Simon Stephens, Issue 118/04, p4, 01.04.2018
Socially engaged practice is way ahead
Objects are important to people for lots of reasons. They give us a sense of identity and help us make sense of our lives. They also often frame our relationships with other people and wider society.

This puts museums and galleries in a great position, as objects are at the heart of what they do. But this does not mean that the sector shouldn’t continue to evolve its thinking about why objects are important to visitors and what impact they can have on their lives.

This issue of Museums Journal includes two articles that focus on the power of collections to change lives. Both feature projects funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund (EFCF), which is managed by the Museums Association. The fund, which is giving £1.2m a year in grants until 2019, is for schemes that develop collections to achieve social impact.

One of our articles looks at how museums and libraries are using their collections to highlight the shared heritage of unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland (p26). It includes Speeches, Strikes and Struggles at the Tower Museum in Derry, a project funded by the EFCF that has been introducing residents to the three remarkable archives that were collected by individuals and document life in the city and beyond.

The other article (p20) focuses solely on EFCF schemes. These include a project to involve the community in decisions about Pontypridd Museum’s collection; a scheme in Derby to work with black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to create a more inclusive museum; an initiative to work with women’s groups to explore issues such as gender inequality; and a project to research and share collections relating to protest in Sheffield.

All these projects aim to use collections to bring people together. They are also contributing to people’s sense of identity and their community as a whole.

This type of socially engaged practice is not yet embedded in all UK museums, but initiatives such as the EFCF are helping to make it far more widespread. This work must continue to evolve if museums are to make the most of the fantastic collections that they hold and ensure their ongoing relevance to the communities they serve.

Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal