What does it mean to be truly community led?

Learning from the People’s History Museum...

The People’s History Museum in Manchester marked the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in England and Wales (the 1967 Sexual Offences Act) with a major programme of activities, at the heart of which is the award-winning exhibition ‘Never Going Underground’. The exhibition and wrap-around engagement activities rightly received national recognition; however, it was part of a longer-term strategy of working with LGBQT+ communities to ensure their histories were represented and celebrated within the museum. A conversation with Catherine O’Donnell helped us understand why the exhibition was so important and underlined some valuable wider learning for any arts and cultural organisation.

Diversity within diversity
Catherine explained that the museum had intended, from the very start, to recognise the many diverse voices within the LGBQT+ community. They wanted to make sure less dominant voices were heard and this was reflected in their careful recruitment of the Community Curators: the volunteers who curated the ‘Never Going Underground’ exhibition. People’s History Museum set out to specifically recruit volunteers from diverse backgrounds, with a range of sexualities, ages, ethnicities and gender identities. This was key in ensuring that the museum didn’t fall into the all-too-common trap of treating a community of interest as one-dimensional and ignoring the many intersectionalities that exist.

Wider impact
It was interesting to hear about the impact on the wider organisation. The whole museum was involved in supporting the exhibition and this happened in a number of ways. For example, the Proud Trust delivered LGBQT+ awareness training for all museum staff to widen and increase understanding across the organisation. The museum’s retail offer was reviewed to reflect the focus of the exhibition and activities. Wider learning is being embedded in the way the museum operates; for example, explicitly referring to LGBQT+ experiences across the whole collection and displays, not only in LGBQT+ specific exhibitions.

Basis for co-production
Catherine stressed that this programme was truly co-produced, working with a range of LGBQT+ organisations. Key partners were the LGBT foundation and Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus, though they worked with other organisations such as Proud Trust and others. When it came to the exhibition, the Community Curators were given a high degree of control: they were involved in all aspects of development and chose themes and objects for inclusion.

This successful partnership approach was, importantly, the result of longer-term work with LGBQT+ organisations. In many cases, cultural organisations approach community organisations when a project is about to start. However, a far more meaningful approach is to simply build these relationships because they are worth building, and see what emerges. Co-production works best when it’s built on pre-existing mutual trust and respect.

The legacy of this piece of work is significant. The museum now has an increased and enriched collection, which will keep growing. Learning is being applied as they go along and is resulting in this participatory way of working being applied to other projects. They have grown in confidence in working with communities of interest, and have developed their understanding of how to work with diversity within communities.

This bite-sized blog highlights only a few aspects of People’s History Museum’s approach and expertise, but we hope it helps you to consider your organisation’s approach to working with communities.

Maya Sharma, Consultant – Learning & Participation