A word of warning.

Always expect things to be added slowly to this blog.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Creating Nelson; Sharing Nelson

This is one of those lie down in a darkened room days. If you haven't actually come across this yet then none of the following will make any sense.
Briefly, it seems that Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), Nelson McCausland, MLA, has written to National Museums Northern Ireland to request that the museum (mainly the Ulster Museum - UM) gives more prominence to Ulster-Scots, the Orange Order and alternative views on the origin of the universe. Nelson wrote to the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) saying he wants the issues given consideration in the short term. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) said it was part of its commitment to a shared future strategy. The letter was leaked, which apparently disappointed Nelson, since he intended it to remain confidential (he is widely reported as having said this on BBC's the Nolan Show).
Now, two things immediately come to mind even before we get to the whole 'alternative views on the origin of the universe' issue.
The first one we'll make a positive. Who cares what Nelson thinks about Ulster-Scots and the Orange Order? Not in the sense that his views are irrelevant. Where there is a feeling that additional emphasis or multiple voices are required to provide sufficient depth to a particular story, that is not a problem. The content and context should be provided by professionals, informed by expert opinion and guided by well established international principles. The learning outcomes expected by visitors at museums and the way they are delivered is a widely explored field. Politicians, including Nelson, can request the emphasis but have to stand over the delivery. In short, he can make reasonable requests, but will have to live with the consequences.
So if there were negative aspects in the displays (e.g. if, for instance, a display board pointed out that the term Ulster-Scots only emerged in the 1990s), Nelson would have to live with it. By and large, there is at least debate around the validity of terminology like Ulster-Scots and the history and role played by the Orange Order and it's 'fraternal organisations'. So at least any exhibition can be tested against the common ground of opinion for balance etc.
Unfortunately, we know that whatever is expected, Nelson already has in mind the intended learning outcomes for visitors.
This is where the second point comes in. By intending to send a request to the trustees in the background, what was Nelson trying to achieve?
A considered review of where UM currently stands would show that there are no archaeological curatorial staff. Read that sentence again. The museum, not just a show house, but also a repository of objects and a named institution in legislation, has no archaeological curators (i.e. experts who can identify objects, advise on their curation and presentation etc). The head of that particular section (it was once known as Human History but under the circumstances I'd wonder what it might become known as) is a recent appointee, so you might give some leeway here to allow for new staff to be brought in. But, in this context, it is possible to be cynical about the potential motives that might be read into a letter directly from the Minister. This is at a time when the talk is of cutting budgets, deficits etc. That he freely admits that he expected it to be confidential is all the less reassuring. He also indicates that he expects changes in the short term (i.e. before the summer).
Okay. Now creationism (which Nelson is careful to characterise as alternative views of the origin of the universe). Now we've already Mervyn Storey on the subject so we know that Nelson is not alone in his views. The only problem is that, outside of fundamentalist circles, creationism is treated as a tenent of religious belief. I'm not saying it has no place, it has, but it is an appropriate place of worship for that particular brand of religion. Not a museum or any institution whose content is derived from research, science and academic endeavour.
I did say earlier that politicians can make reasonable requests. In this context, a museum that started collecting in 1821 and displaying objects in 1833 is being asked to open itself up to international ridicule to satisfy the fundamentalist religious views of a government minister. If UM introduces creationism it will no longer be recognised by other museums as an institution of any standing.
Finally, a small point on the concept of sharing and the whole notion of a shared future agenda (Nelson's own words). It appears that some of the senior staff in DCAL have woefully misread their chief in his remit. Mainly his understanding of the word 'share' in this context. Sharing, in this sense, means things like participation, identification and empathy. Nelson appears to believe that it means giving us the dubious benefit of his personal views whether we like them or not. That is not the kind of sharing most people want!!!!!!!!!

No comments:

Post a Comment