Deep impact

As the MA steps up its campaign to help museums have a greater impact on society, Geraldine Kendall hears how the sector has had a positive influence on people's lives
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
It’s been nearly a year since the Museums Association (MA) launched its blueprint for the future of the sector, Museums Change Lives.

The campaign document outlined the MA’s vision for how museums can increase their impact and role in society, and become more resilient as a result. The document focused on three key areas in which museums can make a real difference: wellbeing; better places; and ideas and people.

Now the MA is putting those ideals into action. Over the next three years, Museums Change Lives will be at the heart of everything the association does, from ethics and policy work on the purpose of museums, to practical guidance, toolkits and workshops on how institutions of all types and sizes can implement the MA’s vision in their day-to-day activities.

The MA also plans to work with other sector bodies and funders, and advocate for Museums Change Lives at national and regional level.

The overriding aim is to create a fundamental shift in the sector’s thinking, says Maurice Davies, the MA’s head of policy.

“Museums are very much focused on input – working with objects and collections – and output – putting on exhibitions that attract visitors,” Davies says.

“The impact, the difference that work can make in those visitors’ lives, is often seen as incidental. What we want is for people to start looking at impact first, and then work backwards from there.”

Changing focus will also help museums to stay relevant and resilient in the long-term, says Davies. “Museums in the UK are really starting to recognise that funders do want them to have a bigger impact – there’s certainly more interest in this than there was a year ago.”

“I’m very pleased that the MA is taking the initiative in promoting impact at a time when the whole sector is under the cosh,” says David Fleming, an MA board member and the director of National Museums Liverpool.

“There’s a risk that social responsibility will lose ground because of the financial climate and that would be a gigantic betrayal of the public. There will always be people who want to retreat to the olden days, but many aren’t aware of how irrelevant museums were to most of the public back then.

“It’s up to the MA to stand up and say we’re not dropping all of this inclusion work. We’ve seen hard times before – but you don’t just give up, you keep pursuing your principles.”

It’s not just the UK sector that is starting to focus more on social responsibility: museum representatives from as far afield as Canada and Georgia have expressed an interest in emulating the campaign.

“I think the MA backing this will resonate in the museum sector worldwide,” Fleming says. “We need allies to join the fight to stop museums sliding back into regressive ways.”

Ahead of this new leg of the campaign, museum professionals and members of the public spoke to Museums Journal about their first-hand experiences of the difference that museums have made in people’s lives.

Geraldine Kendall is a freelance journalist

Trevor Parry
Member of Banbury Museum’s reminiscence group, Times Gone By

“I’m 75 and I was born and bred in Banbury. A friend suggested that my wife and I might find the museum reminiscence group interesting and we’ve been regular members ever since.

It serves a very useful purpose in the community. It’s another perspective on history – everyday history.

A lot of the things we discuss are gleaned from local newspapers and it means we can look at the effects of council policies on our community down through the years and give the people who were affected by those policies a chance to talk about them.

It’s added another dimension to my life to think of all the things we have done as a direct result of the group. I’ve given talks on subjects such as the English civil war and written two books on the social history of the Scout movement in our county.

That started simply because I was asked in one session to talk off the top of my head about my experiences in scouting.

I started doing research and found that I had the nucleus of a book, so I got old photos together and self-published. I’ve become involved in something that I never really thought was out there.

It’s absolutely vital that museums become proactive in the community. If a museum was to just sit there and say, ‘We’re here’ and do nothing else, the noise of all the other things would drown it out. If a museum doesn’t get more involved then it just becomes a glorified repository for old things.”

Emma Varnam
Head of culture, Tameside Council

“I met a man recently in one of my museums. He turned to me and said: ‘You know, I have been able to say some things here, in this museum, that I thought I would never be able to say out loud… thank you.’

This gentleman had been systematically bullied both as a child and as an adult. I popped in to a celebration event we were holding at the end of an Anti-Hate Crime and Bullying project.

My staff had been working with a group of people who have experienced real aggression and abuse and developed some ways through art activity and being within the museum to talk about their experiences. The display of their work and the oral history recordings were powerful, but for all of those ‘products’, for me it was worth making the effort just for that moment.

I have the privilege and challenge of having committed most of my working life to working in a borough that has pockets of very high deprivation, shocking levels of health inequalities and where, according to recent reports, one in four children live in poverty.

I seek to make lives better in my community. It is not so much a choice, but a necessity – both pragmatic and political. It is now, in a time of enormous challenge, that museums should work harder to serve their community. We hold the keys to safe neutral spaces, places where families, friends and groups can meet, learn together, have fun and find that little moment of escapism and joy.

We should move beyond tokenistic approaches to access, and actively seek the visitors who stand most to gain from the moments of magic experienced in our spaces.”

Chris McCarthy
Member of Luton, Museum’s youth group, Re-Created

“I applied for the position of junior graphic designer at Luton Museums expecting to further my career, but little did I realise how much my life would change from this point on.

That year I was asked if I would like to be part of a youth team called Re-Created, which was looking to do an international project about truck art.

I was selected to travel to Pakistan as part of the project and was unsure at first, but realised this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Luton has a diverse culture, and while I was open to the subject, nothing could have ever opened my understanding of culture in quite the same way.

Pakistan was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined and contradicted what we had been hearing on the news before leaving. The people who we met, both planned and unexpected, were curious and friendly, and from this I made friends. I still keep in contact with some of them to this day.

Since joining the Re-Created group, I have made friends who I regularly hang out with and even more friends from abroad. We have worked on three exhibitions and have been nominated for and won local awards.

It has given me a great deal of confidence, and opportunities such as appearing on TV, which was broadcast live to over 10 countries, to talk about the success of our projects.

It shows what young people can achieve when they work with an organisation that understands them and that is open to new ideas.”

Jean Goodall
Member of Museum of the Manchester Regiment’s sewing group, Stitch in Time

“Joining this group has enhanced my life in several ways. I meet people with similar likes and have made several more friends. Our work is mostly embroidery and we swap patterns and ideas with each other.

I have done lots of craftwork all my life and now, being older, I find that I have more patience to produce a good piece of work.

The work we did for the museum was a joy as we were able to choose something about Tameside that we liked. You can see Hartshead Pike from our back bedroom window and I chose this to work on. When our work was finished the museum produced a wonderful display and it was seen by many people over quite a long period of time.

There are some people who join (all ages are welcome) who have been ill and are trying to get back into society, and each of them said that they felt they were in better health for joining. Some of them were able to start doing charity work to get them back to work. We are well supported by the staff in the museum.”

Willow Bowes
Volunteer, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Willow was encouraged to find a placement at the museum by mind disability charity, The Mill.

“I have been working as a volunteer in the entomology department at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for about a year and a half.

I’m not an entomologist but have developed a keen interest in the subject, most especially lepidoptera. Through this interest I have grown a little collection of butterflies and other insects of my own, courtesy of the museum. I’m very thankful, not only for my small collection but also for my growing interest in the subject of entomology.

Also, I have had the pleasure of meeting celebrities such as Jimmy [from Jimmy’s Farm], and I had the great pleasure of saying hello to David Attenborough. This honour would have never occurred if I did not hold a voluntary position in the entomology department.

Being a volunteer isn’t all just about work, but also humour. The staff are a great help and at times we have a good laugh, which shows team work can be a success.

I like what I do, but the work is not easy and I’m grateful for the help that I receive from the trained staff, especially when all comes to a halt and confusion sets in.

Lepidoptera? An interesting word scientifically meaning butterflies and moths. The museum’s collection is massive, of all sizes and outstanding colours, and some butterflies date back to the 18th century.”

Lynda Rose, Willow’s support worker

“Willow has been volunteering at the museum for some time now and I feel it has been massively beneficial for him. Despite periods of suffering from a variety of symptoms, he has continued to attend regularly and I feel his concentration has improved.

He is increasingly interested in lepidoptera. I think having a routine and the commitment of attending the museum, and that his work is valued, all contribute to his sense of self-worth and subsequently his self-esteem and role in society.

He is also in a social situation that he can sometimes find difficult or challenging, but he manages it well and enjoys the annual outings. I am extremely impressed by the support Willow receives and [his supervisor’s] ability to adapt what Willow is given to do, including things that can challenge him yet not overwhelm him.

I do not feel Willow would have felt as able to tackle his problems without the continuity and confidence he has gained from his ongoing experience at the museum.

To date, Willow has counted over 56,000 butterflies and created 4,620 records.”

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