Hidden Histories: We Are Colchester

Today’s blog post continues out theme of Hidden Histories and is written by Ben Paites from Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

We are Colchester 5Colchester Museums have recently been looking to engage with a wider range of audiences through a series of projects held predominantly at Hollytrees Museum. “We Are Colchester”, an exhibition running from July 2018 to January 2019, has been the launchpad for this work.

The concept of the exhibition began in 2017 when it had been suggested that we have an LGBTQ+ exhibition in Hollytrees Museum, as this is an audience that is currently underrepresented within our collections. I held a focus group in April 2017, where I invited representatives from a wide range of organisations to come and give their thoughts on this idea. It was unanimously agreed that an LGBTQ+ exhibition might not be suitable for Colchester, as there would be the potential for alienating the very audience we were trying to attract. The fear of visitors to such an exhibition having to “out” themselves was quite problematic for some attendees. However, the concept of identity more broadly was a much more favourable topic.

“We Are Colchester” therefore looks at an individual’s identity as expressed through a single object. We have items loaned to us by members of the public, as well as objects from the museums’ collections. The exhibition explores a wide range of characteristics, such as gender, race, religion and profession. Encouraging visitors to add their own stories to the exhibition, there is an engagement wall where visitors are able to add a label expressing their own identity.

Following on from this project, we are hoping to turn our attention to the permanent displays in Hollytrees by inviting individuals from various communities within Colchester to explore our galleries and see whether they feel they are reflected in the museum. We will then work with them to see if we are able to reinterpret objects, rewrite labels or even actively collect new items to be part of the museums’ collections.   As it is Black History Month, we are currently recruiting individuals with an interest in Black and African History to get in touch and to be part of this project. We will be doing the same in February 2019 for LGBT history month, with the hope of engaging more audiences in future.

What is a “Hidden History”?

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

SHARE Museums East have just launched a new grant scheme to support museums to interpret and share “hidden histories”, but what does it mean and why should you care?

Hidden histories are stories which are typically not told by museums. This could be because past curators haven’t collected relevant objects, or they have but museums lack the knowledge (or interest)to properly interpret them.

Often hidden histories are those belonging to minorities, such as people with disabilities, religious groups and BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) communities.

As homosexuality was illegal until the 1960s and continued to be deemed socially unacceptable for some time afterwards, LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) stories are often under-represented.

However, “hidden” does not necessarily mean minority. Women are fifty percent of the population, but their stories are often not well recorded or shared. In many museums, women are only represented in the domestic galleries, or in relation to their husbands/fathers/sons. Collections are also often focussed on the wealthy or middle classes. Employers of the working class are well represented but the stories of the individuals are often sketchy or overlooked entirely.

Of course, I speak in generalities and there are many excellent examples of the above in museums but they are the exemption, not the rule.

 

How has this happened and why is this a problem? How would it benefit your museum to do more work highlighting these stories?

Many collections have come together through the work of a few private collectors and/or curators. They therefore reflect their particular interests, prejudices and opportunities. More recently, we have tended to rely on objects being offered to us rather than actively seeking to fill gaps. There is also frequently an awkwardness in tackling experiences outside of our own.

However, the world is changing. People no longer visit museums because it is considered “a good thing to do”. By tackling more diverse stories, museums are relevant to more people. They can increase not only their audiences, but their volunteers, donors and supporters, making them more resilient.

 

This is the first in a series of blogs around hidden histories, but I would like to draw your attention to a study day I have organised at the British Museum on 23rd October. This day will look at two different examples of hidden history interpretation.

AIM Conference 2018: Changing Gear

Caroline Hamson, Heritage Collections Officer for The Scouts, shares her experiences of this year’s Association of Independent Museums Conference.

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Diversity was the focus of the first day, or as Shaz Hussain suggested, representation not diversity. Hannah Fox the Derby Silk Mill Project Director discussed how imperative it is to design exhibitions/museums/sites alongside your communities. You must have human centred design which focuses on think, do and feel. The top down approach is out of touch and more importantly, is not impactful.

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Victoria Rogers from Cardiff Story Museum gave us a run-down of the top 10 tips for building and diversifying audiences, with the mantras, ‘Ask, Listen, Act’, ‘Live your commitment’ and ‘Review, Learn, Amend, Grow’.

A tour of the new collections store at Gaydon was an eye opener, what a magnificent facility! It even includes a full view of the workshop where staff and volunteers maintain and repair the vehicles. A facility which means 100% of their collection (bar the archive) is on display. What a dream.

 

It’s also where I found my next car…..

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On day two we learnt about the free stuff and resources that are available to us as AIM members. The free resources through the, ‘Open Up: Museums for everyone’ project which will help museums of all sizes increase the diversity of their visitors to make real and lasting change in the museum sector. And a new three-year partnership with the Charity Finance Group means AIM members can sign up to receive advice, trouble shooting, resources, all for free!

A fascinating talk by Sue Davies told about the positive impact understanding your type of museum can have. Club, temple, forum or attraction? Understanding this can lead to better management by adapting your leadership style; leader, facilitator, guardian or business manager.

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What did I learn? To be the best we can be and serve our communities we must listen, really listen, don’t impose our ideas on people, be open to criticism, have a great sense of purpose and vision which is shared by everyone, and be willing to try and test ideas without fear of failure.

SHARE Creative Communities Network

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Does your museum want to work more closely with local communities? Do you want to bring in new visitors, improve your reach and build relationships? Diversifying audiences and giving ownership to local communities are both priorities for HLF and Arts Council and this network is a way to bounce around ideas with colleagues, learn from each other and hear about funding and other opportunities. We will meet quarterly through the year and help shape the SHARE programme around community participation.

Our first meeting will be in September at Ipswich Museum. We will be focusing on the new OFBYFOR ALL self-assessment tool and we would ask that attendees’ museums have completed the assessment ahead of the meeting, preferably as a team rather than an individual on their own and ideally including some of your community partners in the process.

In addition to join the network mailing list, please email amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk. Additionally, please can you let us have your availability for September by completing this poll   

– Amy Cotterill (Essex MDO) and Eleanor Root (Colchester and Ipswich Museums)

#OFBYFORALL: A Revolutionary Opportunity

Nina Simon and Amy Cotterill

Nina Simon from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History with Amy Cotterill, Essex MDO 

A few weeks ago I attended the Museum Next conference in London. It was an exciting three days and I learned a lot, but one of the most inspirational presentations was by Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH).

 

If you have time, I urge you to watch the video below. Nina speaks eloquently about how stronger community engagement saved the museum. Partnership working, co-creating programming and changing their recruitment processes have turned them around. In 2011 they had a budget of $700 000, in 2018 it’s $3 000 000. They have gone from 7 members of staff to 32 and17 000 visitors per year to 140 000.

Nina and MAH’s work has been so exceptional, they have raised $900 000 to roll out an international programme of support called OFBYFOR ALL to help more museums around the world work in this way.

 

The first step, one which all heritage organisations can do, is to complete their free self-assessment tool. It will give you an organisational score as to how “of, by and for” your local communities your museum is and highlight your strengths and weaknesses. This could be a good exercise to do as a team, working together to identify ways of improving. If possible, it would be good to include representatives of your community partners in the process as your perceptions and theirs might be different.

 

The second step is to apply to be part of their “first wave” research program, helping to test and co-develop tools which will help your organisation and others become more OFBYFOR. They are looking for organisations that are from diverse sizes, sectors, and geographies that are ready to make change in the next six months.

 

If accepted for the programme, your museum will have:

  • Free access to OFBYFOR ALL online platform and tools for 1 year
  • Personalized support in developing a plan and tracking your progress
  • Global support and community-building with other First Wave colleagues
  • Promotion and PR about your founding involvement in the project
  • Opportunity to be part of the beginning of something big

The OFBYFOR ALL Change Network will eventually become a paid-model, but this First Wave is free as you will be helping to develop and test the model and resources. The only exception is covering travel expenses to attend an in-person event in January (and you may be able to access Museum Development help to support this – contact me if you would like to apply). There will also be the opportunity to attend an OFBYFOR ALL Bootcamp, which you would also have to pay for.

For more information about the programme, the self-assessment tool and the opportunity to take part in the first wave of the change network, visit the OFBYFOR ALL website.

 

Snapping the Stiletto Update

Snapping the Stiletto

Logo designed by Essex artist, Lisa Temple-Cox

Pippa Smith is project manager for “Snapping the Stiletto”, an Essex-wide project looking at how women’s lives have changed since gaining the vote in 1918. 

Snapping the Stiletto is a project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections fund which aims to uncover and celebrate stories of strong Essex women over the past 100 years. Working in partnership with 11 museums across (historic) Essex and a range of community groups to steer the project we will be looking for hidden stories of women in museum collections and creating exhibitions and events to share these stories across the county.

CHMPM 536 Pat Foster, 1st female motorcyclist for EP

Pat Foster, first female motorcyclist for Essex Police (copyright Essex Police Museum)

The museums will be recruiting volunteers to help them to research and tell these stories and I’m busy talking to a range of community groups to discover what sort of topics would interest them. So far I’ve had meetings with representatives from the WI and the Shree Ram Mandir  Hindu Cultural and Heritage Centre and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with the Razed Roof Theatre Company in Harlow . I’ve contacted the Guides, sisters from a local mosque and representatives from a wide range of groups representing the diverse communities across Essex.

History students at Essex University studying a ‘Votes for Women’ module  have been looking at the representation of women in museums and public spaces and tackling some interesting questions set by the project which we hope to blog about soon.

So far two main themes are emerging- groups are interested in the history of women at work, in particular in industry and women as campaigners beyond the suffragettes.

Working with Home Educated Groups at Chelmsford Museum

Yvonne Lawrence, Chelmsford Museum, reflects on her developing work with home educated groups.

There is a large body of parents in Essex who elect to home educate their children. There are many reasons for this, and they are supported by Essex County Council and a range of self-led groups, some of whom organise formal learning sessions with Chelmsford Museums.

With museum education we are used to starting with very little prior information about the participants compared to a school teacher and when working with a group of home educated children this challenge is magnified because the age and ability range is very much larger, typically with participants aged between 4 to 12.  There may be additional special needs including those on the autistic spectrum, with ADHD, dyslexia or with social, behavioural or emotional difficulties.  Often there is a participant in the group who has a special interest in the subject who will be extremely knowledgeable alongside others who know much less.  In an ideal world we would like a full list of participants and any special needs and are working towards this, acknowledging that the situation is much more complex for the visit organiser than for a school.

Chelmsford Museum has been working in partnership with group organisers to ensure that home educated children are able to participate in our history, science and Arts Award sessions at both the main museum and at Sandford Mill. Our first big decision was to limit the group size to a maximum of 17 participants with whole group staying together during the session and led by one tutor.  Given that most participants come with an adult and perhaps a younger sibling or two, this still leads to more people in the room than a standard class and in retrospect we should perhaps have made the limit smaller-perhaps as few as ten participants.  But this would be comparatively expensive for parents/carers as we would still have to cover the tutoring costs and splitting them between fewer people means more cost per person.  Where the visit organiser wanted to book more than one session we explored ways in which younger children could book the morning session whilst older ones came to the afternoon session.  This was reasonably successful.

Home educated children have the luxury of learning at their own pace with a very flexible child-centred learning experience. Unlike a school with set break times and lunch hour, we found that the children seemed to be constantly grazing, eating snacks during the sessions.  The participants and younger siblings would then touch the artefacts, which really wasn’t doing the artefacts any good and posed a hygiene hazard.  We can’t just put our artefacts in a washing up bowl, after all!  So we worked with the group organiser to request that parents were advised of a no-eating rule in the sessions and why this was important, plus reinforcing the need to wash hands after eating.  We provided a trolley outside our education room for food and drinks; and we made a positively-worded request at the start of each session explaining why this was needed and and making it clear people were welcome to step out to eat whenever they wanted to.

To deal with the wide variety of ages, abilities and interests we adapted the format of the sessions to include a very short introduction and overview of what the session entailed with expectations for behaviour – participants and adults! People responded very positively and I think it helped everyone get the most out of the experience.  Typically setting expectations involves explaining the session format and establishing rules such as one person speaking at a time and putting their hand up if they wanted to ask a question during the introduction.  For parents it is worth mentioning active involvement, supervising their children, turning phones to silent and the eating-outside rule.  I always then check if that is OK with the group so we can all get the most out of the learning experience.  Fortunately the answer to that question has always been ‘yes’!

It can be hard to identify which children are taking part in the session so we have tried to set up a separate starter area for participants and parents/siblings. At the museum we often use foam mats on the floor for those taking part during the initial introduction, with parents/siblings seated behind and around them.  Once we establish our participants we start by asking a few questions to establish prior knowledge before introducing tables with a range of different activities linked to the topic.  It works well not to try to regiment the movement of participants as much as a school group, so we normally suggest the participants go off to explore the activities in any order giving an overall time limit to help people plan.  The tables have information cards for the adults with suggested activities, and the only advice we gave was to try to choose tables that weren’t too busy rather than all crowding around the same one.  There are times when we had to accept that a participant was finding it more interesting to sit in the corner playing games on their phone instead of taking part in the session.  They had their reasons, and we take the view that whilst it was our responsibility to provide suitable learning activities it was the participants’ responsibility to engage with them during the session and the supervising adults’ responsibility to intervene (or not) when it came to level of participation.

At the end of each session we come together to discuss what the participants had discovered and answer any questions that arose. Although most of our sessions normally run for two hours, timings are much more fluid with home educator groups and if we do finish a little earlier – or later – that is what we do.  At the end of each session, it is very rewarding to note the number of participants and parents who come up to us to thank us for running the session.  As one mum said to me recently “We appreciate what you are doing.  We know we aren’t the easiest groups to work with because we are all so different so thank you.” And that’s what makes it all worthwhile for us – being able to make that difference!