'Rarefied' museums told to banish staff snobbery

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The Independent Online

Snobbery and discrimination by staff of museums and galleries may prevent the poor and socially excluded from visiting, says a government report to be launched today by the arts minister Alan Howarth.

It says that cultural institutions should be "agents of social change", acting as learning centres and havens for the wider community. They should go as far as consulting those on the fringes of society, to make themselves more accessible, says the report, Museums, Galleries and Archives for All, which was commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

It says combating social exclusion should be a "policy priority" for cultural institutions, although it acknowledges this may pose problems for already stretched resources. It outlines policies museums, galleries and archives should adopt to make them less "rarefied" and intimidating.

These include making catalogues available on the internet and talking to the disadvantaged about their "needs and aspirations".

Museums and galleries should also ensure they do not just talk to white, middle-class audiences but "reflect the cultural and social diversity" of their visitors. Most importantly, the report advocates a policy of welcoming all visitors, regardless of their social background.

"A museum or gallery building which people can enter without being challenged can become a valued environment for those who are socially isolated and have little contact with others," it says. Although there may be security considerations, it adds, "much can be done to make visitors feel welcome and at ease".

The report follows Mori research that found 23 per cent of people from the DE classes visited museums and galleries, compared with 56 per cent from classes AB. In an attempt to find why, the report identified barriers by which organisations and staff "discourage" certain sections of the community. These include direct and indirect discrimination, unduly restrictive opening hours, too many rules and regulations, high admission charges and lack of services for the disabled.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who launches Museum and Galleries Month in London today, said museums and galleries "have a significant role to play" combating social exclusion. "They are often the focal point for cultural activity in the community, interpreting its history and heritage ... But the evidence is that museums, galleries and archives can do more than this, and act as agents of social change," he said.