Highlights from the Our Museum, Communities at the Core event...

April 5, 2016

Recently I attended the Our Museum, Communities at the Core event, which shared learning from Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s (PHF) national Our Museum programme. With a background in museum learning and engagement, I’ve taken a real interest in this programme.

The challenge of making a lasting difference, with often-short term funding, is experienced across the sector, so although this is museum focussed I think it holds relevance for all. Our Museum aimed to explore how museums can implement lasting organisational change, which embeds active community engagement.

Our Museum originally followed on from the ‘Whose Cake is it Anyway?’ research, commissioned by PHF and undertaken by Dr. Bernadette Lynch, who was also at the event. Lynch posed some interesting questions reflecting on community engagement in museums today. How much has the challenging economic climate been used as an excuse for cutting engagement work? Does the excellence agenda have an impact on this at all? Does the terminology around well-being change our perception of community partners back to passive beneficiaries rather than active agents? Are we also seeing an exciting new practice of museums as a place for activism? I agree with Lynch that the cuts have seen many organisations respond really creatively and work in different ways.

I found the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Our Museum project fascinating. I couldn’t possibly capture everything, but there were some great examples of ideas that are changing the way the Museum works.

  • Open Minds – an exploratory process which brings staff, volunteers and community partners together over specific themes to try new things and promote innovative practice.
  • A structured conversation space developed with an artist to promote those more relaxed organic water cooler type conversations.
  • Setting up an Alternative Management Team. Made up of front of house staff, outreach teams, volunteers and community partners, they tackle the same organisational challenges as the senior management team and provide alternative perspectives. This started with questioning what the organisational challenges should actually be.

Two important take away messages from the Our Museum programme are that participation is everyone’s job and that small changes add up. PHF’s research across the programme has shown there are key areas critical for these changes to happen; governance and leadership, staff development, how to engage, and evaluation and the external voice. There are many more interesting resources from the Our Museum project online to mull over, I especially love the sceptic’s resources.

It will be interesting to find out how Our Museum partners have changed over a longer period of time when the seven partners can evaluate in a couple of years time and beyond.