Transforming Lives Through Culture

Ahead of tonight’s Heritage Exchange event, David Anderson looks at how the culture and heritage sector can come together in Wales.

If you put the three words ‘culture, poverty, Wales’ into a search engine, it seems that not a week has gone by in recent months without someone publishing a report about culture’s role in tackling poverty. This is not coincidental. In recent years, a significant shift has been taking place as more and more cultural organisations awaken to their wider social responsibility. Whilst work has progressed, more can and should be done if we are serious about tackling the impact of poverty in Wales through culture.

I first wrote about this very issue for Click on Wales in July 2012. Amgueddfa Cymru had just launched our own child poverty strategy – Transforming Children’s Futures – and we were holding a conference, bringing together a wide variety of organisations and sectors, such as Theatr Genedlaethol, Film Agency for Wales and Cadw as well as a number of charities such as Save the Children and Barnados Cymru, to discuss for the first time in Wales how engagement with the arts and culture can deliver change for young people. This was followed by a research seminar in October 2013 to identify what research has known to be effective practice, and where further research is needed. The result of this work culminated with the publication of a report and toolkit – Cultural Participation for Children and Young People Experiencing Poverty.

This is not the end of the road for this work. The report makes a number of recommendations for the cultural sector in Wales on how we can help tackle the impact of poverty, by adopting a radically new way of working. And I for one believe that Wales can lead the UK in this field if we can work in partnership on the delivery.

Coming just weeks after the publication of Culture and Poverty – a report commissioned by the Minister for Culture and Sport, John Griffiths and produced by Baroness Kay Andrews, which examines how organisations across Wales can work closer together to help tackle poverty, and months after Professor Dai Smith’s report on Arts and Education, it may seem that we’re jumping on the bandwagon. This is not the case. Amgueddfa Cymru has been working over the last decade to enable all children to experience culture in a positive way, with the aim of enhancing quality of lives as well as increasing educational success. The organisation has involved community groups in hands-on activities, has given them a voice in the redevelopment of St Fagans National History Museum and continues to offer free entry to the national museums. However, we are now looking to strengthen that work in collaboration with the wider cultural and heritage sector in Wales.

Amongst the Cultural Participation report’s recommendations are that cultural and heritage organisations should:

–       Directly involve children and young people on decision making panels;

–       Develop their listening skills so they are better able to recognise and respond to the voices and views of children and young people;

–       Communicate with the whole family as the attitudes of children and young people towards culture is often formed and influenced by their parents or carers.

Further, we are recommending that as a result of this report, the cultural and heritage sector should also:

–       Establish a code of ethics or set of principles for the cultural sector in relation to tackling exclusion as a consequence of child poverty;

–       Establish a steering group to drive forward this agenda in Wales;

–       Open out the conversation with funding bodies, encouraging them to prioritise projects that address the impacts of child poverty;

–       Strengthen the evidence of the work carried out by the cultural sector by supporting in-depth collaborative research.

Many of these recommendations complement the recommendations of other recently published reports, and I am hopeful that we are seeing real progress in terms of turning these actions into a reality. The situation won’t change overnight, and neither will cultural organisations eliminate poverty by themselves. But we can make a significant difference. Hopefully, under the leadership of the Welsh Government, we will see national organisations come together to deliver this work. But, it will require a radically new way of working for all of us. And one we should embrace wholeheartedly.

What will this look like? I believe that we need a national culture service for every child. This would mean that there is a local cultural provision for every child, in their local area, no matter what kind of area of culture they’re interested in. The Welsh Government and national organisations would then work closely with these local organisations to provide a toolkit to support them in delivering this. Backgrounds and geography shouldn’t stop anyone from experiencing culture, and national organisations have a duty to ensure all children in Wales are given the chance to experience their own culture and heritage.

I am sometimes asked how cultural organisations, at a time of financial constraint, can afford to do this work. For me, the issue is the other way round. With almost a third of children and young people in Wales living in poverty, we can’t afford not to. Culture can raise the aspirations of young people, and even transform their lives. National organisations such as Amgueddfa Cymru have a national responsibility, and this should be at the forefront of our thinking if we want to bring about change in Wales.

David Anderson is the Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.

Also within Culture