Destination Tyneside, Discovery Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne - Museums Association

Destination Tyneside, Discovery Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

A new gallery about migration to Tyneside successfully combines a regional story with universal themes, writes Mary Stones
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Mary Stones
Many museums aim to communicate people’s stories to connect with the lives of their audiences. George Hein, the American museum education expert, is one of many constructivist thinkers who advocate this personal, human connection in order to achieve meaningful engagement for visitors.

Destination Tyneside, the first major gallery development at the Discovery Museum for nearly 10 years, likewise aims to explore the stories of “ordinary people” who have chosen to make the region their home.

The gallery has two main spaces: the first explores immigration to the area between the 1840s and 1900s and the second covers the story from the 1920s to the present day.

Visitors entering the exhibition are immediately faced with these ordinary people via a series of short films. Six characters introduce themselves and their motivations for moving to Tyneside, which creates an immediate connection between them and the visitors.

A display case in this first gallery contains personal possessions, photographs and a copy of the relevant census return for each of the characters, providing a poignant reminder that they were once living people.

Objects and quotes have been carefully chosen and text is concisely written and effectively layered, allowing people to choose their level of engagement.

Personal histories

Visitors move from this first gallery space to a central cinema area where the characters, a few years older now, return to tell the next chapter of their story.

The films are projected across a number of screens and use stunning visual effects. They are beautifully presented and end with an affecting postscript revealing what ultimately happened to our characters.

The stories are touching, moving and, in places, humorous. Many end happily, but some do not and the museum is not afraid to address issues such as racial prejudice and disharmony. I found myself caring about what became of each character.

The second space in the gallery explores how immigration patterns changed as the industrial boom of the 19th and early 20th centuries gave way to decline and unemployment in the area.

Again, content is layered well and quotes and items from the collections are effectively presented. Video diaries replace the historic character films and tell stories of the people in this later era.

Text is used to great effect throughout the exhibition. Short paragraphs introduce the main themes within the two spaces, while statistics, facts and quotations provide extra layers of information. Visitors are left to develop their own thoughts and feelings.

People’s stories are told by the people themselves using audiovisual media. This allows for an immediate and empathic connection between immigrant and visitor that would have been hard to achieve using text alone.

The curators have provided opportunities for a more hands-on approach to learning throughout the gallery. Most of the interactives are developed for younger visitors and are well designed, durably made and thoughtfully linked to the themes of the exhibition.

Some perhaps lack the immediacy required to engage younger people though – will they have the patience to stand and complete a board game, for example?

What makes a citizen?

The children who were in the gallery during my visit were not drawn to the interactives but to the large dressing-up box. I couldn’t find an explanation as to what the clothes represented but the children seemed delighted at being able to explore the spaces dressed in tails and a bowler hat.

Two interactives caught my imagination: one was a table containing four touchscreens, the other an interactive wall inviting visitors to leave their comments.

The touchscreens include the opportunity to answer 12 sample questions from the official citizenship test set for immigrants to the UK. I took the test and failed, as did 88% of my fellow visitors.

It works well as both a solitary and a group activity. I enjoyed watching some teenagers take the test, teasing each other for getting questions wrong. It’s fun, but there is a deeper message – is achieving 75% in this test really what defines citizenship of the UK?

The interactive wall was filled with luggage labels completed by visitors and tied to the wall. Alongside the few obligatory comic responses, there were some thought-provoking and touching statements from visitors who felt moved to comment on issues of home, belonging and immigration – perhaps a truer reflection of what it means to be a citizen than a government test.

The mission of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, as outlined in its current operational plan, is “to help people determine their place in the world and define their identities, so enhancing their self-respect and their respect for others”. Destination Tyneside, with its direct no-nonsense exploration of immigration and the notion of home, strongly embodies this mission.

Universal relevance

This story about Tyneside is also a story about ordinary people in search of a home and a better life for themselves and their families. The universal relevance of this central theme transcends any regional or cultural boundaries.

As American author and poet Maya Angelou wrote: “The ache for home lives in all of us.” This thought-provoking, creatively designed exhibition is for local people, for those who have made their home in Tyneside and for anyone who has ever felt at home in a place or left their home in search of a new life elsewhere.

Destination Tyneside succeeds in its aim to tell the story of ordinary people in a way that is engaging and relevant. Even in our enlightened world of post-modernist museology that is no ordinary feat.

Mary Stones is the interpretation project manager for the National Trust for Scotland

Spotlight on... Audiovisuals

With artefacts relating to the lives of 19th-century migrants to Tyneside in short supply, the role of AV within this new gallery was critical.

The project team worked with Centre Screen, Heritage Interactive and Redman Design to create an experience that engaged visitors in the stories of real migrants who came to the area in search of new lives.

On entering the gallery, visitors meet six characters, portrayed by actors, projected onto a large screen.

The characters are in their homeland, and a second, staggered screen projects homeland images and uses 2.5D (2D graphical projections that are designed to simulate the appearance of being three-dimensional) to convey a sense of motion.

Each character discusses their thoughts about leaving and ends on a moment of suspense, leaving visitors wanting to find out more.

In a dramatic cinema area in the centre of the gallery, visitors meet the characters again. By this point they have established themselves on Tyneside.

Centre Screen created a theatrical telling of their stories, with strong scripts supported by archival documents and minimal props. Heritage Interactive and Redman Design created a 180-degree projection space with irregular panels to project onto.

The use of personal stories as the central core of the gallery has proved a powerful technique for engaging visitors, including schoolchildren, with the difficult subject of migration.

Kylea Little is the keeper of history at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Project data

  • Cost £480,000
  • Main funders DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund; Garfield Weston Foundation; Foyle Foundation; Fenwick; Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement; Trusthouse Charitable Foundation; Newcastle City Council
  • Concept and curatorial content Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Project curator Kylea Little, keeper of history
  • Exhibition design Redman Design
  • Exhibition fit out Elmwood (Glasgow)
  • AV production Centre Screen Productions
  • AV suppliers Heritage Interactive
  • Cases ClickNetherfield

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