Culture is ordinary, it belongs to everyday people and everyday life

UK museums hold vast collections of objects and Sheffield is no exception. Born of a nineteenth century desire to collect and own everything, the city’s collections have evolved to become a record of human endeavour, success and failure, charting our relationship to the World across millennia.

Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 10:48 am
Updated Thursday, 17th October 2019, 3:14 pm
Andrew Hunt, ‘Nathaniel’, from Portraits from the Market, part of Ways of Making 2018 © the artist

The museums were founded on a belief in education and the certainty of knowledge and understanding, seeking to inspire the next generation of workers, artists, designers and makers, engineers and scientists.

Fast forward 200 years and we live in a time where less seems certain, information is everywhere but there is little authority, facts are faked, and the fake is fact. Yet that original sense of purpose remains; Sheffield’s museums are places where we can learn, question and understand who we are.

I am frequently asked to define the role of museums, to make the case for investment in an environment where culture is in competition with other services, a comparison of apples and oranges in the complex hierarchy of our needs.

‘Culture is ordinary: this is where we start’ declared Raymond Williams. A D-Day veteran and thinker, Williams talked of the connection between culture and society. He saw that culture is often defined ‘in two senses: to mean a whole way of life - the common meanings’, and ‘to mean the arts and learning – the special processes of discovery and creative effort’.

For Williams, culture is neither one nor the other, it’s both; it belongs to everyday people and everyday life, it lives in us and through all that we do.

Williams held that there is no high culture or low culture, believing instead that culture in all its forms is fundamentally ordinary – of, by and for the likes of anyone. Thirty years of living in this ordinary city with its extraordinary people has taught me this much; it is our collective effort, our investment in our ordinary culture that makes it a great place to live.

Yes, we are surrounded by parks, green spaces and woodland, we have amazing theatre, remarkable

collections and international festivals, yet it’s our people, in all our glorious ordinariness, that are the root of that greatness.

So why do we need investment? We have something to learn from history about what we choose to invest in and, in turn what we choose to value. The reason we have parks, museums and galleries, a central library and the city’s visual art collections is largely because of the visionary leadership of businessman and art collector, JG Graves and his lifelong collaboration with the Sheffield Corporation.

In the 1920s, at the height of the Great Depression, Graves invested in a gallery and a library for the people of Sheffield. He recognised that investing in our people and in our processes of discovery and creative effort would nurture a healthy, happy and talented population. Rich cultural experiences enable people to grow and stretch, to reach their potential. When we lose our ability to access cultural experiences, we diminish our ability tolive creative and productive lives.

Since it opened in 1934, the Graves Gallery and Central Library has been dedicated to ‘the service of knowledge and art’.

This is and always has been a place for people, a building full of opportunity. Now, 85 years later, this magnificent, much-loved building is limping along; it requires major structural repairs to keep it safe and accessible. If culture is ordinary, then this building, in the heart of our city, is where we start. It is time to reinvest.

Following in those footsteps, Sheffield Culture Collective, a new public/private-sector partnership board, has come together to deliver the city’s major cultural priorities, placing culture at the heart of a strong, vibrant and inclusive city. The Collective recognises that culture is as essential as the air we breathe and has the potential to support people to be the best they can be.

Over the road at the Millennium Gallery a new exhibition, The Time is Now encourages us to pause and think about the ways in which time shapes who we are and affects our lives. Two photo realistic portraits, of Nathaniel and Ivy, part of the Portraits from the Markets series by Sheffield-based artist Andrew Hunt, are displayed in the entrance. Last week Nathaniel came to visit with his proud Mum. Seeing him now, two years on and growing tall, I was struck by his youthfulness and optimism in a world that feels like it’s moving faster by the minute. An important reminder that we must invest in our people, our culture and our hope for the future. There is no time like the present.