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Critical Excursion: The role of museums in urban regeneration and gentrification

Over the past decade museums have had to grapple with a real terms funding cut of 13% and these cuts have gone hand-in-hand with the pressure to compete with other museums and galleries in an increasingly marketised culture industry. As a result, many museums are struggling to remain free to visitors and are at risk of closure. The recently published Mendoza review, commissioned by the government to survey the current state of the museum and heritage sector in the UK, concluded that in order to stay relevant museums must contribute to ‘placemaking and local priorities’.

In order to examine the complex relationship between the ‘placemaking’ role of museums and urban gentrification, this critical excursion will take place at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. In the last decade the East End of London has experienced the full force of regeneration projects and the accompanying gentrification of the area; these sweeping changes are now reaching Bethnal Green. The museum is soon to be overshadowed by a block of flats currently in construction across the road. In response to the pressures of regeneration in the local area, the museum is planning to reshape its image. In the 1920s the museum was the first to consider a child audience in its curation, for example hanging paintings at child height, and this sort of inclusive attitude towards museum displays has continued into the museum’s current modernisation plans. On this excursion we will probe the tensions between urban gentrification and the recent focus on inclusion, outreach and widening participation strategies in the arts and humanities.

On the day I’ll provide a brief history of the museum as well as giving you a quick tour of the museum and museum gardens. There will also be time for you to explore the inside and outside of the museum independently in order to consider the space in relation to the local area before we come together for discussion.

Points to consider:

-          The ways in which the museum as a space of conservation is inherently in tension with ideas of regeneration

-          Issues around the increasing instrumentalisation of the culture industry in neoliberal cities

-          The relationship between the culture industry/ artists and gentrification

-          How does the incorporation of the arts in city planning complicate ideas of gentrification?

-          What scope is there for museums to take a stand against gentrification in the area?

-          Tension between property development and heritage sites (museums often occupy highly desirable urban space)

-          What role does (or should) a museum play in shaping the identity of the area?

-          What are the political and social implications of this idea of ‘placemaking’ discussed in the Mendoza report?

-          Does attracting tourists to the museum as part of a plan to regenerate the area threaten to displace local residents? The cultural diversity of Bethnal Green could be considered to define the area, and there is continuous exchange between the museum and local community.

At a time when museums are under threat, the questions surrounding their place in our city are arguably more pressing than ever.

Suggested reading:

Later Event: 6 April
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