On your marks

The Cultural Olympiad was a slow starter for many museums and galleries, but the projects are now gathering pace, as Varya Shaw reports
Varya Shaw
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The Cultural Olympiad was slow out of the starting blocks and began life as a rather aimless, bottom-up, artist-led initiative. But since cultural director Ruth Mackenzie took charge early last year it has upped its game and become leaner and meaner.

Museums and galleries have found it difficult to find out how to position themselves for 2012 activities, although last month’s announcement that the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, will put on a show at London’s Royal Opera House shows that things are starting to take shape.

The Cultural Olympiad is a four-year programme that started in 2008 and runs until 2012. It aims to encourage creativity and give everyone a chance to participate in London 2012. Activities cover everything from theatre and music to visual arts and literature, and culminate in the London 2012 Festival, which will bring together artists from all over the world.

The ride for museums and galleries has been bumpy. In the early days, non-nationals were invited to submit proposals for Stories of the World, a youth participation project that aimed to give those under 25 years old a chance to connect with collections that illustrate the UK’s global links.

Fourteen projects were eventually tabled. But public indifference to the Olympiad and its perceived lack of direction was creating embarrassment. Mackenzie, who has advised the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on cultural policy and headed up organisations such as the Manchester International Festival and Scottish Opera, has a reputation for robust leadership. Not long after she was appointed in January 2010, only eight Stories of the World projects were left.

A bold project on sex and history proposed by the south-west region of England was among the casualties. Alan Caig, head of leisure and museums at Exeter City Council, says: “We were invited to be part of Stories of the World. We were very pleased with our scheme, everyone we spoke to thought it was great. We found it was subject to constant change, but we worked with that.

“It was submitted to some committee in London who decided they didn’t want it and threw it out. That is the last we heard. No explanation, no regrets, no thanks for responding to a commission at our own cost. We were just bewildered.”

More glitz

Some say Mackenzie found Stories of the World too worthy, and wanted more glitz. Fran Hegyi, the senior cultural adviser at the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, told Museums Journal: “If you’re pulling together a programme of brilliant work, you can’t have everything. Unfortunately, boards sometimes have to make difficult decisions.”

Isobel Siddons, the 2012 programme manager at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, says the rejected bids did not meet the criteria, while those that went through had strong leadership and commitment from senior management.

Paul Mainds, the chief executive of the River & Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames and chairman of the Our Sporting Life steering committee, believes museums have to take responsibility: “It’s up to the museum world to stamp its feet, get people interested. We’ve said we want to be part of it and as a result we’ve had really good support.”

Our Sporting Life, which was set up by the Sports Heritage Network, is encouraging communities and schools to get in touch with their sporting roots through a series of exhibitions that are taking place at more than 100 towns and cities across the UK in the run up to 2012. The first Our Sporting Life exhibition opened at the River & Rowing Museum in March last year and has been followed by many others.

A number of other Cultural Olympiad projects have been proving their value. Steve Gardam is the Stories of the World project manager at the London Transport Museum. He says: “We’ve done youth participation before, but it can be passing – this is a period of very intense activity.”

The museum has been working with four “young consultants” who are paid a small daily fee. One of these is Elvis Miranda. He says: “I really didn’t like education because it’s always a slow process. I didn’t get the grades I needed to do A-levels.
“I did a BTec in media and then left school. With Stories of the World I thought it was perfect. It is a job I can do, get voices of young people heard, then leave with something to show for it.”

Working at the museum has given Miranda responsibility and experience. He has developed workshops for young people, run a focus group and published a book of photos. He has also earned money, bought a camera and is embarking on a career as a photographer.

“Ladder of engagement”

London Transport Museum has funding for a Stories of the World legacy project. It will offer a “ladder of engagement” to young people – first volunteering, then paid mentor roles and, beyond that, consultant roles. It is aimed at young people who stand most to gain – those not in education, employment or training.

Many other museums are working with vulnerable youngsters (see below). Stories of the World demonstrates the social impact of museums in a financial era when it is critical they prove their worth.

A Stories of the World evaluation found that 90% of participants agreed that they had improved their communication skills and 93% their creative skills. More than 80% felt more part of their community and two thirds said they might or wanted to volunteer – quite a result in the big society era.

Stories of the World is also renewing museums’ connection with their public. Siddons says: “We’ve got well over 1,000 young people being offered really in-depth involvement, and a whole load more involved in drop-in activities. We’re hoping many will be inspired to look for careers in the sector. Many won’t but will take with them a real passion for museums.”

Mark Taylor, the director of the Museums Association, says the legacy is important: “London 2012 was sold on the basis of youth and it is right that Stories of the World brings together young people and the stories that collections have to tell. The legacy is likely to be as much in the engagement with new audiences and the skills museums have acquired as it is with the buildings and collections themselves.”

Varya Shaw is a freelance journalist

Arts projects

The arts strand of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad features a range of projects and programmes, including Artists Taking the Lead.

This comprises 12 projects that have won commissions totalling £5.4m to create new works of art across the UK: one in each of the nine English regions, and also in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Another Cultural Olympiad arts initiative is Next Generation, which is being overseen by the National Portrait Gallery. This three-year project is designed to open up opportunities for 14-19 year-olds to engage with portraiture through the BP Portrait Award.

A number of projects have also been developed through Unlimited, a programme celebrating arts and culture by disabled and deaf artists. Unlimited is principally funded with lottery cash, and is delivered in partnership between London 2012, and the UK’s national arts councils and the British Council.

In the latest round of funding, more than £820,000 was awarded under Unlimited to support 13 new commissions covering a range of artforms.

Tate is involved in the Cultural Olympiad though the Tate Movie Project’s film The Itch of the Golden Nit. The cast will be voicing the characters in the half-hour animation, which has been created from drawings, sound effects and story ideas by children aged five to 13 from across the UK.

It is funded with £3m from Legacy Trust UK, a charity set up to create a cultural and sporting legacy from the London 2012 Games. BP has also provided funding and the BBC is a supporter.

Stories of the World

Stories of the World, part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, is led by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in partnership with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is centred on young people who have been working with curators to uncover objects that tell stories that reflect their interests.

The final exhibitions – delivered by eight regional partnerships involving more than 50 museums – will cover themes such as immigration, fashion and empire and will shed new light on the UK’s national identity. More than 1,500 young people have been recruited to develop the projects.

Examples of projects include the Foundling Museum, London, working with young people in care to produce art that conveys the living history of life without a conventional family.

The Florence Nightingale Museum’s Stories of the World project involved a group of young people creating an audio guide for the museum.

And the Jewish Museum’s Stories of the World project invited Irish travellers, teenagers with disabilities and girls from a homeless hostel to work with Jewish objects to produce short films. The films are related to the theme of journeys.

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