National Maritime Museum Study Day: Museum Ideas 2018
Written by Jessica Juckes, International Training Programme Assistant
On Wednesday last week, I attended a study day held at the National Maritime Museum (Royal Museums Greenwich), as part of the 2018 Museum Ideas conference. The study day gave an opportunity for museum professionals attending the conference to view the four new galleries recently opened by National Maritime Museum (NMM) as part of their Endeavour Project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The new galleries are: Polar Worlds; Tudor and Stuart Seafarers; Pacific Encounters; and Sea Things.
For many conference attendees, this was a rare opportunity to get out of their own museum working environments and actually go and see the developments taking place in another UK museum. Many in the sector feel there isn’t the time to be visiting and learning in-depth in this way from our peers on-site, and it was a much appreciated initiative.
The development of the four new galleries has sparked a ‘transformation of approach’ where the National Maritime Museum has worked with communities ‘to unlock the full potential of the museum’s rich collections’, aiming to highlight ‘hidden histories and contemporary relevance’. The staff of the National Maritime Museum shared with us the process and outcomes of co-curation, collaborative working and new approaches to community research.
The impact on the museum of the opening of the four new galleries will no doubt prove to be huge. It is the first time in 80 years that all four sides of the museum’s building are open to the public, and 1,100 more objects are on display. Staff have encouraged experimentation and risk-taking to breathe new life into a collection that was originally created to demonstrate the power of the Royal Navy and its importance to the British Empire (one memorable comment from their consultations was ‘It’s not my history, it’s your history‘). The project has involved ambitious community consultation projects in order to create ‘audience-led’ galleries.
The museum had, of course, many previous initiatives working with communities, but these had been temporary or behind-the-scenes – not visible to the general visitor public (see: Punchdrunk theatre, Re.THINK temporary gallery, Lewisham shopping centre pop-up museum). They were not previously able to embed the programming they were doing with communities into the permanent galleries, for all to see and experience.
Here are their recommendations for embedded co-curation:
- Time (and more time!) – start your consultation really early to make a difference
- Work in partnership as much as possible
- Take risks and be bold – make changes to internal policies and strategies to create change
- Focus on process, not outcomes
- Why should communities work for free? Make sure the experience benefits them, whether monetarily, with opportunities, spaces etc. Gone are the days of expecting something from communities for nothing!
And also, so importantly, they kept saying:
- Think about whether what you’re planning is relevant for the community.
- If nobody has asked for it, are you going to deliver it anyway?
- If the community doesn’t want to do what you’ve set out, then don’t force them – see what it is that they do want to do!
- Instead of ‘build it and they will come’, ask ‘what do you want’?
Key words were consultation, commissioning, co-curation and contribution.
- A community contact was employed to work with each community the museum wanted to engage with. They organised things such as community store visits and training all staff in how to engage with objects sensitively and build their cultural language related to the objects. Pacific Community Consultant Jo Walsh said that there was a shift taking place so that the voice/perspective that is considered the constant is that of the Pacific community rather than the gallery curators (who will not be around as long!)
- The museum worked to fill gaps in the collection by commissioning contemporary artworks
- Nine projects across the four galleries bring in new perspectives to ‘disrupt’ the collection
- The Maritime Memories Machine van toured the UK (both coastal and inland) collecting peoples stories and memories of the sea to create a living archive in the Sea Things gallery. The key message – in a country where people can often forget that we are a small island! – has been that ‘everybody has a connection to the sea’.
- Sea Things operates as ‘dynamic mass-display’. Workshops were held over 3 years with 7 community groups to explore NMM’s stores and find personal connections to objects, more than 600 of which are on display!
Tablet screens give you the option to see the ‘official’ museum object story and personal connection story (similar to the interpretation method used for the British Museum’s current temporary exhibition I Object,where the ‘authoritative voice’ of the museum sits alongside the humorous and more informal voice of satirist Ian Hislop).
Additionally, the National Maritime Museum has been working on ‘becoming a useful resource’ for its local community in Greenwich, and part of their everyday. What came back from the consultations on the idea of a ‘useful’ local museum was opportunities for skills development, and the ability to use the museum’s physical space as a resource. Therefore, they have developed a new strand of youth programming that includes practical experience, and they have opened up the space for local groups to use for their own activities. This is a a shift I have seen in the use of museum space in the UK recently, for example the new (un)common space co-working space at Tate Britain:
Thanks to the Museum Ideas conference and to the National Maritime Museum for this great experience. If any ITPers would like to learn more, get in touch as there is a published report on the Endeavour Galleries Project in print form.