Culture must always be a Commons

This is one of a series of re-posts from blogs I wrote between 2006-2012 since the site they’re on is about to be archived. This was originally published for the Collections Trust ( 

In case I haven’t already made it abundantly clear – I love museums, libraries and archives. I think that investing in professional communities who bring together and protect our shared heritage and make it available for use and enjoyment is one of the most important marks of an enlightened society. The future, after all, is made of everything that came before it, and our job as a profession is to defend the universal and inalienable principle that people must be free to benefit from their heritage.

One of the most fundamental aspects of human life is the ability to hand on knowledge to our children. One of the most pressing tasks for each generation is to examine, to question and to improve on the wisdom they receive. Disrupting the cycle of learning is the first step towards despotism. Maximising the free and untrammelled sharing of knowledge is one of the most basic tasks of civilisation, alongside protecting dignity, health, food and security. We must never forget, nor must we allow anyone else to forget, that the exercise of this right to inherit knowledge is the defining principle at the heart of our cultural institutions.

I have spent 15 years in the company of people who have dedicated themselves to working with our material and intellectual heritage all over the world. And at the end of the day, setting aside the challenges of work, politics and money, I believe that what unites us all is a great belief in the transformative power of engaging with knowledge. I have shared in and seen my colleagues take real pleasure in the beauty of material culture, in the discovery of new ideas and new connections and the look on the faces of the people who engage with what we do and come away changed for the better as a result.

It is this principle that forms the core identity of our sectors, much more so than any particular model of delivery. It is not buildings, not places, not even collections, that lie at the heart of what we do. It is, and must always be the public we serve and the purpose they need us to fulfil. This purpose is the reason we have collections, the reason we bring them together to uncover narratives, the reason we invest in protecting them.

The Challenge Ahead

As you know if you read this blog regularly, I spend a lot of time thinking about what culture means to society. And recently I have become concerned that in Nations around the world, the fundamental purpose of our great cultural institutions is being lost in the debate about the mechanics of supporting them. I have seen the impact of this first-hand in too many places, the loss of skilled people, the loss of knowledge, the atrophy of new research and new investigations into collections.

I believe that it is time to fight for culture, not for ourselves, not for our jobs, but to protect that great inalienable principle of the right of engagement and legacy. In England, at least, we have made some fundamental errors – we have bent ourselves to the whim of politics, been weak and discordant in our advocacy of the sector, protected small fiefdoms to the detriment of the common good, allowed ourselves to be marginalised, failed to defend the legal instruments and points of principle established by our Great Grandfathers and Grandmothers.

We have continued to serve the public – more of whom are enjoying our wonderful institutions and their online offerings than ever before – but in preserving this service we risk allowing them to become complacent. I very much doubt that the majority of the visiting public understand the nature of the existential threat which confronts our sector. They can’t see that many of our institutions have stopped collecting, stopped investigating. That for many the real business is managing the process of decay rather than building a vital reflection of the emergence of the modern world. And if you think I am being melodramatic about this, ask yourself – when was the last time your job really felt like developing something for the future, rather than defending something in the present?

I believe that we have to fight to defend the principle of the right to culture, even though most of the people who enjoy that right have no idea that it is at risk. I believe that we have to fight to defend the principle of the right to culture in spite of a critical failure in moral leadership, aspiration and civic duty on the part of those who govern – because the principle is far greater and far more important than the machinery of Government.

And the more I have spent time thinking about these principles, the more I have come to understand that the culture sector, our community and the material, intellectual and now digital heritage we care for always was and must always be a Commons.

Culture as a Commons

The idea of a Commons is both simple and powerful, and I think it may potentially hold the key to securing the future of our collective mission. If we are going to win the fight for the principle of the universal right to culture, we need a powerful, simple idea of what it would look like to succeed. And while it may not be new, I believe that success looks like every child, every parent, every teacher and learner having a profound sense of their shared entitlement to and shared responsibility for the Commons of their culture.

I was recently asked what difference it would make if culture were a Commons, what a Commons actually is. I suggested that we think of culture (physical, intellectual, creative and digital) as though it were a piece of land.
If that land were owned by a landlord, we might be able to walk on it, but it would never be ours. We might enjoy rights to access it, but we could never guarantee that those rights were inalienable, that they would be enjoyed by our children. We would presume that the piece of land would be cared for by its owner, because we would feel no sense of duty or obligation to it. We might build on that land, but there would always be a higher power with the right to destroy what we built.

But if that land became part of a Commons, then it might well be the same earth, the same grass, but what it is and what it means will have been irrevocably transformed. We would enjoy the right of access to it, but with that right we would equally know that we had a responsibility to protect and preserve it. We would own it collectively, and therefore we would have to govern ourselves, to manage its use, to hand on its beauty and its status to future generations.

And because it was part of a Commons, the land itself would be protected from all forms of enclosure, whether moral or economic, by force or coercion.

A New Social Contract with our Users

More fundamentally than this, the Commons is both a declaration and a promise. It is a declaration that everyone, everywhere – irrespective of class, or socio-economic status, or colour or ability – is both entitled to and responsible for our shared cultural inheritance. And it is a promise that we will hand down both this opportunity and this obligation to future generations in perpetuity in the belief that the solutions to the challenges of the future lie in collective action and collective responsibility which we share with our children.

And best of all – I would argue that in many ways our industry, the ‘cultural heritage sector’, has more or less operated as a Commons for decades. The principle of the Commons is written into our language – the language of the Public Realm, of accepting custodianship of material and intellectual culture on behalf of society, of culture as a civic duty. Public institutions accepting title to material culture on behalf of the wider public are accepting that material into a Commons, on the principle that the public will continue to enjoy the right to engage with and benefit from it.

Putting the Cultural Commons into practice

So if culture is already, in essence, a Commons, what change am I advocating? What would be different if we wake up tomorrow and say that we are all part of a Cultural Commons? And I would suggest that the answer is ‘everything’. I believe that the simple assertion that Culture is now and must always be a Commons has the power to unite our community, to shape our identity and to re-code our relevance and utility to peoples’ daily lives.

So what would our Cultural Commons look like, how would it operate? I think it would look very much like the same Commons Framework that has already transformed professional communities all over the world.
At the heart of this Framework are three fundamental principles, which speak to unity and sustainability:

Equity – Everyone has a fair and just share of social and natural resources that belong to us together.

Sustainability – Our common wealth must be cared for so that it can sustain all living beings, including future generations.

Interdependence – Cooperation and connection in our communities, around our world, and with our living planet is essential for the future.

If we apply the principle of Equity, we assert that everyone is entitled to a fair and just share of the cultural and creative output of the society around them, which we own collectively. If we apply the principle of Sustainability, we assert that custodianship, preservation and interpretation of culture are a duty we owe not just to the present, but to the future.

If we apply the principle of Interdependence, we assert that our community is global, as culture is global, and that culture can serve as the basis of cooperation and connection, dialogue and accountability.

And I would suggest that these ought to form the beating heart of our belief about the fundamental purpose of culture. That they ought to influence what we think it means to collect, to interpret and to represent. In this context, the principle of access to culture stops being a privilege and becomes a universal expression of equity and interdependence.

Around these three principles is the assertion that ‘new ways of life arise when our communities and society as a whole become more rooted in the practice of the Commons’. Not that we are creating new ways of life, but that these new behaviours exist already and that if we are to remain relevant, vital, embedded in the hearts and minds of current and future audiences, we must ourselves adopt them. The Commons Framework suggests that there are four sets of behaviours that are intrinsic to the Commons:

  • Shared Governance – Everyone is engaged in gathering information, making decisions, and exercising power to steward common resources.
  • Deepened Responsibility – Together we claim the power to repair inequity, restore our common inheritance, and expand opportunities for human fulfilment and planetary resilience.
  • Belonging – A more expansive view of belonging fosters broader understandings of what ownership means and new structures for how it works.
  • Co-Producing – A spirit of common purpose lets us realize that abundance, not scarcity, prevails when we invite wider participation in our endeavours.

We often speak of engaging audiences in what we do, but how much more engaged could our audiences be than if they held shared responsibility for the governance of our shared culture? If the direction of our industry were set not for the public, but with them?

We talk as a sector about social justice, but how much more powerful could culture be than if it were an intrinsic part of activating the public, of enabling them to address the real, pressing concerns which confront us all and of empowering them to take responsibility for the future?

We talk as an industry about entitlement, but how many people today feel disenfranchised from culture? How much stronger would we be if everyone, everywhere were born with the fundamental knowledge that culture belongs to them? How much more central could our role be if it were geared towards telling everyone that their culture belongs to them, that they have a right to it.

We talk as a sector about openness and representation, but how much more open and representative could we be if we were an intrinsic part of the universe of co-production, supporting and enabling it and promoting the flow of knowledge and social capital and creativity across our entire community?

And the final principle of the Commons Framework is that ‘Commons exist all around us, they are everything that we create and inherit together’.

The idea of the Commons is not new. Commons exist everywhere, and everywhere that they exist they lead to the increment of knowledge, the increase of collective responsibility and the sharing of the burden of sustainability.

The Cultural Commons and Commerce

Commerce and the Commons can co-exist quite happily. There is a simplistic view that the Commons is anti-commerce. A greatly respected colleague of mine who runs a UK National Museum said yesterday ‘we would all love to live in this ideal world. But we live in the real world, and in the real world, universal openness is not an option’. To which I say two things.

Firstly, the Commons is not anti-commerce, it is anti-enclosure. The real issue is not that the Commons prohibits commercial activity, but that the Commons inherently undermines business models that depend on dis-eqilibrium and enclosure to survive. The Commons naturally promotes models that promote increase, sharing. It is perfectly possible to reconcile commercial activity in the Commons, but it is the type of commercial activity that depends on the addition of value, not the control of access.

I know that in the world of realpolitik (the real world we all inhabit), much of the commercial survival of some of our organisations continues to depend on the control of the right to monetise specific forms of use. Although this is tremendously frustrating to open content communities who regard the restriction of access to a public good as a form of theft, it is nevertheless pragmatic during a period of immense transition and change. Ultimately, the aim would be for the Commons to be universal, and sustainable, but for many organisations the reality will be that they will continue to operate in a hybrid state – behaving in some respects as part of the Commons, with some of their collections, and not with others.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that museums, archives or libraries unilaterally assert all of their knowledge and collections into the Public Domain – we have to support a stable process of transition to new, more sustainable economic models. What I am saying is that almost all cultural heritage institutions ought to be able to begin to adopt the principles of the Commons to a great or lesser degree, dependent on where they are in their own process of transition.

One Commons, or Many?

During the past 3 or 4 months of discussion about the idea of a Cultural Commons, people have often asked me questions like ‘What is it? Where is it? How big is a Commons?’. The wonderful thing, to me, is that a Commons can be as small as a farm or as large as the global cultural heritage community. In the course of these discussions, I have been thinking about some or all of the following:

A Cultural Commons movement for museums, archives and libraries in the UK – I live in England and have grown up with the cultural heritage community here. We face, as a community, specific issues which I believe make it incredibly pressing that we find a confident new expression of our value and relevance to peoples lives. Already, many museums are adopting open, participatory approaches to their services that are inherently aligned to the principle of the Commons. I believe that a Commons movement in this country could help give shape and focus to this momentum.

A Digital Cultural Commons for Europe – all over Europe, cultural institutions are busily digitising their collections and sharing them online. They are publishing content, and narratives and images and metadata which collectively form a document of European cultural identity for a connected age. I believe that the mental image most institutions hold when they open up their metadata and share their collections online is that of a Commons. I also believe that Europeana could act as the lightning-rod which brings together the values and attitudes of our community around the idea of a Digital Cultural Commons under the European Union’s Digital Agenda.

A Knowledge Commons for UK Museums – UK museums are currently facing a very specific question around the extent to which each individual museum can expect to hold within itself subject expertise across the full extent of their collections. One potential solution to this is to promote the development of a Commons of professional knowledge and subject expertise, and to open this Commons up for collaboration with expert crowds outside our institutions. By promoting public engagement, citizen science and collective narratives, this form of Commons could both help resolve a specific capacity question and provide the basis for a deeper, more meaningful engagement with audiences and stakeholders.

A UK Heritage Commons – when I recently attended a meeting of the Forum for Interoperability Standards in Heritage (FISH) and the HEIRNET community, I was really struck by the extent to which organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust operate already by the principles of the Commons – both in terms of the land and heritage assets for which they are responsible, in terms of their attitudes and values towards their audiences and the extent to which the increment of knowledge through the open sharing of data was already part of their core mission.

All of these are possible, and can happily co-exist. But to happen at all, they require champions and activists, people who are willing to bring their communities together and to shape a different set of rules of engagement. I really hope that there are enough people out there in the wider community who are excited about the idea of Culture as a Commons and who will be willing to work with me to bring some of these to life!

Joining the Cultural Commons

So how, in hard practical terms, can your organisation respond to the opportunity of the Commons? I think there are three things you can do:

Make the Cultural Commons your Mission – come together as an organisation, sit down with your Mission Statement and ask yourself whether it truly reflects the principles of the Commons, or whether it represents a form of enclosure. Does it actually say what you believe that your organisation exists to do? If so, wonderful! If not, rewrite it so that your purpose is to champion, to protect and to empower your audiences’ engagement with you and with your collections as part of a Commons.

Put your Collections and data into the Commons – look at the legal instruments you use to assert control of your Collections and your data and ask yourself whether these instruments empower the idea of the Commons, or again act to enclose your material. If you are committed to the Commons, but your assertion of ownership and control militates against these principles, then change them – adopt open licenses, be clear about the basis on which you are acquiring title. If there are parts of your Collection that you make money from, don’t assert them into the Commons yet, but be prepared to engage with the internal discussion about the rationale for this decision!

Be an active part of the Commons – live by these principles, become an activist for the Commons – tell your audiences that you have changed the rules of engagement and let them know that the things you collect and care for are theirs by right. Share your enthusiasm for the Commons with your colleagues, your peers. Network, join a group, start a discussion list – be an activist and a contributor.

A New Cultural Offer

I believe that the cultural community – museums, libraries, archives, galleries, memory institutions worldwide – need a new idea. An idea that will see us through the transition from the 20th to the 21st Century. An idea that is fundamentally connected to the core of what we do, but which creates a sense of dynamism and relevance in the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere, of all ages. I think the wholsesale transformation of Culture into a Commons is that idea.

I want to create a world in which people of all background walk into our fantastic museums, archives and libraries with confidence, with a sense of entitlement and with a sense of responsibility. I want people to talk about how dynamic, relevant and open our sector has become. I hope that over the next few months we can debate these ideas here and elsewhere, and that ultimately, we work together to transform what culture means to the people who create it.

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