Mimimum Cultural Continuity

I started working from home full time on Wednesday 11th March, fifty days ago, so I’m past quarantine or even cinquantine now. I normally work from home two days a week anyway, so I had structures in place and a pattern. I feel lucky to still be getting paid. My partner was due to start a new job just before lockdown closed in but that quickly got postponed indefinitely creating a kind of economic hiatus that’s not legible to available government support. I cashed in my rail season ticket and, if the fates are willing, that will see us through.

Through to what though? #whenthisisover emerged as a covid hashtag about the same time I started WFH and was trending for a while on Twitter, understandably folk wanted to understand this current moment of uncertainty as a fermata, a pause before we returned to ‘normal’. Over the last week or so the paint has started to flake off the idea that we are about to rebound into the familiar. Talk of a V shaped recovery has tapered away. Doctrines of lean efficiency long ago combusted the fat reserves of resilience.

The CEO of my organisation does fortnightly Zoom addresses now and in the most recent one he spoke about post-lockdown modelling, including a scenario where the offices that I work in re-open in July. I am pretty sceptical about that date. Lockdown may well be over in a formal sense by then but physical distancing surely won’t be.

A couple of years back, as government support continued to wane and new revenue sources were sought, my organisation decided to rent out three floors of the building I work in. Some people who worked across the six fully staffed floors were shifted to another site, the remainder like me were squeezed into three floors. Walls came down, shelves disappeared, research materials – books and the like were boxed up and shipped out into storage. Hot desking replaced personal and personalised work stations, desk sizes shrank. We all got little lockers to house laptops and a few chattels. Suffice to say, tightly packed hot desks in an open plan office are far from ideal for a return to occupation under current conditions. I asked what the plans were for physical distancing and got told there was a plan for chequerboard positioning of staff. I decided to do my own plan with 2m radius distancing circles which in my opinion revealed that the level of occupancy would be so low and problematic as to barely merit attempting.

That was the start of this week though, by midweek another issue began to dominate attention. It was becoming clear that the organisation’s financial situation was not great. While considered to be an arms-length-government-body and covered by loads of constraints because of it (like public sector pay restraint), the government grant now only covers about a third of outgoings. There’s been relentless pressure to seek out and implement revenue-generating activities to supplement the declining taxpayer contribution and the organisation has obviously been successful at doing so. The lockdown has struck at the heart of many of those revenue-generating activities though – ticket sales, shop sales, space hire, food and drink concessions. Now the Executive were asking: could the organisation seek assistance from the furlough scheme or would that be double-dipping the government purse? Well it looks like today they got confirmation they could and with staff pay the largest single-cost, maximising the number of staff put on furlough might form an economic lifeline. Staff already unable to work from home go straight on, tomorrow even those able to wfh – me among them – may join furlough too. Pay stays the same for June, but after that it may drop off to the 80% subsidy.

The guiding principle about who is furloughed, and who is not, is to be the determination of minimum business continuity. What parts of the organisation, which particular staff members, contribute to revenue generation? It’s the economy stupid. To be fair to my employers there is also a nod towards maintaining the ‘cultural programme’ or at least that limited part of it that doesn’t depend on the live presence of an audience. I’m not sure that this will amount to what might be considered minimum cultural continuity. Solvency is easier to determine than due diligence in delivering the objects of the Institute as established under royal charter.

No doubt, it is not the only cultural organisation in this bind. As public monies for public goods have become scarcer and scarcer, it’s the food and drink concessions, the branded apparel and trinkets, the blockbuster ticketed exhibitions, the venue hire, the hospitality services, the gift shop that have become the stuff that keeps the boat afloat. Large numbers of people are now employed by these organisations to leverage financial flows to the mothership. But the pandemic has pulled the plug on the medium of buoyancy.

Cory Doctorow reported yesterday on the British Museum’s release of 1.9 million high-resolution images of objects in its holdings online. He laments the restrictive nature of the CC license (CC BY-NC-SA) they are released under and questions the legality of their assertion. He thinks he knows the reason why they are doing it this way:

‘I’m very sympathetic to the museum’s imperatives. They are struggling through both a decade of Tory austerity and a once-in-a-century economic apocalypse, so obviously they want to hold onto any revenue-generating possibilities they can find.’

Adding later:

‘The future of museums – of the public sector overall – is public support. It’s only through broad public recognition of the social value of museums and other cultural institutions that they can once again attain stable, long-term financing.’

I won’t go into Doctorow’s particular take on how that support might be garnered – you can read the piece. What I’m struck by today is the conflict of capitals.

On Saturday, I’ll be leading a session on ‘8 forms of Capital’ for the newly online Spiralseed Permaculture Design Course. While models of forms of capital have been around for decades, the 8-form model promulgated by Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua has catalysed recent discussion in permaculture about what actually constitutes wealth. By default, we now tend to understand wealth as financial capital and those material capital assets purchased with financial capital. We’ve lost sight of wealth as the condition of wellbeing, or weal. Not least because our current political/economic system is fuelled by financialization: the conversion, at any opportunity, of stocks of other forms of capital into something with a price tag.

Our overshooting global civilization mines the living and material capitals of the Earth, social media transforms social capital into saleable data, intellectual capital is captured into copyrights – paywalls – IPR, cultural capital is folded into intellectual capital and commodified too, spiritual capital wakes up as meditation apps and pay-per-ceremony ayahuasca circles, experiential capital reduced to bucket lists and Airbnb experiences(TM). In fact, without an ‘equivalent dollar amount’ much of weal is illegible to our current political/economic system.

It’s perhaps no wonder that flows of finance, currency, into non-financial forms of capital are drying up –how can anyone know they are ‘getting what they paid for’ when they can only measure things in money?

Roland and Landua suggest that seven of their forms of capitals can be held and owed by individuals but that the eighth, cultural capital:

‘can only be gathered by a community of people. Cultural capital describes the shared internal and external processes of a community – the works of art and theater, the songs that every child learns, the ability to come together in celebration of the harvest or for a religious holiday. Cultural capital cannot be gathered by individuals alone. It could be viewed as an emergent property of the complex system of inter-capital exchanges that takes place in a village, a city, a bioregion, or nation.’

Cultural capital doesn’t need to be deposited in, or accessed via, cultural institutions. Within public institutions however, this capital can be held for communities across time, can be nurtured as part of a global commons, can be complexed into new forms and new narratives. I have often spoken in the past of how the collections of the institution I work at are held ‘in perpetuity’. It’s a nod to the long now, a reminder to imagine what might be acquired and preserved through the eyes of three hundred years hence, a thousand years hence. Continuity is a feature.

Contemporary collection is alive to the moment: museums and archives are already scanning for materials that might be preserved to hold a sense of current conditions into the future and considering the ethics of doing so. Governments often consider this as work best left to the market, why use taxpayer’s money to nurture and preserve this material, isn’t it all on a Google/Apple/Facebook/Amazon server already anyway? Ownership will determine ethics. Pay to play. The information professional of the past is maligned as gatekeeper. In the Here Comes Everybody era, the institutional archivists and curators are refashioned as facilitators of public curation through projects which might be both sourced and funded by the crowd. Can we just kickstart and wiki our cultural continuum?

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