From August 2020 to January 2021, I worked on a participatory curation project at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, East London. The gallery, which is owned and operated by the London Borough of Waltham Forest, is the only public museum dedicated to the life and work of Morris and his circle. It holds a comprehensive collection of around 10,000 objects relating to Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement he championed.
The project sprung from a desire to further integrate the gallery’s work into the experience of the local community, particularly at a time when the Covid pandemic has meant that local institutions have become more central to everyone’s lives.
The uncertainty caused by the pandemic also meant that we needed to create an exhibition that was easily adaptable to a fast-changing situation and was centred on our collection rather than loans from other institutions.
The three aims of the project were:
- To create a sense of community ownership of the collection based on meaningful engagement with it
- To generate conversations about the curatorial process
- To reinterpret objects from the collection deriving from the participants’ experience and expertise
I also hoped to learn new skills, trial a model of working with the community and challenge my own control over the curatorial narrative during a process in which the participants staged a gradual “take over” of the exhibition space.
In July 2020 the gallery reopened for the first time since it was closed due to government restrictions in March. In preparation for the opening, I put together an initial exhibition of 29 objects – predominantly works on paper supplemented by some textiles, woodblocks and a large tile panel – on the theme of Morris’s design process, illustrating the transformation of design into a finished object.
The central question was: how does an idea become an object? The exhibition was called Works in Progress, alluding to the objects on display and referring to the exhibition itself, which I envisaged would also evolve over the following months as people replaced works that I had chosen with their own selections and interpretations.
The first group of participants were recruited through the Waltham Forest Future Creatives, a scheme that aims to help underrepresented 16 to 25-year-olds build experience, skills and networks to navigate the creative industries.
From an open callout, three young people volunteered to be involved with the project as part of a paid work experience placement. None had any prior experience of working in a museum, though all are involved in arts practice. Over a series of four weekly 90-minute sessions, I worked with them in the gallery’s object stores to identify and select objects, and collaboratively write text that would be used in the redisplay.
I was keen to empower the participants to truly make their own decisions about what objects interested them and which ones they felt would be interesting for others. There were no rules about what they could choose – the only caveat was display logistics and expense in extreme cases – and they were asked to keep in mind the original exhibition theme of design process.
The usual format, which we developed over the course of the sessions, was for me to point the participants in what I anticipated would be a fruitful direction (such as a box of unmounted, uncatalogued drawings or a rack of framed works) and invite them to look through, making a note of anything that appealed to them.
We then talked about the objects they selected, focusing on what they liked about it and why, before I supplied any contextual information I felt would be helpful.
On the occasions when they selected something that I could not identify, we looked together in the object record files so that any new discoveries were made together, rather than new information being mediated, and thus controlled, by me.
The second group of five participants came from the gallery’s Young Producers, a group of 16 to 25-year-olds who collaborate with us to produce events and gain experience about working in the cultural sector. The average age of this group was a little older than the Future Creatives, with more experience and confidence of working in a museum environment.
We followed a similar pattern of identifying objects, but this group were keen to establish sub-themes in the exhibition and focus on alternative narratives; they decided to concentrate on Persian design influences and on women’s stories.
I had no preconceptions about what the participants of either group would choose and no vested interest in controlling what they removed from the original display, with the caveat that the second group were not permitted to replace any objects selected by the first group. In this way the exhibition transformed cumulatively, gradually extending further away from my original vision and became progressively more audience-owned.
In total, 17 entirely new objects were added. Of the 29 objects in the original display, only two were retained exactly, seven were completely removed, eight were moved elsewhere in the display and 12 were retained with new labels.
The new labels were written collaboratively with the participant who had selected each object, and in order to give their interpretation longevity after the exhibition closed, the text was also added to the gallery’s online catalogue and shared in social media posts.
Challenges and lessons
The biggest challenge of the project was the uncertainties caused by successive lockdowns. While I was able to work with most of the participants in person, the rehangs both coincided with periods during which the museum was closed to the public at short notice. To overcome this in part, the exhibition and its two alternative iterations have been added to the gallery’s Google Arts and Culture page.
Additionally, one of the participants was unable to attend in person; instead we worked together over weekly Zoom sessions to identify objects on the online catalogue and write new interpretative text which was then added to the object record.
Social distancing restrictions, the security of objects in the stores, and our desire to give individual attention to participants meant we capped the number of participants in each group at eight.
While participants reported that they had gained insight into the curatorial process, it would be difficult to scale up this type of project without considerable time investment by curatorial staff and is unlikely to be feasible as a model for community engagement on a wider level.
This project was far more time intensive than creating a comparable exhibition with gallery staff. Even though the groups were small enough to give participants individual attention, in the feedback one participant said that she felt five hours a week would be more suitable to gain real insight into the curatorial process, something that would not be possible within the usual demands.
In comparison with a traditional exhibition which typically costs little once it opens, the repeated redisplays in a short space of time incurred additional costs, including mounting and framing of objects, design and printing of interpretative graphics, and technical support. Ideally, participants would also be reimbursed for their time.
This project worked well for a small in-house exhibition where participants had immediate access to potential objects. This model may not be suitable to curate a large-scale exhibition that involved loans, long lead-in times and a more involved narrative.
Despite the challenges, the feedback from the participants was largely very positive. The project seemed to encourage engagement with both the gallery’s collection and the curatorial process.
In the words of one participant: “I would love to participate in something like this as I enjoyed it all, from picking out the art to seeing it being displayed. It was a good learning experience because before this I thought it was an easy job, but having to do it myself I came to [the] realisation that it isn’t as easy as it seems.”
Roisin Inglesby is senior curator at the William Morris Gallery in London