At the Sharp End: creating an exhibition on violent crime - Museums Association

At the Sharp End: creating an exhibition on violent crime

A case study from the Royal Armouries and the West Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit
Temporary Exhibition
Anna Ward
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Street art was one of several design techniques developed to make the exhibition relevant to young people

At the Sharp End: Tackling Violent Crime Together in West Yorkshire is a temporary exhibition at the Royal Armouries Leeds. Developed in partnership with the West Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit, the exhibition uses objects, evidence and first-hand accounts to tackle the issue of violent crime and its effects.

Applying a strategy inspired by the Museum Association's (MA) Power to the People framework, in 2019 the Royal Armouries embarked on a year-long outreach programme to really understand the landscape of the local community in Leeds and their needs. As part of this we met the Youth Association and learned that the government approach to resolving violent crime has changed substantially in the last decade.

This led us to working with the West Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit, who were eager to share the results of the multi-agency, community-led practice they apply, and the work of the communities they have supported.

Creating an exhibition on this topic was an opportunity to put into practice the principles of the MA’s framework, particularly giving a voice to those outside the museum while providing mutual benefit to the organisations engaged in this work and our organisation. 

Positive impact

We knew that this exhibition was going to be hard-hitting. However, the intention was that it should have a positive message overall, as the following quote, part of the content, illustrates:

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“I was doing burglaries and armed robberies, I was kicked out of school so I had no education... When I came to Catch, everyone was welcoming. I’ve been on an apprenticeship, I'm going to retake my GCSE’s... If I can do it, everyone can do it, you can change everything.”

Dom, 16, volunteer at Catch (Community Action to Create Hope), Harehills, Leeds

The devastating effects of violent crime are a reality for many communities, but the work of the Violence Reduction Unit shows the thoughtful and progressive action being taken. With this narrative, we were confident we would be able to engage the very different audiences we may attract – those for who this story is a live issue and those for who it isn’t. On top of this, we had to think about those who typically visits the museum and who doesn’t.

In my role as interpretation manager, I worked closely with the Violence Reduction Unit to create a framework for the exhibition content, agreeing the main messages and highlighting the importance of different methods of interpretation.

In this case the messages were conveyed through design, audio-visual presentations and images before text. The text was layered with short impactful bursts provided in each section, as well as more detailed panels for those who wanted more.

Much of the data was supplied by our partners within West Yorkshire Police and the Violence Reduction Unit who filled out my framework with facts, figures, first-hand accounts, images, evidence and, of course, objects.

Relevant design

The design was crucial. We needed our new visitors to recognise immediately that this display was different from what they might have expected from the Royal Armouries. The design needed to convey that this display is about young people, for young people, and includes their voices.

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A scheme based around the aesthetic of fly posters, bright colours and street art was developed. The 2D work was undertaken by Inch Punch and the 3D by Paula Atkinson.

The display of weapons took a lot of time and thought. The Violence Reduction Unit wanted to show that police officers face danger every day, but we also needed to avoid frightening young visitors into thinking they needed to carry a knife in self-defence.

To solve this, we worked hard to make the layout in the cases tell a story. Specially designed mounts and graphics reveal the weapons at different stages: as you first enter, we represent weapons on the street, terrifying and real, but as you progress through the exhibition the weapons are confiscated, contained, safe and on the way to destruction.

Weapons on display at the Royal Armouries At The Sharp End exhibition Photo credit: Charlotte Graham

It was important to showcase community voices in the exhibition. We included interviews with victims of crime, former perpetrators, community workers and people who had benefitted from community projects in quotes and audio-visual presentations.

Our partners also ran a competition with young people who were participating in West Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit-funded activities. They were asked to try to express their thoughts, feelings, or views on violence, promoting personal safety and what makes them feel safe or unsafe in their community.

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Three winners have their artworks displayed in the exhibition. The artworks tell an amazing story of the issues we explore from the point of view of the people we hope to engage.

Further events to support the exhibition are planned, these are specifically aimed at young people rather than our general audience. In person, we hope that they will really have a chance to interrogate the messages and learn a valuable lesson about the WYVRU and the choices they have the power to make.

The exhibition opened at the Royal Armouries in Leeds on 7 January and runs until the end of June 2022, with future potential for the exhibition to tour. The cost was £16,390.

Anna Ward is the interpretation manager at the Royal Armouries in Leeds

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