Let me tell you a story. I have history with Norway, that is why I was able to arrange these visits. Norway was instrumental in my ‘digital storytelling journey’. Four and half years ago a Norwegian lady called Hildegunn saw me present something on prisons and museums at a conference and we got talking. She invited me out to Lillehammer in Norway to give a presentation to her colleagues from the KULTURRÅDET which is the Arts Council of Norway. I was to try to encourage museum and gallery collaborations with prisons. While I was in Lillehammer, in the beautiful snowy Norwegian Woods, the Digital Storytelling ‘guru,’ Joe Lambert, from the Californian based Centre for Digital Story Telling was delivering a workshop that I was encouraged to attend. It was amazing – it literally changed my life – my work life anyway. I immediately thought ‘what a powerful way to bring together arts, culture, confidence, learning and technology’ – I wanted to bring this method back to my practice in England straight away. I knew it would be a powerful medium with the prisoners. While I went home and began fundraising for digital stories in the UK I kept in touch with the Norwegians at the Arts Council, they were excited too. They paid for me to come out to Norway again and deliver a digital story project with a small prison and a local museum, then using the resulting films, I was invited to Oslo to make a make a presentation to the Arts Council and the Norwegian Correctional Service (KDI). The aim of the day was to encourage museums and prisons to work together using digital stories.
Now I have come back and I have met a number of people working in museums and prisons who were directly advised to do so after that visit. I am astonished – and flattered. In Bergen I met with two lovely ladies from the Kode museum group who were equally excited to be meeting me, the one who started it all! Fancy that. I know Norway is small – a population less than London, at only 5 million – and roomy – and rich on the whole. But how refreshing to see an idea actually rolled out successfully across prisons and museums nationwide? Obviously some more than others and it is still very much down to the particular staff and personalities what takes off, but a few people can have an idea that they actually see put into action – in their life time. It’s a thankless task in the UK trying to effect change, trying to roll out good ideas and good practice. I have been banging on about connecting museums and culture to prisons for years – it’s been like p***ing in the wind. But one presentation in Oslo, and the Prison Service and the Arts Council start a programme of work! Just look at the journey the NAACJ (National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice) for has been on over the last ten years – for years (formerly) The Anne Peaker Centre was a largely ignored body, out in the wilderness. It has taken 10 years of campaigning and collecting evidence for any government body to listen and take note. Finally they get some recognition in the recent white paper on Culture for the collecting of evidence :
“here are also many good examples of how cultural interventions can benefit prisoners, ex-offenders and people at risk of becoming involved in crime. Culture can help to improve self-esteem, social skills and wellbeing: all of which helps to reduce the risk of offending and re-offending and make our communities safer. We will work with Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other partners to ensure that offenders and those at risk continue to benefit from cultural opportunities”
That is just recognition, it will be another 10 years before anything is done. But in Norway, a good idea can be adopted and used and become common place within a few years – I know, I know, smaller and richer country – totally different – but I still maintain we can learn something about this flexibility and openness to change. Who would ever put a group of top executives at the Arts Council together with a group of Prison Directors to see what they could do? I would really like to see that!
A few comments on my recent blogs have alluded to a UK that will never change, that is totally closed to change – ‘that will never work here’ and that ‘its impossible’ – makes me feel naive and wildly optimistic – is it wrong to believe in change? I always say, well even if we can take one little thing, one piece of good practice – its worth it. There is no matching up of the cultures, I know they are too far apart. I have to spend a long time even explaining what a charity even is in Scandinavia, they have little concept of that culture. If the prison wants to do some extra artworks or buy a screen printing machine they ask their Director, who asks the government. The shops that I mention in the last blog, the online industries, everything is run by the government and the prison service. They have no need for visiting charities picking up the pieces and filling in the gaps in provision. Yes it would be totally different if an outside agency had to come in and organise the shop like they do with something like Fine Cell Work, the different charities would be in-fighting and self-serving, it could not work like that. Here, they spend a lot of money on their prisons and prison service, they believe it’s worth it. Workshops have state of the art machines, today I saw a million krone (£90,000) metal work machine, the (female) foreman told me, “We have to compete with the world outside, be on the same level, otherwise what’s the point?”