Deep impact

Katherine West, 01.07.2014
Highlighting the value of social history collections
The Social History Curators Group (SHCG) conference at Glasgow and Newtongrange was the first I have attended, and it was an enlightening experience.

The theme of the conference was demonstrating the value of social history collections. Projects such as the Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives campaign and the Happy Museum Project are helping bring this topic to the forefront, but the practicalities of how we define and measure value and impact are still challenging. As one of the speakers put it, how can you measure a smile?

Here are just some of the many things that I learned:

There is no definitive model for measuring social value. The overall consensus was that it is important to make a human connection, but back it up with facts and statistics. Research funded by the Happy Museum Project concluded that the value of museums to people’s happiness was, on average, £3,200 per year, per person (don’t ask me the intricacies of this calculation – but you can learn more on the Happy Museum Project website!).

The "voice" is important for exhibitions and displays involving community interaction. Jemma Conway from Experience Barnsley wanted to make sure that different perspectives were shown in the exhibition Cole Not Dole – Women Against Pit Closures. Working with people who remembered the miners’ strike first-hand, and a newly formed youth panel, the exhibition used dual voice labels to tell the highly political and emotional stories.

Similarly, when planning a new wheelchair display, Heather Robertson from Glasgow’s Riverside Museum worked closely with wheelchair users, who co-created the exhibition. It was important that the voice of the exhibition was theirs, rather than a detached curatorial voice.

Museums are becoming more proactive in promoting health and wellbeing. Nottingham City Museums used its collection from John Player’s tobacco company to create a loans box to help children think about the consequences of smoking. On a larger scale, National Museums Liverpool has worked with the National Health Service and Innovate Dementia to create My House of Memories, a toolkit and app to help those caring for people with dementia connect with them and their personal histories.

A user-centric approach is important. A recurring theme was ensuring that visitors could see themselves in the displays and interpretations. This could range from contemporary collecting, to displaying objects from different perspectives, to extending the museum beyond its walls. Museums are asking themselves – is this relevant to our audiences? What will they want to see? How can we include different community groups more proactively?

Museums should think more about legacy. Current museum projects are fantastic, but there was general agreement that we need to move towards creating ongoing programmes rather than one-off projects. Many of the examples at this conference could demonstrate the legacy of their projects, whether it was forming a new youth panel or creating a community-centred approach to collecting.

The SHCG conference was an excellent opportunity to find out what other museums around the country are doing and to discuss the important themes and issues that we all face. I would highly recommend it to anyone working in the sector and hope to be back again next year.

Katherine West is curatorial assistant at Petersfield Museum, Hampshire


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16.07.2014, 17:01
I would like to add that my conference fees and accommodation were paid for via a Hampshire Solent Museum Development training bursary, supported using public funding be Arts Council England. This funding was an enormous help to my personal and professional development.