Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A cultural devolution

Adam Dumbleton questions the methods used in making culture, history and art more accessible to younger audiences

The lengthy summer train delays to which we become so accustomed are doubtless a blessing to advertisers, as throngs of red-faced commuters are left stuck in train carriages for even longer than usual and become, in their helplessness, the proverbial captive audience. But with more time to stare apathetically at the information overload presented by the various advertisers, some may find themselves questioning what the posters are offering.

One such advert currently to be found on the network proudly announces the arrival of ‘Time Explorers’, an event comprising new ‘digital missions for children’, at Hampton Court Palace. The event is doubtless designed to make the prospect of a visit exciting to children.

But this invites a glaring question: when did we become a society where a Tudor palace needs to be made exciting?

The phenomenon is neither new nor unique; the poster, in this case, indicative of a wider trend. Across countless institutions of the cultural, historical, and artistic communities, things once considered objects of cultural or intellectual import, and correspondingly presented as such, are being dumbed down in what can only be described as a gradual acceptance and encouragement of intellectual decline.

The Natural History Museum, too — surely one of the great treasures of this country — now appears intent on replacing as much actual content as possible with interactive displays and computer games. The place is scarcely recognisable compared to its former self. One can only fear for the day the same minds take control of the British Museum. It has, perhaps, been spared this fate so far by its curators’ knowledge that res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself.

It’s hard to differentiate cause and effect: are such practices a response to the genuine needs of the majority of today’s public? Or, do they do nothing but perpetuate what was once a small problem of declining engagement from certain sections of society, which now, through attitudes intended to include people despite their apparent desire for ‘culture lite’, has become more widespread unnecessarily?

The aforementioned poster perhaps offers a clue. Does it really tell us that children find history boring, and that they need it to be made exciting and accessible? Really, it tells us nothing of the sort. Who can really say what children think of such things? What it reveals, instead, is a mere belief on the part of those responsible that this is what people want. They believe that there is an engagement problem, so they make history ‘cool’. And that’s the most dangerous thing.

Such misguided beliefs guarantee only one thing: perpetuating a problem which, actually, wasn’t a problem in the first place. If ‘culture lite’ becomes the norm, what will children possibly come to grow accustomed to other than ‘culture lite’? It seems, today, that no child could foster an interest in real dinosaur fossils and facts, rather than animated cartoon dinosaurs, even if they wanted to.

Increasingly, leaders in the fields of culture, arts and history abdicate the single most important responsibility of their positions: to preserve not only artefacts and knowledge, but to preserve a curiosity and an interest in those things in the people who will come to represent the future of those fields.

Charles Dickens’ absurd caricature in Hard Times of an authoritarian schoolteacher, Mr Gradgrind, famously insists on his students’ behalf that, “we want nothing but facts, sir; nothing but facts!” As much as the character is intended as an exercise in hyperbole, there is more truth in the presentation than Dickens seemed to intend. Children are curious. They want to learn. And, contrary to the apparent belief prevailing today, they are capable of learning about the world in unadulterated form.

The world needs to learn to recognise this. In doing so, we can — and must — halt the patronising descent towards the intellectual vacuity which current practices will surely end in.

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