Teen spirit

Simon Stephens, 01.08.2012
Can museums and teens learn to love each other?
Museums have often viewed young people with suspicion, particularly if they are visiting in groups unaccompanied by an adult. For their part, many teenagers in particular have viewed museums as dull places to be avoided at all costs.

So, everyone was happy. Museums didn’t want them and they didn’t want to come.

But things are changing in some museums as young people have come to be viewed not as some kind of alien species but as, well, visitors.

And many museums have gone one step further by actively seeking to involve young people in some of the decision-making in how the museum is run. Youth panels, youth advisory groups, whatever they are called, seem to have been springing up all over the place.

I went to see the results of one of these projects when I visited the World Stories gallery at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery last week. The permanent gallery opened in June and is part of Brighton and Hove’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad.

More than 240 young people from Brighton and Hove have worked with museum staff on content, themes and development of the gallery. Those involved came from community groups and a school as well as the museum’s own youth advisory group, known as the Museum Collective, which is made up of 16-21 year olds.

So what are the results? Interestingly, the displays don’t look that different from many others I’ve seen recently. It’s not as if young people have come in and turned ideas of museum displays upside down.

This is not to say that the displays aren’t good. The young people and museum staff have worked with Redman Design to create a series of thematic displays that provide an interesting insight into Brighton Museum’s designated ethnography collection.

And when you look closely you can see some of the ways that young people have influenced the galleries. QR codes are used throughout to provide extra information via visitors’ smartphones and there are also opportunities for people to contribute in a section that asks what they’d like to take with them to the afterlife.

Young people have even been involved in identifying artefacts for acquisition, including works of Iranian contemporary art for a section of the gallery called Iranian Identity Through Words and Art.

I did wonder if there is a danger of youth panels becoming so co-opted into the work of a particular museum that they lose their ability to make radical and unconventional suggestions and simply fall into traditional museum practices.

I will be developing a series of articles on youth panels for a forthcoming issue of Museum Practice and it would be great to hear about people’s experiences of them – from young people and museum staff.

The series of articles will include a look at the evaluation of the World Stories project in Brighton & Hove and will be accompanied by a range of other case studies. Please get in touch if you'd like to contribute.


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Simon Stephens
MA Member
Deputy Editor, Museums Association
03.09.2012, 12:55
Thanks for this Helen. Will take a look. There seems to be loads going on with young people and museums so it should make an interesting topic for Museum Practice.
Helen Davies
MA Member
23.08.2012, 14:04
Hi Simon,
I've been involved with Leeds Museum's 'Stories of the World' project'. The Museum has had ongoing relations with teens and young people through the 'Preservative Party'(aged 14 and up). Members of the Preservative Party and other young people from Leeds formed an exhibition team for Stories of the World. They devised every element of the exhibition, facilitated by museum staff. The exhibition 'Treasured! Smuggled? Stolen? Saved?' is open until January 2013.
This is a link to the Preservative Party's blog, Mostly Older than My Gran, with blogs and information about the exhibition and other projects with young people.
13.08.2012, 02:20
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
02.08.2012, 15:41
Our Londinium at the Museum of London was curated by members of Junction, the Museum of London’s youth panel.


I was given a short tour of the exhibition earlier this week by some of these young curators, and was really impressed by the level of work and passion they'd put into the exhibition. It'll remain on display in 2014 when the new Roman galleries will be unveiled and is well worth checking out.
Lynda Kelly
Manager, Online, Editing and Audience Research, Australian Museum
01.08.2012, 20:56
Hi there Simon. The Australian Museum, Sydney, has been working with students since 2003. You can find out more about our work (including publication list) here: http://australianmuseum.net.au/BlogPost/Teacher-Talk/The-Coalition-of-Knowledge-Building-Schools

If you'd like us to write something about our experiences and outcomes more than happy to do so.

Simon Stephens
MA Member
Deputy Editor, Museums Association
02.08.2012, 10:37
Thanks Lynda.
This looks really interesting. I will be back in touch later in the year when I start putting all the articles together.
13.08.2012, 02:15
Good morning Simon , Museum Victoria ,Melbourne Australia has a number of projects working with young people. Happy to elaborate further but will send these links for a taster
Narratives Across Cultures is a 5 year collaboration with Victoria University and Immigration Museum http://museumvictoria.com.au/discoverycentre/websites-mini/small-object-big-story/hands-on-history-showcase/
Talking Faiths is a project developed in 2009 http://museumvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum/discoverycentre/talking-faiths/
and Talking Difference is a 3 year collaboration http://museumvictoria.com.au/discoverycentre/websites-mini/talking-difference/ Cheers Jan