Q&A | ‘Young people define arts and culture very differently today’
Where we are... is a new UK-wide national programme that enlists young people aged 16–24 to co-design and co-deliver meaningful local projects in arts and culture.
Supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and overseen by the British Museum, the programme aims engage young people who are under-served in the museum sector through regional partner institutions. This year’s key partners are Museums and Galleries Edinburgh and Edinburgh Young Carers; Harewood House Trust and the Geraldine Connor Foundation in Leeds; and Attenborough Arts Centre and Pedestrian in Leicester.
Museums Journal spoke to Selina McGonagle, director of the Geraldine Connor Foundation and Hannah Obee, director of collections, programme and learning at Harewood House Trust, to find out what they are planning for their year as joint key partner.
What kinds of barriers do young people in Leeds face in engaging in culture?
SM: The barriers young people face with engaging with culture in Leeds really varies across the city. It can be dependent on where you live and what is on your doorstep or can be accessed by public transport. It can be the cost of an entrance fee or a ticket. If a young person’s support network don’t engage with perceived “culture” then it is unlikely that the young person will.
But I think the major challenge to all arts, culture and heritage organisations is relevance. Young people define arts and culture very differently today and to keep people coming to our organisations and institutions, we need to keep speaking to the next generation about what they need and want from us.
HO: I agree with Selina, the barriers can be geographical, financial and not feeling it is “for them”, which is why My House is a great place to start, encouraging young people to explore this and to listen to what they say and how we can tackle barriers to engagement. The main step to reach out, listen and take action based on what they have to say.
A specific barrier at Harewood is our history. Harewood was built in the 18th century on the profits of the enslavement of Black Africans transported to the West Indies to work on plantations owned by the Lascelles family. Harewood has a long history of openly engaging with and collaborating over its colonial past; commissioning diverse artists; and working with ethnically diverse schools through its learning programme.
However, the murder of George Floyd and growth in momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement made us look again at how we operate across all areas of Harewood House Trust to support equity and grow diversity in the organisation as well as among our audiences.
This history makes it particularly important to engage with people of African heritage to identify how it can bring positive change today.
What kind of things have you got lined up for your year as a key partner?
SM: That will all depend on the young people we work with and what ideas they come up with! The My House project will introduce the young people to Harewood House, its origins from the transatlantic slave trade and colonial past to its present-day existence as a country house that is also an Accredited museum, zoo (with its bird garden), garden and platform for contemporary art and craft for more than 30 years. We will ask the young people to explore and develop ideas about what the house means to them and how its stories can be shared in a way that benefits their community. We will then support them to bring their creative ideas to life.
HO: These will be defined and led by the young people so we won’t know what direction the project will take until they come onboard. We will start with a weekend exploring Harewood: what there is here to engage with and our history. With any group, it is usually the unexpected questions that come out of this exploration that give the outputs their magic, whatever form they take.
How will your organisations complement each other over the course of the programme?
HM: We both bring complementary areas of expertise and a willingness to be open and learn together. The Geraldine Connor Foundation will celebrate its 10th birthday in 2022. We have, during our first 10 years, built our connections with a wealth of Creative Associates who deliver on our projects and keep us rooted in African and African Caribbean culture and heritage. The foundation’s work with young people is extremely important to us, nurturing talent and providing opportunity to develop skills for the next generation of diverse creatives. We value working with young people and are constantly refining our skills on how to do this.
HO: The Geraldine Connor Foundation co-produces work with young people largely from minority ethnic backgrounds, tackling issues such as inequality and discrimination through positive narratives that celebrate cultures and empower participants, which is why we were so keen to partner with them on Where we are…
The network and experience they have built is the perfect complement to Harewood’s work on sharing its history, collections and landscape. As an Accredited museum with Designated collections, there is a vast range of objects and narratives to engage with here and it’s great to be able to bring our experience as a museum to the foundation.
Our exhibition programme this year addresses wellbeing and the lack of racial equity in society through collaborations with artists Anthony Burrill and Christopher Day. On the State Floor we have worked with Leeds-based Diasporian Stories Research Group to share the life of Harewood’s first known Black servant, George ‘Bertie’ Robinson, who left St Vincent in 1893 to work for the Lascelles family. This will be part of our exploration of Harewood with the young people on Where we are…
How have you adapted the programme in response to Covid?
SM: Throughout the pandemic we been able to adapt our programmes, taking our work online and also delivering within social distancing guidance. Covid has been a huge barrier for engagement with arts and culture over the last year and although adaptation can be made we hope that this project can be delivered in person with the young people, who really want to return to this form of engagement.
HO: We are fortunate that we have great outdoor space and an education suite that enables social distancing for the project in line with government guidelines. The programme can be adapted using technology to give online tours of the house and grounds but hopefully that won’t be necessary. It has been hard having the house closed for long periods of time over the past year but the park has provided a safe place for local visitors during the pandemic and the whole site is now open to all, thank goodness.
What are you hoping young people will get out of being involved?
SM: A huge amount! The young people will gain confidence in using their voice through the opportunity to create and express their own ideas. Aspiration, working with the British Museum will give the young people involved recognition on a national level and an ability to see impact outside of Leeds. They will develop a range of skills associated with producing creative work, particularly around communication; understanding and interpreting history, gathering and collaborating on ideas, audience and public engagement. They gain an insight into careers in the heritage and cultural sector.
HO: A sense of agency, confidence in their own voice and a window into the sector as a potential future employer or a place to come where they see themselves represented and they feel they belong.