Engaging young audiences is no easy task for museums. Long-term planning and restricted resources can often lead to a disconnect with youth communities, who might feel that their voices are not accurately represented in institutions, particularly if they come from marginalised backgrounds.
In recent years, organisations have sought to combat this lack of engagement through specially designed programmes aimed at young people. Usually spanning those aged 16 to 25, the initiatives include workshops, skills sessions and behind-the-scenes access, offering consistent and enriching development that might otherwise be out of reach.
One of the most innovative and long-running initiatives is the Ikon Youth Programme in Birmingham, which was founded in 2009. Following consultations with young people who stated their need for a space they could call their own, the Slow Boat project was born.
This model for an alternative art school takes place on a narrow boat leased from Sandwell Youth Services, with Ikon Youth Programme members travelling up and down the canal system.
Linzi Stauvers, head of learning at Ikon Gallery, a contemporary art venue in Birmingham, says: “We open up spaces that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible. Our programme is underpinned by the idea of balancing thinking and making.”
Recent collaborations have included making ceramics with the Modern Clay co-operative studio; enamelling and wax carving at Birmingham School of Jewellery; and participating in a choral music performance with artist Jaz Morrison. While these activities benefit members at a time when arts education is under ever-increasing threat, there is huge value
for the institution too.
“The programme has a political dimension,” says Stauvers. “Members are often very politically active and associated with other groups in the city, whether that’s LGBTQ+ groups or disability groups. Often our members bring another community with them.”
Effecting real change in the museum is one of the most significant objectives for most youth panel members, who are excited to engage in meaningful conversations in a manner not often afforded in education or entry-level employment.
“Our voices were consistently encouraged and heard,” says a former Ikon Youth Programme member, Muskeen Liddar, who joined aged 16. She recalls having an open discussion with Ikon’s assistant curator and other staff members.
“We were free to ask questions and challenge staff, who were generous with their time,” says Liddar. “We could say what we really thought, because we weren’t being graded – we couldn’t fail.”
The insight gained by working with young people is invaluable for organisations looking to diversify and expand audiences, with many directly engaging with youth programmes to inform curatorial decisions.
At Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales, participants in a youth forum were invited to consult on the redisplay of a portrait of general Thomas Picton.
“He was displayed as a war hero, but he was also the governor of Trinidad for a time,” says Owain Rhys, the service’s head of volunteering and engagement. “He engaged in the torture and killings of the local enslaved population.
“The work was initiated by the young people, and developed into the commissioning of two pieces of art made by artists of Trinidadian heritage, as well as a redisplay complete with a full discussion of the slave trade in the gallery. It is a key examples of young people changing the way that we are interpreting and displaying our collection.”
The youth forum is part of the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s £10m Kick the Dust programme. The initiative involved 15 young people awarding grants to organisations including Don’t Settle, which empowers young people of colour in Birmingham to celebrate under-represented communities through art and curation; and Reimagine, Remake, Replay, a multi-faceted programme across Northern Ireland that allows young people to connect with their heritage via innovative technology.
Taking place across venues including the Nerve Centre, in Derry, Ulster Museum and North Down Museum, Reimagine, Remake, Replay includes initiatives such as the Digital Maker Club – an eight-week Open College Network-accredited course that trains young people in a host of digital fabrication skills, from 3D scanning to laser engraving.
One former participant, Niamh Kelly, says: “My peers and I discovered not only how technology can enhance collections, but also how young people could be more represented and included by the museum.”
The scope of this project demonstrates the variety of ways in which youth participation can be facilitated. It can also expand beyond its original remit, as was the case with the Amgueddfa Cymru Producers. This network was born out of Amgueddfa Cymru’s youth panel, where participants are paid for their time to consult on a range of projects, including Transnewid.
“The project highlights the queer population of Wales,” says Rhys. “It started off as a group of people meeting on a regular basis, providing workshops and activities, which developed into a temporary exhibition at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. It is a visual representation of the museum changing its focus in response to the requirements and aspirations of young people.”
This example illustrates how museums can not only develop their programmes in a way that better reflects their communities, but can harness the creative ideas of a younger audience while offering them the chance to be appropriately paid for their work.
The sentiment is echoed by Theo Blossom, youth programme developer at London’ Natural History Museum, who oversees the Urban Nature Project’s youth panel.
“We set up a youth advisory panel in the context of building significant relationships with small groups of young people, to gain from their experience and to understand them as a target audience,” he says. “It is very much a two-way street of benefit and understanding, which is not exploitative or, I hope, tokenistic.”
The museum pays participants via high street vouchers (participants are allocated a value of £25 for every two-hour session), which Blossom says permits people from a much broader range of backgrounds to participate.
“Typically, those that are able to give up their time for free come from a level of privilege that is the same as the museum-goers that you have always engaged with,” he says.
Rudi Schmidt, the youth engagement producer at the Horniman Museum in south London, received similar feedback after the first iteration of the 696 Promoters, which involved young people contributing to the programme of music, talks and workshops at the 696 Festival.
“A key learning from the young people is that they want to be paid for their participation – and they should be,” he says. “Although they were paid for working at the event, their involvement should be fully recognised throughout. We are fundraising for that, going forward.”
As well as remunerating young people for their involvement in these programmes, another crucial aspect of these initiatives is creating space for career progression in the museum sector.
In many cases, this will involve setting up workshops on public speaking and technical skills, and offering paths to more-permanent employment, particularly for those that are not currently in formal education.
“We had a requirement to recruit 70% of young people who were not in education, employment or training,” says Schmidt. “We recruited partially through Instagram, local partners such as schools and youth organisations, and through a new partnership with Jobcentre Plus. A local employment adviser saw value in the programme straight away and helped us shape it.”
Liddar’s experience as an Ikon Youth Programme member led to her working front of house at the gallery, before becoming the communications digital coordinator. “I was actively encouraged and supported in applying for the role,” she says. And Liddar has brought design skills previously lacking in the department, according to Stauvers.
More opportunities have also become available at the Natural History Museum following the success of consultations with the youth panel.
“We ran workshops with our communications team because they wanted to better understand that audience,” says Blossom. “Right away, the young people said: ‘Well, you’re not on TikTok, are you?’ On the back of that, the Natural History Museum launched a new channel.”
Since then, several participants have consulted across programming and content projects.
While there is plenty of exciting work taking shape, museum professionals also note that these initiatives are always works in progress, and plenty more can be done.
“You have to accept that this is a learning experience, and you probably won’t get everything right,” says Schmidt.
Challenges include how and when groups meet. Specific locations limit accessibility for participants, while digital forums can be difficult in terms of technical issues, access and safeguarding.
“Using online systems can be problematic, because there is a level of onboarding, such as sharing files safely, which is difficult to implement with young people who are not technically a member of staff or a volunteer,” says Blossom.
As these issues present themselves, it is evident that staying in touch and fostering a sense of community is vital to the success of these programmes.
“We are going to get a phone and a couple of sim cards so we can have a WhatsApp group to stay in contact, because young people aren’t really on email, and it’s not appropriate for staff to use personal phones,” adds Blossom.
For Liddar, it was consistent communication that made the Ikon Youth Programme a formative experience.
“During my time on the programme, I grew into a new person,” she says. “I now have a real sense of ownership at Ikon. It is almost like home.”
Holly Black is a freelance writer