mean something to audiences. Otherwise it is going to spin wheels, not drive impact. How do museums find their vocation by applying their strengths to fulfill needs that real people have in real life?
But Brooks's message also resonated personally, in my own career. I never set out to be the museum-audience-data researcher/source/guru. I answered a calling that I saw when I was a museum director myself. And here is where I think the true message of the book lies. Serving a calling doesn't mean doing something that, individually, we hate. It means taking what we enjoy, want to do, and are good at, and matching it and growing it to meet society's needs. It's something I, in retrospect, did. And it is something that I will strive to inculcate in my own children.
So what is the role of museums in helping develop individual interests in a way that is balanced by our ability to develop cognitive empathy, understanding, and the broadening of minds? How do we help the individual reconcile their own desires with the common good? Is that a role that, as a field, museums should play? I'd argue yes, as museums already play a formative role for avid museum-goers.
In the book, Brooks underscores the need for this reconciliation of individual desires and common good when he examines Google ngrams (which measure word usage over time across media and publication dates). Since the beginning of the 20th century, words like "community," "character," "gratitude," and "kindness" have dropped dramatically.
What struck me was that these words, which apparently are old-school since their usage has dropped so precipitously, are that they are ideas that we talk about in our work a lot. Especially community. But character, gratitude, and kindness are similar to empathy and understanding, two other words we are increasingly using to describe our work. In a world that focuses so much on the self, do these forces of humility, of intrinsic kindness, that we embrace make us a relic to those who are more extrinsically motivated in their lives?
When we talk about community and understanding, does it basically make most people check out? If so, how do we work towards it without articulating it? To drive change that isn't asked for but we believe is right as it leads to humility, kindness, and a better society? What would that look like? Why would people care about it? How can we do it more effectively?
And how depressing is it that we, as a society, don't talk about kindness anymore?
Read or skip? It depends. If you want a book that is hugely applicable for museums, skip. I think I pulled that out for you. But if you want a well-written, deeply thoughtful (and non-political) book about values, morality, and American society, yes, read it. I enjoyed it. (BTW, the bulk of the book is a series of mini-biographies of individuals who exemplified different eulogy virtues. 300+ pages of pontificating on values would have been unreadable. The biographies made it human.)
Full citation: Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.
Why I picked it up: I'm interested in why some people are connected to their community, and others are not so much. Does connection to community correlate with engagement with the broader world? Why might that matter? And how might museums help? I didn't expect this report to answer all of these questions, but instead shed some light from a very reputable source (I love the Pew Research Center, BTW).
What you need to know: Those who engage with their community more are also more likely to consume local news and more likely to vote. Or, in my words, the "do mores do more." The big concern I see coming out of this data, as well as my own and that of other sources, is that only a relatively small percentage of people are truly engaged with their community and/or broader world. Which means a rather big chunk of Americans have little or no external engagement or connection. That has some pretty big societal ramifications.
Implications for museums: This report doesn't mention museums, but based on my data (findings I am in the process of releasing over on The Data Museum blog), I think it is safe to assume a correlation between a high engagement with community and museum-going. The larger questions, however, are: how can museums help boost citizen engagement with community and the broader world; how may museum methodologies be particularly effective at this; and why does broader engagement matter in the first place?
Read or skip? Skip. It is a high-quality research project and a go-to report. But you get the gist of it from this review. The only exception might be if a museum was seeking a specific collaboration with a local media organization or if a grantwriter needed solid data points for a relevant community proposal (though it still would be of limited use since it does not include museum data).
The Nitty-Gritty (for those interested, my page-by-page commentary):
P. 3 - Starts off with some clear statements, noting that the civically engaged "play a key role in civic life" and are "more likely than the less engaged to use and value local news." Totally makes sense. But civic engagement is more than voting in local elections and consuming local news. What are the other factors of community engagement? How do they contribute? And, ultimately, what gives the civically engaged that outward view of life in the first place? That seems rather important to know (and, admittedly, out of the scope of Pew's report).
P. 5 - Pew characterizes about a third of US adults as more highly engaged in their community through perception or action (or both). This makes sense to me based on my own data sets as well, but that also means there are a lot of people who are only somewhat or not at all engaged in their community. In my data there is a very strong relationship between high civic engagement and museum-going. Museums are simply more relevant and useful to the engaged citizen.
P. 6 and P. 16 - The data shows that young adults are less civically engaged than older adults, and my data generally agrees. I find a general uptick in engagement begins in the 25 - 34 age band, while Pew notes it in the 30 - 44 band. The question that Pew doesn't raise is why. That is, is this a problem (and the current generation of young adults won't grow into civic engagement), will they transition into civic engagement with age, or did Pew not provide a broad enough range of answer choices in their survey?
I suspect it is a mixture of the second and third factors. Young adulthood is about establishing your life, so it makes sense that civic engagement happens a few years later. But I also strongly suspect Pew wasn't capturing the things young adults are more inclined to do. On p. 16 they note that they tracked "activity in seven different types of civic groups, from sports leagues to church groups to charity organizations, and six political activities." Since the report did not actually list all of those activities, based on this language my hunch is that it doesn't include newer, more informal, forms of engagement. To give one example, in my research I am finding that food is a catalyst for community engagement for a strong segment of young adults. While I can't be sure, I doubt that was on Pew's list.
P. 8 - People's interest in sports news has no correlation with other forms of civic engagement. This is what I expected to see as well (though I was surprised they noted it).
P. 14 - A frustration I felt throughout this report is that they did not distinguish between those who felt connected to their community by virtue of birth (and lifelong residency), and those who had moved in and worked hard to establish roots. While many lifelong residents work hard to keep their roots healthy, I suspect there are quite a few others who feel strongly connected by birth but are, in actually, not that civically engaged. I would have liked to have seen that broken out … especially since they asked the right questions to do so.
P. 21 - Political persuasion has little effect on local news consumption or attitudes. While national news may be rather polarized, local news seems to cross political boundaries.
P. 28 - Republicans are more likely than Democrats or Independents to say they know "all" their neighbors. This makes sense to me. According to my data, moderates and liberals are more likely to have moved away from their childhood hometowns, and that mobility would make knowing "all" your neighbors less likely. Conservatives are more likely to reside in their childhood hometown, and that lifelong residency gives respondents a whole lot more time to know "all" their neighbors.
P. 29 - Pew asked how respondents rated their community, and what leapt out at me was how differently white, non-Hispanics answered than people of color. Whites were 50% more likely to rate their community as "excellent" than people of color (who were, in turn, well over 2x more likely to rate their community as only "fair" or "poor"). That indicates to me some difficult divides based on lived experience. Do museums contribute to this, or can they be catalysts for change? Let's be honest that this is a more difficult question to answer than we would like it to be.
Final thoughts: The report backed up some of my assumptions with data, and had few surprises. The do mores do more. But I want to dig deeper into generational differences (as some of my tweets have indicated) and consider how museums can increase civic engagement among those who are not-so-engaged now.
Full citation: "Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits." Research report published by Pew Research Center. Released November 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
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