Community engagement

Working with non-museum partners is essential for reaching wider audiences and offering new experiences. Where projects made a strategic decision to reach out to communities to make better use of their collections, lasting relationships were formed.

Many projects were focused on improving accessibility to their collections from the outset; the whole point of these projects was to make the collection more useable and more accessible to the public, giving communities a stake in collections.

Museums actively involved community organisations and members in many ways - in reviews, documentation, updating collections, improving interpretation and in designing and staging their own exhibitions, including:

  • refurbishing and sending surplus sewing machines from museum collections in Scotland for reuse in Tanzania
  • creating loan boxes for use with people with dementia
  • updating an urban botanical collection with inner-city families

How community engagement influenced a collections review

The National Mining Museum of Scotland recognised that many day-to-day objects held in its collection had powerful associations for the older mining community and yet these objects had become inaccessible to them:

"We had for years realised our older mining community was finding it harder and harder to get into the museum and access the collection at NMMS, and through our contact with donors, visitors and community groups, we understood fully the deep meaning the objects in our collection hold for the community.

"This understanding, gained from listening to the community, influenced the collections review process. Selecting objects for new loans boxes ran in parallel with an overall review of the collection. Community members identified items that were missing from the collection (or too few in number to loan) and, after putting the word out, people came forward and donated additional items that were needed.

"We wanted our project to get those objects back into their hands at a time in their lives when they most needed them. The enthusiasm from care staff for the resources created has been excellent and we've only just started. I think it has worked because we have listened to our communities, observed what was happening in our museum and tailor-made the project to fill that need.

"This process of effectively involving the community in the collections review has built a continuing relationship with organisations and professionals working with older members of the community. NMMS is now working with these organisations to develop further resources intended to make their collections more accessible. This is now an ongoing project. In their words, 'we've only just started'."

Community engagement 2

Key points:

  • Bring underused collections into use
  • Involve community in reviews
  • Respond to the needs and ideas of each community group you work with

How did projects involve communities?

How did projects involve communities?

"The exhibition (touring 10 venues in 2012-13) engages with the public on collection issues and invites public input and comment... Not something Welsh museums have done before... Real value in linking to actions within museum strategy for Wales"

John Marjoram, consultant to the Wales Museums Consortium special project

"...fieldwork with local community groups and schools to revisit sites that were collected from 100 years ago to see what is growing there now. [This was] very successful - teaching them real ecological and botanical techniques, learning about wildlife and what grows in urban locations, accessioning of material into the collection.

This was a real scientific investigation - not a mock up. The collection was added to and updated by the community - and provided a real learning opportunity for those involved."

Camilla Nichol, Leeds Museums and Galleries

"We empowered local students to curate their own exhibition, facilitated reminiscence sessions and encouraged young people to create their vision of Slough's future by engaging with its past"

Eleanor Pulfer, Slough Museum

"Our resources stretched a long way thanks to voluntary help from Projected Picture Trust (PPT) members. Input from the PPT was invaluable in terms of free expertise, advice, practical assistance and enthusiasm.

"The key benefit of working in partnership with the Photomedia Studio is having such an exciting resource on-site at Summerlee. It enabled us to run the cine-conversion workshops in partnership and develop resources linking contemporary film and photography practice with the cinema collection.

"Learning informally from the various PPT volunteers, both in person and by email, was hugely successful in terms of increasing staff knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the collection.

"A key reason for successful community engagement is due to the diversity of the collection itself, which includes social and industrial elements and appeals to a wide audience, from former cinema employees to cine-enthusiasts, formal education organisations, heritage societies and nostalgic cinema-goers.

"We have also built up research files relating to the history of film and of associated Scottish histories, from cinema circuits and picture houses to film production units, notable film makers, cinema employees and cine societies. This research is very much ongoing, as we hope to become a hub for Scottish cinema collections by end 2013."

Jenny Noble, North Lanarkshire Museums Service

Community engagement 3

Mobile exhibitions for community use should be:

  • designed and assembled with people working with or from the target group 
  • adaptable and resilient
  • ready to hand over for use by partner organisations

Community engagement 4

Key points:

  • Select objects that have a particular current interest
  • Design and integrate learning activities into the curriculum 
  • Make these interactive and informative
  • Understand and respect the views of partner practitioners