Working life | 'It takes courage to move community engagement to the heart of what you’re doing' - Museums Association

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Working life | ‘It takes courage to move community engagement to the heart of what you’re doing’

Harvinder Kaur Bahra talks about the Black Chiswick Through History community project
Harvinder Kaur Bahra is the community participation manager at the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust in London
Harvinder Kaur Bahra is the community participation manager at the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust in London
How has community engagement at Chiswick House and Gardens changed since your post was created?

Before 2021, there had been various short-term projects. But this is the first time the house has had a consistent programme of community work. Three years of funding from the Linbury Trust has enabled us to build long-term relationships that form the heart of our programme.

We want people to use our spaces and to see us as a resource and asset – from that, come the projects. In the first year, we got to know our local community and to understand who we weren’t reaching. We’re now into year three, and Chiswick House and Gardens has become a space that our groups are deeply attached to.

Tell us about Black Chiswick Through History

It started in 2021, when we worked with a local historian, Nadege Forde-Vidal, whose research into people of colour in the 1700s and 1800s led us to discover lots of interesting people – tradesmen, tailors and hairdressers – associated with the house.

We paired our community partners with artists to create responses to people in our collections. This year, we looked at the house’s design influences.

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Although it is Roman and Grecian in style, a lot of the features are from further afield – Persia, east Asia and Africa – while our silk rugs and mahogany furniture tell an interesting story about the wider world.

A three-year funding programme has enabled Chiswick House and Gardens to engage local communities
Has it highlighted hidden stories in the collections?

The Black Chiswick project underpinned our summer programme. We involved more community groups to respond to our house and gardens, to explore how people connect to them, with their responses going on display.

Visitors might think they’re seeing Grecian and Roman columns but a new object or piece of writing refers to North Africa and ancient Egypt. You start to unravel stories in a gentle way. It also makes the project part of our visitor experience. It takes courage to move community engagement to the heart of what you’re doing – to own it and be proud of it.

How important are outputs when creating community engagement projects?

The outputs help us put this work at the centre of what we do and allow us to say to our traditional visitor base that this work has quality and deserves to be showcased. Knowing we needed outputs did shift how we approached the project, as you need to have deadlines. Having clear outputs changes how people invest in a project because they see themselves as part of something that isn’t just happening behind the scenes.

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How was it working with young people?

Young people are hard to reach in any sector, so we worked with partners with existing relationships – two youth organisations and a sixth-form college. It’s been great seeing their sense of belonging here change and understanding that history and culture is for them as much as it is for anyone else.

What is the longer-term legacy of the project?

We didn’t realise it would become a key part of our offer. By embedding community participation in a way that’s deepened the way people engage with us, we now understand what our offer is. Starting as a three-year funded project has helped us build confidence in how we co-create with communities. The work showcases to visitors we are a historic house with beautiful gardens, but are also deeply rooted in our community.

Harvinder Kaur Bahra is a speaker at the Reach Out: Engaging Younger Audiences Museums Association conference on 6 December

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