Post by Susan Griffiths, GLAM Community Engagement Officer and Katherine Wodehouse, Ashmolean Print Room Supervisor about ‘Along for the Ride’, an art exhibition conceived, created and curated by service users from MIND at The Mill (a mental health charity) to mark World Mental Health Day.
The GLAM Community Engagement Service has worked with local mental health charity, Mind at the Mill for nearly 15 years. The idea for this exhibition was put forward by the group themselves as they were looking for ways in which to observe World Mental Health Day.
Mind at the Mill have an established art group and the GLAM Community Engagement Officer worked with this group throughout, introducing them to staff in Ashmolean Western Art Print Room and supporting the group to make their ideas work in the museum space. The Mill art group were involved in the whole process from inception to installation, including deciding on the the exhibition theme ‘Along for the Ride’ – looking at journeys and mental health.
The Print Room already had a format to welcome groups and it was relatively straightforward to arrange the visits. However, with hindsight, it would have been useful to have had more notice of particular themes or interests for each visit. This would have enabled Print Room staff to think in a more considered way about which works to show the group. Nonetheless, there is nothing like a tight deadline to stimulate creativity and we were able to respond to the group’s interests and ensure they had full access to all the resources that the Print Room provides.
One of our aims was that participants should feel confident to return to the Print Room as individual visitors. One participant did so, and brought another visitor with them. However, it is worth acknowledging that building such confidence takes time and the experience in the group itself was important to the participants.
What lessons will you take from this project?
Having a space within the museum for community exhibitions is an extremely important tool in developing relationships with the Museum. Being able to exhibit their work in the Ashmolean gave the members of the Art Group validation for their artwork and themselves as artists in their own right.
Participants in this particular group (which had shifting individual attendance) responded especially well to a visit where a wide variety of different kinds of work were shown around a theme rather than focusing on one artist or one period. A selection of works that might feel ‘miscellaneous’ or even ‘eccentric’ actually helped to galvanise discussion and spur creativity.
What tips would you give others working on similar projects?
- Listen to what people want and need. By having no set agenda or defined outcome, but being willing to listen and respond to ideas meant the group really felt they had ownership of the project. We could provide ideas and support, but this was only done when asked for specifically by the group.
- It’s ok not to have an end product in mind. We gave the group the space as a blank canvas and, although we were there to provide support, the vision was entirely driven by what they wanted, giving them a greater sense of ownership over the whole process.
- Everything takes longer than you think it will. Even with our long lead-in time, there were unanticipated delays which led to the final weeks not running as smoothly as planned. Build in time for proof-reading (e.g. panels and labels) and involve as many people as possible in this process before printing.
- Keep up regular contact. Don’t underestimate the importance of popping round for a cup of tea. The art group were very self-sufficient and had good support from the staff at the Mill, but regular time was still programmed into the diary each week by the GLAM Community Engagement Officer to go down to the community venue to say hello, have a cup of tea and chat about how things were going. This allowed any potential problems or unexpected outcomes to be highlighted early and plans put in place. It also helped to develop a deeper relationship between the group and the museum.
- Create a mechanism for celebration and follow-up.
We had a small gathering to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, followed by refreshments in the Ashmolean café. Difficulties with fine-tuning the exhibition labelling meant that we needed a system for communicating ongoing progress with the display to the participants. Make sure that everyone knows who is responsible for continuing to communicate with the participants once any ‘output’ has been achieved.
We are continuing to work with The Mill and will be programming a series of outreach sessions involving taking handling objects out to their venue in 2020, as well as regular visits to the Print Room. Alongside this, we will be investigating how we can mark World Mental Health Day in 2020.
Through working on this project, Print Room staff have also been inspired to develop public ‘Open Doors’ sessions which offer a more informal interaction with the collection and staff than is given in the traditional hour-long ‘Print Room talk’ format. We are still learning about the best ways to encourage a greater diversity of visitors to the Print Room and want to continue our relationship with the group from The Mill.