Last week, to break up a long drive, I called into the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I’ve not been for a while. It got me thinking about English language barriers.
I love the Yorkshire Sculpture Park but must confess; that I used to love it more before they built their new buildings a few years ago. Along with the swanky new architecture appeared a lot of signs – telling off signs – ‘don’t do this’ signs, ‘that is forbidden’ signs.
I’m an arts professional – a bit middle class – confident in arts environments and situations, yet I still feel uncomfortable around these signs. I feel like I’m being told off even though I’ve not yet transgressed. They make me feel a bit guilty for being there. I understand the reasons why they don’t want dogs running loose and why they don’t want people touching or climbing on the artwork. It’s not the message but the way it’s communicated. Imagine how someone might feel if they were already a bit anxious about being there.
We all experience threshold fear. For me, I would be terrified about going into a betting shop. I’ve never done it, don’t know the culture, and I have an irrational fear that I’ll do something wrong and be told off or laughed at. If I went into a betting shop and was immediately confronted with a sign telling me off, it would only serve to reinforce my conviction that ‘this is not a place for me’. A lot of people have a similar threshold fear about arts situations.
If Arts Council England’s ambitions in Let’s Create are to be achieved, we need to break down barriers to engagement and threshold fear rather than reinforcing them. I don’t object to reminders about how I am expected to behave in a certain situation – in fact, they can be very helpful in a context where I might be a bit anxious. We must be more careful about the language we use in communicating such reminders.
The day after my visit I was in Rawtenstall, helping install an outdoor exhibition in the town centre. The council have recently finished re-landscaping the urban park in front of the bus station. I saw this sign. It communicated a rule that I needed to know and didn’t tell me off. It explained why the rule was in place. I felt like I was being trusted and respected.
In fairness to YSP, when I arrived, there were two staff members standing in the rain beside a booth checking pre-purchase tickets or selling one if necessary. I was greeted by big warm smiles from under umbrellas. We chatted and laughed about the great British weather, and I was made to feel very welcome. I also noticed that on some of the temporary exhibits, the word ‘please’ had been added to the ‘do not climb’ instruction.