In-reach not outreach – widening access to museums

                                     2014-04-29 11.48.36

Women often find displays uninspiring, factual information boring, and rarely see any connections with their lives. This is what women involved in our recent Pop-Up Museum project say about museums. Of those who did visit museums frequently (more than once a year), most visits were prompted by the desire to entertain or educate children, rather than pleasure.
According to data from a 2011 DCMS survey, women are more likely to visit museums than men. However, women with low educational attainment, who often face multiple barriers to access (transport, confidence, etc), are also among those least likely to consider museums as interesting; this also holds true amongst Asian, black and minority ethnic groups.
The Pop-Up project worked with 23 women from marginalised communities in Hastings. ‘It’s not for us,’ is an attitude we encountered time and time again. 23 % of our cohort had never visited museums. 30% say they’ve visited museums less than twice in their lifetimes.
The aim of the Pop-Up was to tackle these perceptions by turning the idea of a museum on its head, encouraging women to consider objects from their own homes as museum exhibits, and inviting women to let each object tell its story using a variety of different media. Creative writing, tile-making and textile sessions were run in community venues. At the end of the workshops the original item and the created objects/stories were displayed together in two community Pop-Up museums attended by friends, family, neighbours and residents.
Overwhelmingly, women chose objects and pictures which reflected their own personal histories, their families and communities, and used this as a basis to develop their stories.
The ability to tell one’s story is fundamental to a strong sense of identity. To be heard, acknowledged, to receive empathy when that story is shared by another is liberating and empowering. It is a way to learn about each other, our differences and similarities, to make sense of our place in the world: ‘Why I live here,’ came up frequently.

We termed the word ‘in-reach’ as opposed to traditional outreach activities which bring communities into museums, as the project started in the community, with women’s interests, their definitions of history, their ideas about ways their lives should be represented, and used this information to lead back into the museum.

Working with women’s own stories made it possible for women to define how they wanted to be viewed – rather than it being predefined and presented for them. They had to make decisions about how they wanted to display their artefacts, what information they wanted to share and where. All of this created a strong sense of ownership and has lead to a number of sustainable outcomes. After the formal 8 week period of the project finished, women continue to meet to run a self-managed textiles group; two are exploring funding to learn self-publishing skills to document the project; three have become volunteers, and one has signed up to do an A level.

Creating an ‘object, or an artefact’ to interpret stories was pivotal to creating enjoyment and ownership. This approach drew from David’s Gauntlett’s work on Making is Connecting1, in which he succinctly explains why making something builds confidence, community and skills. The project also drew on a number of pedagogical and community development approaches including the work of: Marjerie Mayo, Paulo Friere, Kolb, and Veronica McGivney.

The project was managed by Hastings Women’s Voice, funded with a small grant by Heritage Lottery Fund.

A display will be held in November in Hastings Museum November 17th – December 30th. For a full evaluation or more information about the project contact Chris Sanders.
1Gauntlett, (2011) Making is Connecting, Polity Press

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