Museums are increasingly looking for ways to work more collaboratively with audiences. A small Ashmolean team recently met up with staff at the National Maritime Museum to learn from their experiences of embedding community engagement within a major gallery redevelopment project. Write up by Helen Ward, Deputy Head of Learning.
The National Maritime Museum (NMM) Endeavour Galleries opened last year following a £12 million project that has resulted in 4 stunning new galleries: Tudor & Stuart Seafarers, Pacific Encounters, Sea Things and Polar Worlds.
All 4 galleries include co-curated displays that were created as part of an approach to interpretation that involved working closely with local communities. The Sea Things Gallery displays objects selected by 600 people invited to reflect on their experiences and memories of the seaside, whilst throughout the Arctic Explorers Gallery visitors can follow a trail of poetic responses written by local school children, as well as view the models they created in workshops. In the Pacific Encounters gallery, which specifically sets out to challenge the colonial legacy of the Cook expeditions, a community consultant from one of the Pacific islands was brought on board to ensure the voice of indigenous communities was present in the displays.
It was interesting to hear how the NMM team viewed the co-curated elements in the galleries as an opportunity to address gaps in their collections. So for example, in the Tudor & Stuart Explorers gallery there are short films of indigenous people talking about the previously untold story of the impact of European expansion on their ancestors. Another example involved working with a PhD student researching 17th century petitions to uncover the impact of the Anglo-Dutch wars on the population – an interesting contemporary angle was also explored working with families in the forces today to compare this with their experiences. The NMM team have subsequently reviewed the museum research strategy to ensure that co-curation and contemporary collecting are highlighted.
At NMM the Learning team played a key role in building bridges with local communities and maintaining interest and engagement in the project. The team also stressed the importance of having critical friends – experts in their field – to run things past. Working collaboratively takes time. It also requires letting go of control and appreciating that the final outcomes may not emerge until much later into the process. A key practical lesson learnt was the importance of expecting and allowing budget for late design changes. The process is as important as the final product itself, and is instrumental in building ongoing relationships with local audiences.
The challenge for the Museum now is how to maintain and build on the project post funding. Community consultants continue to work with the Museum in a paid capacity and plans are in place to refresh co-curated displays every 3 yrs. There have also been discussions about whether community works may eventually be acquired by NMM so that future generations can tap into their heritage. Significantly, there is a recognition that this work is never ‘done’ and that if museums are to be inclusive, the organisational culture needs to encourage ongoing critical reflection.
The Ashmolean will need to develop models of co-curation that respond to the needs of our local communities. However, we came away from our NMM visit buzzing with examples, ideas and discussion points that will help guide our efforts to work more authentically and collaboratively with our audiences.