Meet Me at the Museum

A post from Beth McDougall, GLAM Community Outreach Officer, about her ongoing work on a project that aims to make the Museum a friendlier, more accessible and social museum for older people.

‘I say “can I help?” and they say “no, no, you sit down and relax” – but I want to do something, I don’t want to become part of the furniture.’  All of us have moments where things are done for us, not with or by us, which, can lead to personal frustration. 

Traditionally, museums have been guilty of doing things ‘for’ our audiences and communities. This engagement practice is currently being rethought, as we move towards co-production, co-creation and co-design that responds to collective creativity, curiosity and knowledge, and encourages museum activity that is with and by our audiences.

Ashmolean for All, a developing strand in the museum’s Audience Engagement strategy, challenges this traditional approach, identifying young people, families and older people as essential to reshaping the physical and intellectual spaces of the museum; from galleries ‘for’ our audiences to social places that spark conversation with people, objects and across collections. 

photo (c) John Cairns
photo (c) John Cairns
Exploring the Western Art galleries (c) John Cairns

So, why older people?  

In 2017, around 20,400 older people in Oxfordshire were experiencing loneliness at least some of the time. Loneliness and social isolation negatively impact on our health and wellbeing and as we age, our risk of encountering these issues rises. As spaces of social connection, museums could be part of alleviating this risk.  Finally, research from Age UK reveals that creative and cultural participation are the greatest contributor to wellbeing in older age, so we know the Ashmolean has an important part to play.  

What are we doing now? 

The Ashmolean has just finished our popular monthly social workshops, Meet Me at the Museum. These inclusive workshops for older people responded to the group’s curiosity, and have focused on exploring the stories behind-the-scenes, meeting people and objects from across the Ashmolean. 

photo (c) John Cairns
photo (c) John Cairns
Visit to the Conservation studios (c) John Cairns

On these behind-the-scenes excursions we have met conservators working on Pompeian objects, visited Princess Margaret’s handbag with the Western Art team, heard tales of promiscuous Pre-Raphaelite painters, handled Japanese Netsuke with the Eastern Art team and talked about Emperor Hadrian’s love life.  

‘It’s nice and friendly, and I’m finding out a whole lot of stuff. I know quite a lot about things, but it’s so much better if you’ve got someone who can tell you about it. It’s great to have other people with you, when they’re asking questions that makes me think of things I hadn’t thought of.’  

What next?  

Now, we are taking our Older People’s programming one step further. To engender real change in the physical and intellectual ‘furniture’ of the museum, we are developing an action team that creates opportunities for co-production with, by and for older people. Over the next three months, we are recruiting our older changemakers, listening and understanding the skills, values and needs of these individuals to create lasting change for all. 

So, when older people engaging with the museum say, ‘can I help?’ we can collectively say ‘yes’ and support them to be part of the team, rather than part of the furniture.   

Thank you to everyone who has generously donated to the Meet Me at the Ashmolean appeal and helped raise much-needed funds to support our work with, by and for older people.

For further information please visit:

Film for our Annual Appeal, January 2019

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