Book review: ‘Museums and Community’ by Elizabeth Crooke

Museums and Communities, Elizabeth Crooke, front coverI have just finished reading Museums and Community: Ideas, issues and challenges by Elizabeth Crooke (Routledge, 2007). Crooke is a senior lecture in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Ulster and as a consequence she brings to her research a sophisiticated understanding of the contested nature of ‘community’ in Northern Ireland. Whilst the book recognises the potential value in developing strong communities as part of a social inclusion agenda and the role that the heritage sector can play in this she retains a healthy scepticism, given equal weight to the criticism that ‘community’ developments policies may also be divisive and exclusive.

Her analysis of the emergence of the ‘community’ agenda in government policy is interesting, but perhaps most useful from our point of view is the way she seeks to unpick all the competing and sometimes contradictory concepts that are bound up in this one word. She identifies three strands in public discourse around community:

  1. An academic strand, where researchers are interested in exploring the way an idea of community is developed through symbolic action. This area of study is perhaps of most theoretical relevance to heritage practitioners.
  2. A public policy strand, which takes the value of community for granted and uses it as a tool for local and national government (this thinking also impacts on the heritage practioners, since it is important to understand what is at stake when subscribing to particular policy agendas)
  3. An action-research strand, that builds on the first strand to develop the idea of community as a form of social action, and a mode of resistance to various forms of hegemony.

It is immediately obvious that whilst empowered communities (as imagined in three) can be seen as underpinning democracy by providing a framework for collective action and managed conflict, there is also clearly potential for conflict between two and three, which roughly translates into a clash between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ policy making.

Understanding these different strands is useful in terms of thinking about whose interests are best served by the promotion of the ‘community archives’ sector. Is promoting community heritage a cheap way to generate a feel-good factor without having to address the root causes of discrimination and exclusion (such as poverty)? Or is it a way to strengthen democractic participation?

In addition, she draws on Hugh Butcher’s work (‘Introduction’ to eds. Butcher, H., A. Glen, P. Henderson and J. Smith (1993) Community and Public Policy. London: Pluto Press) to explore the idea of community as process, and as a term than covers a whole range of different levels of engagement. In short, Butcher identifies a ‘descriptive community’, ‘community as value’ and ‘active community’:

The concept of a descriptive community relates to the idea of a network of people who have something in common, either through a sense of belonging, such as a community of interest, or by identifying with certain references, like a shared territory for example. The second use of the term relates to the values associated with the concept that can be actively nurtured, such as solidarity, communal aid and connectivity. The active community relates to social initiatives that aim to develop community strengths and capacities. (Crooke 2008: 31).

One way of thinking about community archives is about seeing them as levers for effecting a change of level. A community archive can bring together a group of people who may not even realise they have something in common or where there are few existing links, fostering a self-aware descriptive community. Here what is important is the symbolic value of the archive: the the material collected represents a community to itself, bringing into existence. Once this community is brought into being – or if it already exists – then participation in the community archive is what matters: working together on a project, particularly if grounded in shared values and/or shared experience – for example a history of political protest, can generate a ‘community as value’. And the ‘active community’ is often the ultimate goal and in some cases the community archive may – as an ongoing process – become redundant, as other causes take over. As Crooke concludes, ‘When communities forge heritage projects they may be important to galvanise the group, but once the community gathers momentum the need for such initiatives will lessen’ (p.134).

Underlying this argument is a strong sense of the link between insecurity and community, and specifically community heritage: we need to feel we belong because we feel threatened (an idea Crooke backs up with reference to Zygmunt Bauman). But who are we leaving out when we say ‘we’?


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