Social inclusion programmes, the leader of LGBTQ tours around a national institution and the children on a remote Scottish island who learned how to become the historians of the future are among the winners of the first Museums Change Lives awards. Celebrating the positive impact museums have on their audiences and communities, the prizes were handed out at the Museums Association conference in Belfast last November. John Holt talks to the winners about their work
Best Museums Change Lives Project
Collecting Birmingham, Birmingham Museums Trust
The three-year Collecting Birmingham community-engagement project proved to be a transformative experience for everyone involved – from museum staff and visitors to the 3,500 local people who chipped in to assemble more than 1,800 new objects to reflect 21st-century life in the West Midlands city.
“The enterprise changed the whole museum – how it thinks and operates, and the way it builds relationships to make people comfortable with donating things to us,” says Rachel Cockett, the director of development at Birmingham Museums Trust.
“It has influenced our collecting policy and our audience engagement plans. If we truly want to represent the people of Birmingham, we must embed what we have learned across the entire organisation.”
The project grew from initial Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures backing, which granted the museum a budget to acquire objects from deprived areas of the city, such as Aston, Lozells and Soho, all of which were under-represented in the collections.
“There was a range of material from people who never thought that the things they had done might be things we’d like to represent,” says Cockett.
“There were personal pieces like a Xeedho, the ceremonial vessel a Somalian bride receives as part of her wedding rites, and items from Unmuted, a black and Asian LGBTQI group. We also received 100 photographs by Vanley Burke, which document the lives of the Caribbean community.”
Cockett adds: “We already had works by Burke, who is a celebrated photographer, but the project allowed us more contact with him and, over time, he felt happier about more of his work going into a museum.”
That relationship encapsulates the project’s success in forging and maintaining links, which has led to the museum being widely recognised as a welcoming and respectful home for objects from across the city.
“Not everyone was on board and comfortable from the word go,” says Cockett. “But we concentrated on engagement first and collecting second. You don’t want people feeling as though they’re on a tick list.
“This approach always felt long term and we are continuing to build trust with new groups that are moving into Birmingham. These are areas where we have previously made little headway.”
Cockett believes the success of the project relied on the work having an impact on visitors and donors, which then reflected back to the museum. As a result, it is now viewed more positively by a greater number of the local population.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the time when curators alone decided what objects to acquire for the collection,” Cockett says.
Best Small Museum Project
A Cruinneachadh airson 2048 (Collecting for 2048)
Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, North Uist, Outer Hebrides
Like countless other clubs and groups, the North Uist Historical Society (Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath) faces the daunting challenge of attracting new members to have a sustainable future.
The society’s job is made difficult by the fact that it is dedicated to keeping alive the history of a tiny island whose population is just 1,500, and that its current membership has an average age of 70.
The society realised it had to close the generation gap so it started the Collecting for 2048 project – funded by Event Scotland as part of the Year of Young People 2018 programme – which asked local primary school children to imagine what island life might be like in 30 years’ time.
“They will be 40 in 2048 and that’s the age when people start looking back at their childhood,” says Norman MacLeod, the operations manager for the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, which held an exhibition of the project’s results. “It was a different kind of time capsule – a collection of objects that the children enjoyed today but thought might be the museum pieces of the future.”
The exhibits ranged from glowsticks and hair gel to cattle passports and sheep wool, to reflect their crofting heritage. The children were largely self-sufficient, too, with everything made in-house and – a particularly proud boast – no expertise sought from the mainland.
All the panels and displays were put together with the help of the design company Hebridean Graphics, which is based on-site. The exhibition text was primarily in Gaelic, with an English translation alongside.
“Some wondered whether their children would be taught by robots,” says MacLeod. “Others voiced concern about the environment; the plastic in oceans and the encroaching tide around our island are important issues for them.
They also looked internationally and the name of Trump came up as a real worry. As it happens, his mother was born on the Isle of Lewis, not far from here, but I don’t believe there’s an awful lot of pride taken in that.”
Following the award, the exhibition went on to win the community, heritage and tourism prize for 2018 at the Gaelic Awards the same month. “In such a remote location, this kind of success is an important stimulus for young people to take an active role in our history,” says MacLeod.
Exceptional Achievement Award
House of Memories, National Museums Liverpool
In 2012, National Museums Liverpool launched House of Memories, a training programme that enables health workers and families to make use of its collections in the care of people with dementia.
Carol Rogers, who as the executive director of education and visitors leads the multi-award-winning project, saw first-hand how the work could make a huge difference.
“Around the same time, my mother suffered a stroke and communication problems, and I was launched into the world of social care, using my museum skills and the power of objects to connect with personal histories,” she says.
“When my mum moved into residential care, it was important for me that her life story did not become invisible.”
The museum team developed an app that allows users to explore objects from the past and share memories. It can be used by anyone, but has been designed for, and with, people living with dementia and their carers. The app brings to life pictures of objects from across the decades with sound, music and descriptions. People save their favourite objects – from cinema tickets and a Singer sewing machine to a 10 shilling note – to a digital memory tree or box, or a timeline.
“The House of Memories app allowed me to witness my mother recognising things,” says Rogers. “She could no longer voice her response, but it was there emotionally and physically. She would squeeze my hand and make eye contact and, as her daughter, I knew that we were connecting over a shared memory.”
Seven years on, around 12,000 carers have been trained as the House of Memories project has been taken around the country. It recently launched its first programme in the US with the Minnesota Historical Society.
As well as the app, the programme now includes memory walks and a suitcase loan service in which a mini-museum on wheels is taken into the home. The team has also started working with the emergency services and housing associations to support people in assisted-living settings.
“In one home, there was a gentleman who, through dementia, had stopped looking after himself and was refusing to bathe, making the other residents distressed and no longer happy to have him in their company,” says Rogers.
“There were worries about him becoming isolated, so the staff took in a suitcase that happened to contain an old bar of carbolic soap. Its pungent smell began to remind him of the time he used to spend in a tin bath in front of the fire and, over time, he was gently persuaded to take a bath and use the soap.” Rogers adds: “As museums, we are proud to look after amazing collections for everyone, but memories are personal things. Sometimes, small references can connect very powerfully with people.”
House of Memories continues to prove just how relevant and life-enhancing museums can be in all kinds of communities.
“We can help the heavily pressured NHS to act long before clinical interventions are necessary,” says Rogers. “House of Memories has clearly demonstrated that we can be that interface on the doorstep, seven days a week, helping to make people’s life experiences as good as they can be.”
Northern Ireland Museums Change Lives Award
National Museums Northern Ireland
National Museums Northern Ireland’s (NMNI) long-standing commitment to tackling poverty and social exclusion earned it the inaugural Museums Change Lives award recognising best practice in the region or nation hosting the Museums Association conference.
Staff used museum resources for a recent project to help build the confidence of young offenders and their parents. “As they are not normally museum visitors, the parents were visited by staff bearing objects to encourage them to talk about something different from their family situations,” says Arlene Bell, the capital programme manager at NMNI.
“They were then invited to visit the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Belfast, where they participated in craft workshops and were able to take home the pieces they had made. They are returning regularly now.”
The sessions were so successful that one parent volunteered to talk about them at an event organised by the museum funding body, the Department for Communities.
“It’s important that young people know that their work is going on display,” says Bell. “There are a lot of fabulous drawings of some of the objects taken out such as animal skulls and woven basketry.”
The programme was also represented at Féile an Phobail (Festival of the People), a west Belfast festival set up to aid a deprived, predominantly nationalist, area. The event now works with both sides of the community and celebrated its 30th birthday last year.
“We took replica costumes from the 1900s – shawls, smocks and peaked caps – and the young people loved dressing up and taking selfies,” says Bell. “We also took the opportunity to hand out free tickets to them. There’s so much to be gained from them coming to us for non-traditional things that they know won’t be as stuffy as the museum trips they probably endured at school.”
Radical Changemaker Award
Dan Vo, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Dan Vo coordinates the LGBTQ tours at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, where he has volunteered since 2012. “The best feedback we can receive is from someone who had previously never visited because they did not think it would interest them,” he says. “Then they actually discover themselves reflected and represented many times over.
“As a person of colour, unlocking a treasure trove of BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] LGBTQ stories has been particularly rewarding. Sometimes I get to see that magic moment of connection in visitors’ eyes.”
Vo says the words of the museum’s first director, Henry Cole – “all of this, for all of us” – are at the heart of the volunteer team’s work. He is also proud of picking up the baton from pioneering figures such as Carl Winter, a former deputy keeper of the V&A and subsequently director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
“He was one of only three men who identified as homosexual to testify before the Wolfenden Committee in the 1950s for the decriminalisation of homosexuality,” says Vo. “I’m delighted the Fitzwilliam is one of three museums in Cambridge that has launched volunteer-led LGBTQ tours.
“This tour is just one way to recognise the LGBTQ communities and individuals who form part of our rich collections across place, time and culture. It’s our way of telling them they are accepted, respected and celebrated.”
Vo also undertakes his own tours of the country’s museums, spending last February – LGBT History Month – on the road promoting diversity, equality and inclusion as a Museums Association Transformer and a Stonewall BAME role model.
“I’m heartened by the ways in which galleries, libraries, archives and museums are embedding the stories of LGBTQ people in their work,” says Vo. “The struggle for equality is an ongoing battle and the support of institutions is fundamental.
“Radical change, however, always starts with the individual and it’s the stories of the remarkable people behind the objects that touch and connect us.”