Social History Curators Group Conference 2018 – the highlights
Newcastle, 19-20 July 2018
Subject specialist networks are becoming increasingly valuable for the museums sector. They can give us the opportunity to share ideas and case studies, especially when we’re all grappling with similar challenges.
The Social History Curators Group (SHCG) has always been one of the most welcoming and supportive groups, which is consistently embodied by the annual conference. This year’s event in Newcastle was no different, with the title A True Reflection? Displays, stories and exhibitions. MDEM sent Simon Brown, Curator at Newstead Abbey to share the learning from the two days.
The first day was hosted at Beamish, one of the best examples in the country of social history engagement. The welcome given by Rhiannon Hiles, their Deputy Director, focused on their social mission: being a centre for the community, and for education. Children visiting Beamish with school will often recognise their grandparents in the museum’s collection of historic photographs- it is connections like these that museums exist for.
The day allowed for time to visit the museum and the stores, and it was great to see their philosophy in action with the public. Many people I spoke with were repeat visitors.
The first day’s sessions focused on case studies of how museums are working with their communities in order to reflect them more closely. Jenny Mabbott of the People’s History Museum in Manchester described the process of developing their latest exhibition Represent, reflecting on those who have campaigned for better political representation. This was inspired by this year’s centenary of the Representation of the People Act. It was co-curated with six community groups and two schools, and the majority of material on display is on loan from individuals.
There are echoes of this approach in other case studies covered. Kay Jones from the Museum of Liverpool discussed their Tales From the City exhibition, marking last year’s 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The museum formed a steering group of interested parties, who could give new perspectives and drive the direction of the exhibition. One case was left empty to invite visitor’s contributions, and as an acknowledgment that the museum cannot tell the whole story.
Similar approaches have been taken at museums in Islington and Glasgow. Roz Currie from Islington Museum described their adult art classes, and how the museum provided a space to display the work created. Glasgow Museums have developed a touring exhibition focussing on the legendary boxer Benny Lynch. The public have continually donated objects to the exhibition as it tours the city.
Isabelle Lawrence of the Science Museum shared an interesting case study of their new gallery Faith, Hope and Fear, a space to consider the emotional impact of objects used in healthcare. The museum has collected quotes from the public about the importance of individual objects on medical recovery. This is a great example of viewing collections from a different perspective.
Other speakers focused on further concepts that museums can use to move towards better representation of our audiences.
Thanh Sinden, an independent consultant and member of Museum Detox, gave a compelling explanation of how an organisation’s mindset can affect their work. The majority of museums currently work with a ‘fixed’ mindset, which only perpetuates inadequacies in representation. She advocated for a shift to a ‘growth’ mindset as defined by the writer Professor Carol Dweck.
Another tool for developing inclusion in our work is social media. Rachel Cooper of Birmingham Museums Trust and founder of @MuseumHashtag ran a session that led us to question whether social media is an accurate reflection of the real world. The challenge is to use digital engagement to lead to physical visits to our museums, something most people in the room continue to grapple with.
The second day of the conference was held in the city centre of Newcastle, at the Great North Museum: Hancock. The Hancock is currently one of the host sites for the Great Exhibition of the North, a celebration of the north’s richness in art, design and engineering. It includes some stellar objects- we walked past Damien Hirst’s famous shark in formaldehyde to access the conference room.
The Hancock’s manager, Caroline McDonald, opened day two with an account of her experience of such a grand undertaking. Newcastle entered a bidding process to host the event, which had a significant budget provided by national government. This process, coupled with a separate application to HLF for match funding, left only seven months to deliver the final exhibition.
Caroline was eloquent about the difficulty of this process, coupled with her own position as a Londoner- could she develop something truly reflective of the north in such circumstances? The museum have kept statistics on how representative the displays are of the region, for example of which regions within the north are represented, and the gender and ethnicity of the artists. She emphasised the importance of this, and of recording what does and doesn’t work. The resulting exhibition is a triumph, so there is much for the region to build on.
The day’s sessions were a valuable group of case studies of delivering and monitoring more inclusive practice in museums.
Glasgow Women’s Library continues to be a trailblazer for inclusive practice in our sector. Rachel Thain-Gray and Dr Adele Patrick spoke about their recently launched report Equality in Progress, which uses empirical research to support the wider museum sector to gain a better understanding of equality and inclusion. The value of robust evidence was also explored by Catherine Goddard, a PhD student who shared her visitor research from historic houses in the midlands. Both examples show that detailed research of our audiences is absolutely vital if we are to serve them effectively.
The centenary of the Representation of the People Act and the Suffragette movement was further explored through case studies from Tyne and Wear, Sheffield and Leeds Museums. In each case, the anniversary has provided an opportunity to explore the events and contexts that led to the act, and gave an opportunity to celebrate the people whose actions led to change. Each museum has addressed the opportunity in a different way, although all have experienced a broadening of their audience as a result. The Millennium Gallery in Sheffield noted that their galleries began to fill up after local schools had closed, which is an especially heartening thing to hear.
Contemporary approaches to the difficult legacy of the transatlantic slave trade were the subject of two case studies. Claire Simmons from Bristol Culture described the process of working with young residents of Bristol to address the city’s history as a crucial area for the trade. She was eloquent about the positive effects on the people involved, who often felt disempowered by the way in which schools teach the subject.
This chimed with my own experience at Newstead Abbey of working with the University of Nottingham and local people to address the site’s association with the slave trade. Newstead was renovated and extended with profits from sugar plantations in the early 19th century, and I was able to share our work with a poet and film maker to facilitate a creative response to that history.
Ian Smith from the Waterfront Museum in Swansea spoke with us about the development of a safe space at the museum. The need was prompted by Rhys, a new volunteer who lives with autism, who described the need for a safe space whenever the gallery spaces became overwhelming. Rhys helped the museum to develop an appropriate space, and the organisation worked with Pen-y-Bryn special school to ensure it was as effective as possible. I was struck by Ian’s determination to address the issue directly, as a way of including Rhys and visitors with autism in their service. It is a great example of furthering inclusion, with surprisingly little financial outlay.
This was echoed by Steve Ford of Smartphonic, which is an app that facilitates audio content in museums. He spoke about how layering different forms of content can increase access to our collections.
The conference was closed by Emma Harper’s example of the remarkable redevelopment of the Postal Museum in London. Emma has successfully taken a very specialist collection and transformed its presentation, with a focus on family groups. The interpretive focus is on individual stories spread throughout the museum, with object rich displays and a focus on their core message. The museum is a fine example of how consultation and research can totally renew our museums.
This was a fitting case study to end the conference, a valuable two days for sharing the best work that is currently happening in our sector.
Curator, Newstead Abbey
Nottingham City Museums and Galleries