Paul Hunt (L) and Owain Rhys (R)

The conversation

Paul Hunt; Owain Rhys, Issue 118/11, p19, 01.11.2018
What are the benefits and challenges of working in partnership with community organisations?
Dear Paul:

Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales, NMW) has been partners with Mencap Cymru for several years now. Your Hidden Now Heard project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, recorded oral history interviews with staff and residents from most of the former long-term hospitals in Wales where people with learning disabilities lived. You also collected objects, and organised several temporary exhibitions in local museums, which were quite hard-hitting and emotionally charged. I think we definitely learned from you about taking risks, representation, and being relevant. I wonder what you felt were the benefits and challenges of working with NMW?

Best wishes, Owain

Dear Owain:

The benefits were immense. Staff had lots of learning disability experience but no prior heritage experience. We were able to learn from the skills and experience of the museum. You trained us in conducting oral history interviews, how to interpret objects, and how to reflect on each exhibition. The challenges were often around heritage specific terms, and how we could re-interpret the way you did things to make them accessible for our audience.

Best wishes, Paul

Dear Paul:

From our perspective, we have learned so much, not only from yourselves, but all our other partners. By realising that you were the experts in your field, we could rely on you to help us with training our staff on diversity and inclusion, and also with correct terminology and procedures for working with vulnerable adults and their families. One issue that kept niggling at me is the “tokenism” one – were we just jumping through hoops in order to look as though we were doing the right thing, or was this a truly equal partnership?

Best wishes, Owain

Dear Owain:

It was an equal partnership to a point. Once we felt comfortable with our heritage know-how we felt more comfortable pushing back against some of the conventions of exhibitions. I think we had a lot of interactive things going on, perhaps at times too much, which may have put some visitors off engaging with things. We never felt that there was any tokenism going on, and I know in the Life Is… gallery you have the Mencap logo next to the stories we collected. It’s great exposure for us. How did you approach that decision?

Best wishes, Paul

Dear Paul:

I’m glad you don’t think it was tokenism. We were very impressed with your fearlessness, especially when you experimented with tactile elements, such as the institutional teapot that transmitted recordings when picked up, not to mention the talking bed and toilet.

I think we adopted elements of those for the Life is… gallery. We think it’s important to highlight the participatory elements of our displays, and the partnerships that contributed to the interpretation. Furthermore, it’s an explicit signal to the way that we are working now. How do you see relationships developing in the future?

Best wishes, Owain


Dear Owain:

I’m glad that we were able to have such an influence, as you did on us. For the future I think relationships will need to evolve as the collections diversify. UK-wide there has been a dearth of institution-related heritage projects. We need to make sure that when future generations look at archives, there is a rounded account of the lives of people with a learning disability, births, marriages, death, all of life, not just the curiosities. The participatory approach you employ means that with time, hopefully, you will need less and less support from organisations such as ours.

Best wishes, Paul

Owain Rhys is a community engagement and participation manager at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales); Paul Hunt is a senior project manager at Mencap Cymru

The Museums Association (MA) is developing a toolkit to support the sector to deliver more effective participatory and inclusive practice, in partnership with and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. A Framework for Participatory Practice in Museums will be launched at the MA’s Conference & Exhibition in Belfast, 8-10 November

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