Rebuilding institutional memory

James Doeser, Research Associate, talks about the latest developments in the Cultural Enquiry into access to the arts for young people.


I’ve been spending the last few weeks on a journey through time. I’m examining the history of cultural policy through archives, published histories and the stories of people close to the policymaking process. It’s clear to me that cultural policymakers tend not to take account of what’s gone before them. Those who cannot remember the past are not only condemned to repeat it, but also likely to miss the insight it may afford them. That’s why I’m working with Deborah Bull, Director of Cultural Partnerships at King’s to research the history of policy designed to encourage arts engagement by children and young people.

Earlier in the year Harriet Harman (Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) initiated a consultation entitled Young People and the Arts. The consultation asked how future policy and practice might be effective in increasing the breadth and depth of arts engagement. The Labour government prior to 2010 devised and oversaw many substantial policies directed at achieving the ambitions set out in the consultation document. Since then the Coalition government has commissioned two major reviews by Darren Henley on how provision for cultural education can be reformed.

This got us thinking about institutional memory: the in-house wisdom contained within people or documentation that should ideally inform the development of plans and policies. It concerned us that either institutional memory no longer existed within cultural policymaking circles, or it was overlooked in favour of seemingly fresh new ideas. We could see the value in providing a much-needed historical perspective on this topic.

Extract from Arts Council of Great Britain Report of 1976

Extract from Arts Council of Great Britain Report of 1976

I’ve already learned a lot from digging through the Arts Council archive and through a series of informal interviews with key people in the historical policymaking process. For example: it was only in the late 1970s that major policymaking institutions in the UK began to seriously consider the role of the arts in the lives of young people. The influence of people like Jennie Lee and Roy Shaw cannot be underestimated. They helped to push certain agendas in the midst of vigorous debates about the role of public subsidy, education and the role of the arts in the life of the country. One of the challenges thus far has been coping with a lack of published research in this area.

In order to get a better understanding of this moment in the late 70s we are hosting a Witness Seminar here at King’s on 10 November; it will bring together key people from that time in history to share their experiences of making and implementing policy directed towards arts engagement by children and young people. The resulting transcript from the seminar will inform the remainder of the project and be of value to future scholars of this distinctly undocumented area of policy development.

If you would like to contribute to the Witness Seminar or the Cultural Enquiry more generally as it reaches its final stages please get in touch via

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