A life not so ordinary

A number of new museums are moving away from traditional ways of collecting and are working at a grassroots level to tell the stories of marginalised communities, as Rob Sharp discovers 
Profile image for Rob Sharp
Rob Sharp
A wave of new museums is giving power back to the people by co-producing content with communities and focusing on uniting people around causes rather than places. The Museum of Ordinary People (Moop), the Climate Museum UK, the Museum of Transology, Queerseum and the Museum of Homelessness are among those embracing this new approach. 
And the Museums Association’s (MA) Conference & Exhibition in Brighton in October will hold a session looking at the idea of creating a museum dedicated to exploring black British heritage. These institutions are using grassroots engagement with people, and providing skills and a sense of belonging in exchange for the labour contributed by audiences. 
By uniting around a particular message – often the need to tell stories on topics and people that have previously been marginalised – these museums can react quickly to emerging events. 
But as many don’t have permanent residences, they can suffer from practical problems such as a lack of space to store collections and having to rely on small numbers of staff who are often under a lot of pressure. Despite these challenges, moving to more traditional models could mean they would lose some of what makes them special and different.
The Climate Museum UK was founded by Bridget McKenzie as a mobile museum in 2018. McKenzie was frustrated by the separation in her life between creative climate activism and working as a consultant in the museum sector. 
The Climate Museum UK operates as a community collecting project that pops up in different spaces, responding to local concerns around the climate emergency and reflecting them in creative and participatory ways. It will visit Brighton during the MA conference and will be part of this year’s Festival of Change, which McKenzie is helping to organise.
“The Climate Museum UK is mostly about how people react as the planet changes over time,” McKenzie says. “It has to respond to what’s happening now. It’s less about community collecting, more community building, reflecting on how we live at a particular time.”
McKenzie has been given ephemera and artwork, and has designed many of the materials herself. And as the collection is growing fast, she needs support from an archivist to develop a collections policy and find space for storage. She only uses public transport, so has a trolley and rucksack to travel to venues.
It is clear that such museums are reframing what it means to reflect a community as technological changes shift the spaces and times in which voices can unite. McKenzie says her institution is able to respond far quicker than more established ones. 
“We are much more rapid response – we are an emergency museum,” she says. “We’re able to work directly with groups on the ground. I’ve done a pop up with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which is looking at how to encourage climate solutions. I can support them and collect their ideas.”
Ordinary lives
Others in this group of new museums see their role as challenging institutional biases towards particular kinds of stories. Moop was founded by theatre producer and writer Jolie Booth and curator Lucy Malone after they met on a walking tour in 2017. 
Booth had developed the tour to tell the life of a woman called Anne Clarke, whose belongings she had discovered in a squat at the turn of the millennium, preserved for over a decade and undisturbed. She turned the material into a one-woman theatre show, titled HIP, based on Anne’s life, followed by a walking tour exploring the places in Brighton that had been important to Anne. Malone, meanwhile, had inherited her mother’s belongings after she died and developed an archive of her artistic practice. 
“We realised we were both telling stories about two women who wouldn’t traditionally have been remembered and wanted to challenge history-making practices,” says Malone. “I was trying to record the life of an artist as an identity, not just a job. It was about a woman who was a single mother and an artist, who wouldn’t normally have been recorded in history because she wasn’t typically successful. 
“We felt there needed to be a museum where ordinary lives could be recorded and saved. We can all connect to different individual experiences and break down barriers by using ephemera and everyday objects, and understanding their value.”
The pair put out a call for collections of ordinary objects that told a story about someone’s life in a similar way. “The response was incredible, so many people emailed us,” Malone says. They invited eight participants to take part in six weeks of workshops – including curating, creative writing and photography – along with a range of speakers. 
“It could be an emotional process,” Malone says. “We asked people whether they were ready to deal with it.” Emerging themes were co-produced and turned into an exhibition at the Brighton Fringe last year. “The feedback was incredible,” Malone says. “The idea was around connecting – everyone’s response was different and related to something personal to them.”
The pair see themselves as facilitators rather than prescribing what should be produced. Malone says they now want to develop a model into which people’s own narratives might fit, helping them to create exhibits and stories about ordinary lives, using “everyday objects and their power to create connections and foster understanding”. 
Such museums might see themselves not just as changing practices, but also as altering languages. E-J Scott is the curator of the mobile Museum of Transology, which began with donations from Brighton’s trans community and has facilitated a range of collaborative exhibitions and events co-programmed with the city’s LGBTQ communities. Scott sees the approach as less collaborating with “hard to reach” audiences and more about urging traditional museums to see shortfalls in their approach. 
“I increasingly question the terminology around ‘hard to reach’ audiences,” Scott says. “They are not difficult to connect with, they just haven’t been spoken to. And for a good deal of audiences, the fact that the museum has found it hard to reach them means it hasn’t used the right language or strategy. 
“You are trying to reach an audience in the exhibition-making process to equip the museum with a thorough understanding of the story that needs telling. They are equipping the museum with the language that’s required to reflect their experience or their histories through their lens, instead of the museological lens, which would have traditionally been managed by the curator. But the curator may not have experience with that subject matter or those communities.” 
“The Museum of Transology went beyond the museum walls in the first instance, building trust with communities before they were invited into the museum,” says Scott. “Coming into the museum was seen as the long-term goal, not an immediate one.” 
Help from Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton, Arts Council England funding and a partnership with the University of the Arts, London, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has backed the work. 
Activist remit
The Museum of Free Derry, which focuses on the Troubles and the Free Derry Irish Nationalist movement in the early 1970s, opened in 2007. Until 2015, it occupied a single exhibition room, but it set up a new space two years ago allowing it to expand beyond its core remit and host temporary shows, discussions and films.
It is very much linked to place, unlike the other institutions mentioned but, like them, it has an innovative approach to working with communities. It also comes from a different place than a traditional museum, being rooted in the struggle for civil rights. 
“We’re the outcome of an active justice campaign,” says Adrian Kerr, the museum’s curator. “Museums shouldn’t just be a passive recorder, especially if you’re dealing with recent history like we are. We try to think about how we can use the museum as part of that broader campaign. As well as being a window into history, we have to have a role in the present.”
Kerr says the museum is campaigning for justice for the victims of Bloody Sunday and this affects the way it collects material and displays it. “We tend to take a more direct or flexible approach than larger museums,” says Kerr. “It’s not so much following the standards of the industry if we feel we don’t have to. Having said that, we have the same responsibilities in terms of collections care.” 
He says the dusty image of traditional museums might not appeal to campaigners, but institutions such as his are changing that fast. “The sort of people we would target in the past might not have been a traditional museum audience, but we’re having success,” he adds. 
“We have moved towards them as they have moved towards us. I would love to see more museums like this here. Museums and storytelling projects can have a big role to play in terms of how we address legacy issues. It isn’t about an agreed sanitised history, it’s about understanding all the different perceptions. The first step towards that is telling those stories.”
Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist.
There is a session at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition, 3-5 October, Brighton, on community-curated collections, which will be chaired by E-J Scott and will have speakers from the Rukus! Archive, the Vagina Museum and the Museum of Homelessness

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