World view

Simon Stephens, 05.05.2015
Using collections to engage local communities
Members’ meetings not only give Museums Association (MA) staff the chance to spend time in the company of sector professionals from all over the UK, they also provide the opportunity to visit a museum.

Last month’s north east members’ meeting, which was held at the University of Durham, included a reception at the Oriental Museum, which I didn’t know a huge amount about.

The museum really is a revelation if you haven’t been before. It has its roots in the teaching of languages at the university and was developed by the first director of the School of Oriental Studies, William Thacker, who believed that students needed to understand the material cultures of the countries that they were studying, not just the language and literature.

Today, the museum cares for about 30,000 objects, with collections covering Egypt, China, Japan, Korea, the Near and Middle East, the Himalayas and Central Asia, and India and South Asia. It is still involved in supporting teaching and research at the university but is also open to the public seven days a week.

It’s a remarkable collection but what is really interesting is how it is used to form relationships with local audiences. Curator Craig Barclay, who is also the MA representative for the north east, has worked with various local communities who have links to the collections, including developing interpretation and displays.

The museum has an ambitious programme of activities and events, with previous exhibitions including photographs from Sudan, paintings by Palestinian artists and the art of the Japanese movie poster.

Barclay is also a keen collector on behalf of the museum, and has picked up some great items from online auction site eBay.

The subject matter of the collections also means that the museum has links all over the world, some of which lead to financial support.

Our next members’ meeting will be in south west England at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter on 19 May.

I’ve not been to the museum since it reopened in 2011 following a £24m redevelopment, and I’m looking forward to meeting more MA members and hearing about the innovative work going on in the region.

Follow Simon Stephens on Twitter: @SimonAStephens