Having spent the past six months searching for work largely in some vestige of ‘Learning and Engagement’ (unsuccessfully) I’ve noticed something. What I’ve noticed is something that makes me feel I’m sitting, uncomfortably and with dwindling money and self-esteem, somewhere between what I know I am capable of pursuing and want to achieve with my skills, experience, knowledge and general world outlook – and what is expected of me. Or indeed what is permitted for me to pursue and achieve. And by ‘permitted’ pursuits, I mean pursuits of work/employment/effort/activity* that I could take the initiative on – employed or self-motivated – and financially survive** and not be bureaucratically slain for on the start line.
Here’s what I mean… and this is my opinion. I don’t want to write an ‘I’ve thought of this from every angle and I know the solution’ piece because that is impossible by definition, and is why communal efforts are a focus of this article. I’m writing from every angle my little place on earth can see.’
In writing applications and in a few cases getting interviews for roles in Learning and Engagement – or ‘Visitor Experience’ as they seem to often be called – i’ve felt an underlying sense of limitation within what those jobs entail. Since the start of my degree, studying a communication design subject (Graphic and Media Design) I’ve spent a great amount of time, effort and study trying to work out the best way to share knowledge and inspiration with people, as a means to enhancing peoples’ understanding of, and therefore regard for and trust in, environmental conservation. I’ve explored this through creating visual arts projects, through designing a consumable clothing line, through writing and reading, through observing customers in the retail, education support, arts learning, dinner lady, cleaning, childcare and marketing roles I’ve held, and through other more transient means such as working out why I seem to attract certain types of people when I wear hoodies and workboots, and other people when I wear smart jumpers and posh boots. Either way, I’ve thought about the issue of ‘learning and engagement’ long and hard, since 2012. If not before – back when I held an ‘outdoor fun day’ with my sister when we were in primary school, and we borrowed dogs from around the village to entice children into coming to raise money for the Church. ‘THE CHURCH’ – because their own learning and engagement strategy relies upon humankind’s unquestionably creative imagination, capacity for unquantifiable transcendental experience and our inherent value of human connection, that it works. Like suckers we fell for it! Because the concept of contributing was left open to mine and my sister’s own common sense and imagination abilities, and also of course because people – especially little primary school kids when they learn about famine – want to do something.
So, when I read these application forms for which I am invited to explain how I might support a Learning and Engagement strategy, I feel a little boxed in. This is for one main reason to do with the underestimation of the ability of the audience, or the visitors, or… people of the world in general.
Many of us spend our recreational time visiting attractions and sites run by the National Trust, or English Heritage, or some other purveyor of the notion of the cultural, bucolic and worthy. They could be historic homes, ancient woodlands, industrial relics or religious sites. We go there and learn about the people that were there before us, that shaped the place as it is, physically, socially, politically. Are we looking to learn how we in turn might learn from these people and places, actively? The Visitor Experience program will offer us ways to acquire and store information about the place. We’ll enjoy it, and our respect for that place and trust in it as a rewarding day out will grow, which will increase the attraction’s reach as we tell our friends, and buy souvenirs, and go back for more next bank holiday. This is all great – it supports jobs. (I need one of those.) It also supports further specific causes in relation to the place, such as raising money for wetlands conservation***, or extending the Learning and Engagement Strategy to the diversification of, say, Shakespeare’s audience through ‘widening participation’ strategies. (Why don’t I have a job? I know the jargon – I can tick those boxes.) What these places don’t do, I notice now that I am at one end reading the job application packs and going to the interviews, and at the other end ‘experiencing’ the Visitor Learning and Engagement Experience, is ask us to actively contribute – unless it’s financially!
When we visit William Wordsworth’s house we may (I don’t know – I haven’t been – I hope we learn this here!) learn about his poetic anger towards the monopolization of the Lake District by excessive conifer plantations that wipe out diverse habitat woodland and essential peat bogs and fertile, well-structured soil. We might feel fired up about this for a moment – although chances many visitors will not have the ecological knowledge to know what this truly means for environmental health – but then what do we do? We go to the Visitor Centre cafe after a nice day out and have a nice cup of tea and reminisce about our cultural learnings. Nothing wrong with a nice cup of tea – we all remember those, which aids the memorability of a Visitor Experience, which in turn aids trust in the learning environment. We do feel learned, and cultured, but about as useful as this will be, I feel, is for improving our conversational prowess and feeling a little smug about that. Children, I have noticed, do take their learning home with them and put it into effect, but the adult’s ‘sensible’ priorities such as bathtime and clean carpets (and – dare I say it – homework!) often curtail this in the end. It’s the adults that need the magic to stay alive, in their jaded brain clouds.
What if the Visitor Experience linked up with learning agencies and signposted us to places where we could pursue further knowledge on this – be they educational courses, active communities or very participatory further learning?
For example, a basic idea would be to finance**** a poet to bridge the gap between the youth centre and societies’ ideals that everyone should be gainfully engaged in cultural activity. There could be a once-weekly radical land-use activism poetry evening at the Wordsworth House with local youths, supported by council ‘social prescribing’ (more jargon, thank you) funds. There’s a seed of an idea. The nanny state may not like the brain exercise this might awaken, but hey, it’s only the future of humankind on Earth we’re toying with. Participatory learning could take any form with any audience.
This ongoing Learning and Engagement could support visitor confidence and therefore an ability within the general public to have trust in their own inherent ability to know how to live a more environmentally-aware – truly: politically and fully, not just carrying a Bag For Life. What if our visitor experience to William Wordsworth’s house led us to our local Transition Town or permaculture group, who are sharing Sustainable Woodland Management***** courses? What if they signposted us to a directory of any and every local conservation volunteering opportunity out there, for any and every ability or interest area – be it species recording assistance or coppicing and charcoal making. What if the Visitor Experience started a chain of learning that could draw upon our abilities to engage long-term and to create visible effort in the political and social scene as effectors of better environmental behaviour? It would be like one giant demonstration. That would be hard to ignore. And it could start by massaging our interests from the moment we step through the door of Wordsworth’s House, by framing his relevance in the context of today’s social and environmental climate. With that relevance we can start to relate, using our own experiences, coming from our own patches of the land and nooks and crannies of the boroughs and towns. Relating helps us conjure active ideas for change.
Providing distinct context to a learning experience awakens our sleeping ability.
It’s all very well getting the kids down to Wordsworth’s gaff on a Sunday to explore ye olde kitchen garden and the woods, and dress up in ye olden day costume made when there were still British cotton mills – but it would help for the kids to work out why kitchen gardens have been given over to monocultural wheat farms, and what that really means. It would definitely help if they understood that ye olde servant costume made from cotton were actually a plant fibre, brought in with Colonialism, which was served in turn by those who were on the rough end of the British Feudal system and went abroad – the oppressed became the oppressor. That context would really undermine the savage blind acceptance of empire and land grabs and tax for foreign war efforts. How fitting and relevant that would be right now!!! So, such context as this helps us feel clever and useful, basically, and who doesn’t like feeling clever and useful? It helps us do stuff, and tell stories. Incidentally, this is where creative people come in – in case anyone still thinks we’re candyfloss on legs. I know of a number of very appropriate artists (here and here for starters…) who could simply, enjoyably convey the history of Northern cotton mills and gets kids learning for the long-term by leading them in making their own cotton garment.
Beyond giving context, by landing knowledge on others in the assumption it’s new to them, Visitor Experiences could also ask for input from visitors, proper input using peoples’ unique lenses with which they come towards the world of knowledge and learning. Asking for context could do even more than giving it – it could solidify our abilities as onward motion towards a cause. If Visitor Experience officers provided context in a more comprehensive, tangible manner, they could also ask for it back. There could be a screenplay-writing club in Wordsworth’s garden, working with local visitors to create a documentary that uses costumes made by the local textiles A-Level students. The documentary could follow actors, (I wish and hope they will be paid – not thinking it necessary to pay creative professionals who don’t service direct capital gain is another misdemeanour that so many authorities and institutions are guilty of, but that’s another story for another time.) who convey the story of Wordsworth’s anger at the British timber industry that is built entirely on perception of a need for more timber (really? Have you seen the queues for the tip on Saturday mornings with trailer loads full of Ikea tat?) and the craze for “ECONOMIC GROWTH”! The documentary could be suitably styled and narrated for teenage audiences, and actually, genuinely (not speculatively) be shown to them – in a fun way, where the geography class is moved to an outdoor setting, using the dark cover of thick tree canopies to accommodate an outdoor projector screening of the documentary, accompanied by a campfire and wild garlic pesto pasta lunch. The awareness and ability in those kids and the mutual trust between them and adults, and places, would grow.
And for the checklist part of the agenda, ‘Partnerships’ could be made too between schools******, The Woodland Trust and the National Trust for improved reach and joining of funds. This could happen back on National Trust land, hopefully within the grounds of Wordsworth’s house bringing the revenue back in (as I know this is the eternal concern! Again, the material goods and private ownership whirlwind that fuels such need for monetary gain beyond the need for self-sufficiency).
So in summary, what if Learning and Engagement strategies went beyond fun, educational days out and membership clubs, and actually asked us to add to the conservation cause by learning with effect? I think that many visitor attractions would protest that they are doing this, but there I know (from being a visitor!) that I often come to a dead-end in information – I want to find out more and be more involved. I have yet to come across a visitor attraction that asks for my input, or my help. Places of learning should be more co-connective with the people, communities and other places that could help further bring about the cause they aim to educate people about.
Of course, the cynic in me says that the government’s bureaucratic and financial ring-fencing approaches is all a ploy to keep us subdued under a nanny state mentality in which we don’t realise our abilities. There could never be the funds to do this. But what if there was so many renegade Visitor Experience officers, assistants and managers to get it all going? What even if I could initiate these sorts of things under my own steam? Sadly, the funding isn’t there, so I would need a helluva crew to get together and we could all work together on this. But it’s possible. And what if there wasn’t such a divide between what we do for work and what we do for play, or for life – to stay healthy, alive and satisfied?
*note that only one of these is by definition a paid pursuit – most of what I do that is valuable to anyone is unpaid. Bring on the Universal Basic Income.
**not be an out of pocket expense and therefore require much/any of my current £97.50/week earnings from my casual retail hours (really rewarding, I love my local High Street – people do real stuff there), which goes on rent, bills, food, transport and the occasional pint, coffee, migraine tablets or piece of good quality food for morale purposes/emotional survival.
Ideally I would be paid for work/activity I initiate – in some form or another, be it money, food or housing. The wage economy isn’t a solid ideal of mine – I could be very interested in trading a skillset for a rent-free living situation. Cue the commune – something I’ve been exploring.
***It’s obviously important to raise the money for the wetlands and aviculture conservation professionals to work their magic. Not any old Joe can release some rare bird or butterfly into the wilds of the Somerset Levels and hope for the best – careful habitat and ecosystem research needs to be done if the species will survive the environment that we’ve so drastically altered. For example, some reformed butterfly collector secretly released a rare butterfly into the Malvern Hills in 2007. It didn’t survive – the butterfly was so at odds with the altered ecosystem (it’s soils, nitrate levels etc) that they died out again by the end of the summer.
BUT – although practical, critical conservation things need to be left to the professionals, there are also huge reserves of public expertise and imagination in other areas that could be called upon to support ‘widening participation’. We are worth more than our money, in my opinion. We’re worth our weight in gold for supporting and offering links in ‘partnerships’ and networks of conservation – be it through further learning; practical basic conservation; data collection such as species recording; tree preservation measures; advertising and awareness; healthy living interest; and much more. We just need to be welcomed and activated, instead of passively required as paying visitors who get to learn something inside a park or fenced off arena, but don’t know how to continue their learning outside of that isolated experience. This is why woodlands are a great engagement site – we may not all live nearby to an estuary with a flock of rare breeding cranes, but we do all have access to green spaces. Although only 14% of the UK live within a 400m walk of a publicly accessible woodland, we all ‘get’ trees. Trees are where we can play our part in learning. And in regards to this small area of publically accessible woodland, that is most certainly a whole other story… for another time.
****maybe through the money you could save on buying crappy branded pencils, tea trays and fudge from the gift shop. Or through saving money on resurfacing and extending the car park by linking up with an affordable, solar community-energy funded (see Oldham Transition Town) bus fleet to encourage less car-reliant visitation. Don’t start with me on cars…
*****The idea that humans think they need to ‘manage’ nature is absurd, but we’re so far gone that sustainable management plans need to unwind the overdevelopment as far as they can.
******I know schools are short on money. BUT – when I worked in an Academy school, we caught the premises team removing 17 digital projectors that were only a year old, in order to replace them with 17 new projectors because ‘the budget needs to be spent by the end of the month or they don’t get the money again’. Doh. Clever use of resources, I don’t think.