Unlocking potential - Museums Association

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Unlocking potential

With the issue of prison overcrowding once again on the national agenda, Liza Ramrakya looks at how museums have become part of a wider initiative to cut the number of inmates who re-offend
Liza Ramrakya
Visitors to the Museum of London this summer might have caught a glimpse of an unusual screen print of London's skyline represented by piano-tuning tools. They won't have been surprised to hear that the artist trained as a piano tuner at the London College of Furniture in Tower Hamlets. What might have surprised them, though, is that he is currently a guest at HM Prison Wandsworth across the river.

The screen print was included in an exhibition of work produced by the Mind's Eye project, a Museum of London initiative to work with long-term offenders at Wandsworth prison. The project is part of a three-year programme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to engage people at risk of social exclusion, young people and the long-term unemployed with their heritage and to improve their basic skills.

The project started in August 2005, and the nine-week course involved inmates from Wandsworth's vulnerable prisoners' unit working with an HLF-funded inclusion officer from the museum and four artists to create artwork that portrays a place in London significant to their lives. They then worked with the inclusion officer and a freelance writer to develop prose or poetry to interpret the artworks.

Recent evaluation by the Museum of London shows the outcomes exceeded expectations. Of the 15 inmates who started the project, 11 completed the course. The weekly attendance rate was 86 per cent; of those completing an evaluation, 50 per cent said they had acquired useful knowledge or skills 'to a high extent' while the same number said they had done so 'to a good extent'. The museum has just started phase two of its work, this time with female offenders aged 16 to 18 at HMP Downview in Sutton, Surrey.

Britain's prison population has nearly doubled since the 1980s, with 79,285 inmates at the end of September 2006 in England and Wales. Add to that a further 7,196 in Scotland and 1,464 in Northern Ireland and the total is nearly 88,000 across the UK. Limited prison capacity means the government has said it wants to cut re-offending rates (six out of ten re-offend within two years of their release) and has set a target to reduce re-offending by 10 per cent by 2010.

A recent Department for Education and Skills green paper - Reducing Re-offending Through Skills and Employment - sets out how education and learning can contribute to this goal.

Against this background, the £169,000 Museum of London project is focused on developing skills that might be useful beyond the prison gates. Mind's Eye consisted of twice-weekly, three-hour sessions including object handling to stimulate memories, and instruction in screen-printing, tie-dye, block and lino printing.

The project culminated in an exhibition at HMP Wandsworth's library, followed by shows at Wandsworth Museum and the Museum of London. Participants thought the most important outcome was 'being listened to, respected and motivated by project staff', followed by 'gaining skills/knowledge'. The majority said they would be more likely to visit a museum as a result of taking part.

Lucie Fitton, the inclusion officer at the Museum of London, says: 'Participants clearly couldn't visit the museum, so we took the museum to them. The participants and staff at the prison have been really supportive of the project and are very keen to work with us in the future.'

And the fact that many participants were old enough to remember the second world war proved a great resource. 'There was lots of interesting and gritty stuff, such as someone remembering watching from an air-raid shelter as a bomb hit his school,' Fitton says, 'Participants gain a wide variety of skills such as group working, writing and creativity, but their work also helps us learn more about what London means to people.'

Sally-Ann Ashton, the assistant keeper and Egyptologist in the department of antiquities at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, is working with about ten prisons - including HMP Edmunds Hill in Suffolk, HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire and HMP Manchester - to create the Virtual Egypt project, an online educational programme for accessing black cultural heritage. The aim is to create a virtual walkthrough of the museum's recently refurbished Egyptian gallery that can be used for project work with prisons to encourage learning and develop confidence.

To date, the museum has funded pilot schemes through its outreach work; bids are currently in to raise about £60,000 for project photography and research. 'Funding is the biggest challenge and propaganda in the press about decreased sentences is an issue in the public eye,' Ashton says. 'Museums working with criminals might be seen as frivolous but we hope it will help to raise self-esteem.'

In addition to lottery funding for social inclusion projects, charitable foundations such as the John Paul Getty Jr Trust and the Tudor Trust have recently funded prison work by museums, most recently by the Yorkshire Waterways Museum. The Anne Peaker Centre, which promotes arts in criminal justice, lists potential funders on its website and the Museums, Libraries and Archives South East publication - Which Way for Work with Prisons and Vulnerable Groups? - offers funding advice (see case study below: Black Box - working with prisoners and ex-offenders in Sussex).

Ashton at the Fitzwilliam thinks funders and museums would value more evidence of project outcomes: 'Many projects do not seem to have been fully evaluated. It would be useful to have a forum for museum and education staff to take this forward.'

Literacy levels are another challenge. Half of all prisoners have no qualifications at all, according to government figures, while more than a third have reading skills below the level of those expected of an 11 year old. Delivery of learning and skills for offenders was recently given to the Learning and Skills Council, which plans and funds vocational education and training. It will coordinate learning as offenders move between prisons or back into the community, a move that could offer scope for museums seeking to engage in resettlement work, for example through volunteering opportunities (see case study below: Galleries of Justice - volunteers).

Nacro, the crime reduction charity, welcomes museums working with the growing prison population. But Sioux Hodgkinson, the coordinator of homeless information, training and support at its Chester office, warns against a 'tick box' approach to working with offenders. 'Some of this client group are extremely bright and just haven't had a chance to do anything creative before. You need to listen to them, engage them and offer a mix of meaningful activities to build confidence and improve social and communication skills.' mj

Liza Ramrayka is a freelance social affairs writer and editor


Black Box - working with prisoners and ex-offenders in Sussex

The Black Box project in 2002-03 involved museums and galleries in East and West Sussex working with prisoners from Ford Prison in Arundel, and ex-offenders from a day care charity called Foundation. The aim was to create personal 'museums of the imagination' based on a 2D plan of a museum divided into separate 'rooms' to house significant, precious and hated things.

Backed by Museums, Libraries and Archives South East, the £20,000 project involved 12 partner organisations engaging nine ex-offenders (many were substance misusers or rough sleepers) and four male inmates over the retirement age, through workshops over eight weeks. Museum staff received a half-day training session on working with prisoners and ex-offenders from the project coordinator and the education officer at Ford Prison.

Three prisoners and four ex-offenders produced personal museums. Work was exhibited at Horsham Museum and Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. MLA South East hosted a regional training day for museums, libraries and archives staff and offender and ex-offender organisations to share learning and broker new project relationships.

A prison learning toolkit was also produced called Which Way for Work with Prisons and Vulnerable Groups? Lessons included allocating more time to design learning around client needs; getting to know staff at each prison better and getting support from prison
governors - and choosing learning materials that could make it through security!

Which Way for Work with Prisons and Vulnerable Groups?

Galleries of Justice - volunteers

When the HM Prison Service Collection became part of the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law at the Galleries of Justice, in Nottingham, the Prison Service offered the museum in-kind support to research items within the archive. HMP Sudbury, the only open prison in the East Midlands, provided offenders who were near the end of their sentence as volunteers.

Bev Baker, the collections manager and the coordinator of volunteers at the Galleries of Justice, liaises with staff to identify volunteer opportunities and with Sudbury to identify potential volunteers. She then conducts interviews with a resettlement officer from Sudbury.

The first Sudbury volunteer started in 2005 as a cafe assistant worker; posts have subsequently been developed for collections assistant, shop assistant and gallery attendant. Placements - which are unpaid, except for a contribution towards travel expenses - can last up to six months, at which point volunteers are required to look for paid work. Currently, the museum has four volunteers, each working five days a week at a total cost of £52.50 a week.

Each volunteer is assigned a supervisor who is responsible for the day-to-day contact with the volunteer and their training. They receive a one-day museum induction and have to sign a volunteer code of conduct. Baker has attended training organised by Clink
for organisations involved in working with prisoners. She is now planning an in-house training day for all staff at the museum 'to give them more confidence in their ability to work with and support the volunteers from Sudbury'.

Baker says the volunteers help the museum 'to provide a higher level of customer service and raise our standards'. She adds: 'The staff benefit by being part of a programme that assists offenders in their rehabilitation back into society.'

One volunteer, who has a forces background and an interest in working in historical research, volunteered as a library/archive assistant from January 2006. He says: 'The value of the work experience cannot be understated. It has renewed my confidence and self-assurance in the public domain and will be a great benefit to me in whatever work I do in the future, which hopefully, will be of a similar nature.'


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