Will local museum collections be valued in the future?

We need to let communities have more agency
David Jubb
Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) is in its infancy as a museum. We became custodian of the Wandsworth collection in 2016 and created the BAC Moving Museum, which moves around the building and the borough.
As an arts centre we are known for our producers who connect artists with communities. So we have been exploring how producers might inform our work as a museum. We think some of the most exciting museums often use producers.
In Battersea, we want everyone to share stories; to be inspired by our past to invent our future. We are inspired by the “Of/By/For All” movement which seeks to improve how organisations collaborate with their communities. In its words: “To involve people in meaningful, sustainable ways, you can’t just make programmes for them. You have to involve them in their creation. And that means becoming of and by them, too.”
But I’ve been struck by the number of gatekeepers the sector has – directors, curators and funders – who uphold a hierarchy which can sometimes keep people on the outside. This is evidenced by the fact that the standard invitation of most museums continues to be “would you like to join in with what we are already doing?” Rather than “what are you passionate about and how can we, and our collection, support your passion?”
I think we are trying to hold on to too much power. At BAC, collection care, accreditation and curatorial expertise have occasionally been held up as subtle barriers to progress; as reasons against inviting people in to have more agency. This is where the role of the producer has value – because a producer’s instinct is driven by the interests of an audience. By starting with people and discovering their desires, could we also open up a new role for our collections?
As an arts organisation, when we started working with Contact and People’s Palace Projects on The Agency, an initiative to develop entrepreneurial ideas, we asked young people what they cared about. Their ideas brought us to areas we had never considered – from natural-hair workshops for young black women to bicycle mechanic training for ex-offenders. The approach is transforming our relationship with our community. There is still a long way to go, but BAC is starting to better reflect its community.
What might the equivalent be in a museum? We are growing an idea called The Activists, which will ask people what they want to change in their community and whether the Wandsworth collection could help them make that change. Could the collection help adults with special educational needs to have a louder voice in local politics? Could it support younger and older people to come together to effect change? What might we learn about our collection by seeing it through the lens of people’s own passions?
Because if our collections are not of real value to communities now, they may not survive for future generations.
David Jubb is the outgoing artistic director and chief executive officer of Battersea Arts Centre, London

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