Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching Cultural Policy History

Since 2018, I have given lectures on the history of cultural policy in Luxembourg on some occasions, as part of undergraduate or graduate courses, and once as a public lecture. As these lectures were limited to ca. 90 minutes, it was difficult to organise a more participatory format, especially when I have to assume that the participants do not know anything about cultural policy and I need to teach the basics first. The content was usually more or less the same, but I also made slight adaptations each time.

More recently, in January 2022, I organized a seminar in the context of a vocational training programme on cultural mediation by the Luxembourg Ministry of Culture and the Chamber of Commerce.1I would like to thank the organizers for the kind invitation and the opportunity to organize the seminar. This seminar was an excellent occasion to think about the ways of teaching cultural policy, about the challenges and opportunities, and about what I might have done better.

The choices to make while preparing lectures

The seminar on cultural policy history, the first unit of the training programme, came with its own set of challenges, due to the four hours at my disposal. However, this would have potentially allowed a more participatory format. In hindsight, I wonder whether it was not a missed opportunity, but it also made me think about what cultural policy history can teach us, and why it is so important to teach.

In general, the preparation of a lecture is based on many choices: what do I want the participants to know? What are the main messages I want to convey? What illustrations and sources do I show? This is obviously a very unilateral process: I am supposed to be the expert in the topic, I know my own interests, but I am not necessarily aware of what is useful to the participants. This might change with experience, by paying attention to the reactions (verbal or facial) and the questions. As for the main theme of my lectures, I have always insisted on the evolution from nation-building in the 19th century to nation branding in the 21st century. Moreover, I wanted to highlight the links between cultural policy and broader societal, political and economic developments, something that I stressed in my thesis, too. Of course, my lectures would adapt over time to the knowledge that I gained and the research that I was carrying out. For the seminar, I was able to include a case study on the State Museums. This would not have been possible in 2018, when I gave the first lecture at the university. It might also have been difficult to include due to the limited time at my disposal.

For the seminar, as for the other lectures, I considered it important to use audiovisual material. For the seminar, I had enough time to show the whole Film du Centenaire (around 20 minutes runtime), which recorded the main celebrations in April 1939 for the 100th anniversary of Luxembourg’s independence. I thought that the opportunity is quite rare to do this, and for the participants it would be interesting to watch a propaganda movie from the late 1930s (as it truly is a propaganda movie). At the same time, it allowed me not to talk all the time during four hours, which can be tiring for me as much for the participants. When showing movies, especially like the Film du Centenaire, it is also necessary to provide enough context so that the participants can decode the movie. I needed to strike a balance between sharing enough information before the projection, while also letting them “discover” the movie on their own and leave enough space for debate afterwards.

The most challenging part for me was the period from the 1990s onwards, as so many interrelated developments have taken place: the development of the cultural landscape, discourse about national identity and multiculturality, the improvement of Luxembourg’s image, the rise of the creative industries, among others. The risk, of course, is that the links between these developments become somewhat unclear or that a too strong focus on some developments could blend out others that are not necessarily easy to “categorize”.

For the main structure, I chose to proceed in a traditional chronological fashion, as this would best fit my thematic choices. It might also be the most logical choice for a historical topic and a one-time seminar or lecture. I have never tried something different, though I could very well choose a non-linear structure, or start from the present and go back in the past (which might appear as unusual to me as to the participants). A thematic structure would probably suit better to a whole course (each lesson being dedicated to a different aspect: national cultural policy, EU cultural policy, cultural institutions, etc.).

As for the university lectures, I started with a general introduction to cultural policy. For the seminar, I felt the need to slightly adapt the content to the participants. I thought that most of them might work in the cultural sector (which turned out to be true) and I guessed that they might then be interested in some theoretical aspects. For the students and in my public lecture of December 2019, I chose to keep the introduction to a bare minimum.

The participants received some documents in advance, which I considered to be important for cultural policy history, at least in a European context, and could contribute to embed the evolution of cultural policy in Luxembourg in this broader context. One document was the Declaration of Arc-et-Senans (1972), which was written by an international group of experts and influenced cultural policies in Europe, including Luxembourg. The participants received a time table with the ministries responsible for culture in Luxembourg since 1918, too. After the seminar, further texts were shared to deepen their knowledge and review the content if they want.

A (critical) assessment of my seminar

In hindsight, the seminar remained a traditional lecture to a large extent, even though I included some moments where the participants had the possibility to share their thoughts. In my opinion, the choice to include audiovisual material was a good call (I had already done this, to a lesser extent, for the other lectures). This made the seminar more lively and I think the participants enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I do not know what their thoughts about the movies were (here, I had less feedback than I hoped for).

Some ideas did not make it into the final seminar. Introducing interactive elements is more difficult than I imagined. I did not include a workshop centered around the centenary movie. According to this idea, the participants would have discussed the movie in small groups and analyzed a historical document. I was unsure about how to organize this and I did not know how it might be useful to the participants (due to the pandemic, I also felt uncomfortable to ask the participants to sit together in groups). I needed to keep in mind that my lecture was supposed to provide a general overview of the history of cultural policy in Luxembourg and was part of a training programme on cultural mediation.

I wanted to start my seminar with a question. I asked the participants since when they think a cultural policy in Luxembourg exists. I hoped they would share some opinions, but this was quite difficult. After I had rephrased the question and asked them what would be needed for a cultural policy to exist, I received some feedback. Of course, my intention was to let them share their opinion first, and then present my perspective as a historian (which, I assumed, would be different to their input) as an entry into the theoretical part.

My expectations and my plans were different to the actual outcome. As I mentioned above, the lesson was not really participatory. I am thinking about using tools such as Mentimeter in the future, but in that case the participants need a computer and internet access. Group works could still be useful, but then it depends on the topic and on the tasks. Group works might contribute to break the ice between the participants, but they also need to have a clear structure and outcome (for instance each group sharing its reflections, or following specific instructions). I was not certain how to organize this while also keeping the seminar under four hours, so I refrained from including it in the structure of my seminar.

One of the most surprising aspects were the questions asked by the participants during the seminar. They have helped me to understand what parts were the most interesting to them. In some cases, they asked for more details, at moments when I did not really expect it. For instance, I briefly referred to the categorizations by Claire McCaughey and Harry Hillman Chartrand.2Hillman Chartrand, Harry, and Claire McCaughey. ‘The Arm’s Length Principle and the Arts: An International Perspective’. In Who’s to Pay for the Arts? The International Search for Models of Support, edited by M.C. Cummings and J. Mark Davidson Schuster. New York, NY: American Council for the Arts, 1989. One student then asked me to explain what these categorizations were. In my previous experiences, I was rarely asked such questions. This is not necessarily a bad sign, but it also made me wonder whether the students in my past lectures were maybe overwhelmed by the information. Among the topics that sparked interest during the seminar were the opposition between popular culture and high culture, the elitist approach to culture, the attitudes of people during the Second World War, or the question of looted artworks and their restitution. On one or two occasions, short discussions among the participants flared up. All these things definitely surprised me in a positive way and I think they help me to adapt future lessons and seminars.

However, with all the unexpected questions, I ran into a time management issue. Though I deliberately prepared a seminar that was shorter than four hours, it turned out to be half an hour too long; it would have been longer had I not improvised and shortened the last chapter, which could have been of interest to the participants (creative industries, nation branding).

The importance of teaching cultural policy history

In my opinion, teaching a critical cultural policy history is necessary to understand the importance of culture in our society, to understand why some discourses appeared or disappeared, to become aware of how much the concept of culture might have been – and possibly still is – defined from the top. Teaching cultural policy raises awareness about the interconnection of so many developments and broader questions, but also about the issues surrounding concepts such as national identity. It shows how much culture has been politicized, and still is today, even though the approach or the goal changes. For any history class, it is furthermore important to use documents and, if possible, audiovisual material, but then only if these sources either meaningfully enrich the lecture or are used in a way to sensitize participants to a critical analysis. I think I could do better in the integration of documents in class; during the seminar, I referred to the documents handed out in advance when it was useful and explained why there were important, but I did not move beyond these short explanations. Another challenge is that of creating something more interactive, a challenge to which I have not yet found a good solution.

Learning is a mutual process. I might be an expert on a given topic and teach participants or students about it, but through heir reactions and their questions, they also teach me about their interests and might push me to review my own knowledge. When participants ask questions to which I do not have a (detailed) answer, it is a motivation for me to search for the answer and learn something knew. I also think that every lecture is an occasion to reflect on the best way to teach cultural policy history (if there is any).

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