Museum Ideas from Smithsonian Institution, Horniman Museum and the V&A

Written by Claire Messenger, International Training Programme Manager

On 3 October 2018, the ITP team enjoyed a day at Museum Ideas 2018, the seventh annual Museum Ideas conference, held at Museum of London.  This annual international conference explores the ideas shaping the future of museums and always presents fascinating, innovative and sometimes controversial ideas from across the sector with an international list of speakers who share their ideas, successes and challenges.  As conference chair Tony Butler (Executive Director, Derby Museums) said in his welcome, the aim to the day was for delegates to go home “enthused, excited and uncomfortable”!

Key themes included social impact, activism, collaborative working, co-curation and participatory practice.

Three of the presentations that I particularly enjoyed came from colleagues from the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and ITP programme partner Horniman Museum and Gardens, and below are some key points with links if you’d like to know more.

2Reclaiming the Edge:  Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement
Katrina Lashley, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington D.C.

As a little background, the museum was founded as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and opened in 1967. The Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) was the vision of S. Dillon Ripley, then-Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, as an outreach effort by the Smithsonian to the local African American community.  The museum was seen as a reaction to the need to reflect the past, present and future of its local community.

On their website the ACM states that its mission is to ‘explore social issues impacting diverse populations of the DC metropolitan area to promote mutual understanding and strengthen community bonds’.

Katrina introduced us to the Museum and to their project Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement, which looked at the physical and physiological boundary created by the river which runs through the community.  The scope of the project was to document the personal experiences of those who lived and worked along the waterway and to include as many voices as possible.

The two-year community based research project revealed the diverse and challenging history of the Anacostia River and that the influence and impact of the river went far beyond the river banks.

The research looked at the following issues:

  • The history, daily life, and potential future of communities on the banks of the Anacostia River. How the popularity of the river has caused challenges for public health.
  • How the river, as a boundary, had contributed to economic, racial, and social segregation.
  • The sense of citizen ownership and responsibility for the Anacostia River
  • The diversity of the folk culture that grew up along the river

The results:

  • A resolve for the ACM to work more around issues-focused research, exhibitions, and programmes that reflect the lives and needs of the local community.
  • The theme for the ACM’s 45th anniversary exhibition
  • A comprehensive history – told through personal stories – of the river and the lives it influenced.
  • An ability to foster understanding around the biodiversity of the planet.

A document is attached here that explains more about the project remit and outcomes.

3Museums, Anthropology and Community:  Embedding Narratives of Dissent and Imagining Plural Futures
Robert Storrie, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Many of our ITP network will already know Robert Storrie, Keeper of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum and Gardens as he has very kindly given us tours of the collections during our summer visits to the Museum.  During this presentation Robert looked at the development of the new World Gallery and the multiplicity of stories and voices it needed to incorporate.

The aim of the World Gallery is to ‘celebrate human creativity, imagination and adaptability’ and give a glimpse ‘into other ways of life and a greater understanding of other peoples, places and cultures’ through the new display of over 3,000 objects from the Horniman Museum’s internationally important anthropology collection.

The World Gallery opened in June 2018 so our ITP fellows this summer were able to enjoy the results of the Museum’s hard work and visited three interlinked spaces – an Introductory area – welcoming visitors into the gallery and exploring the sentiments and memories which are associate with objects​; ​  Encounters –​ ​rich displays showing examples of ways of living from every continent and different times and places;  and Perspectives –​ an area that reflects on how and why the world is categorised, described and understood.

Robert went on to explain how the demographic of the Horniman Museum’s audience was a key driver in the direction that the new gallery took. The Museum’s visitors are predominantly local to the area and visit the Museum multiple times which means they have a strong and close relationship with ‘their’ museum.

The Horniman Museum’s website further describes how important visitor analysis was to the new displays ‘over 200 people from our community networks worked with our curators and Horniman staff, including local groups, arts organisations, community leaders, international museums, academic partners and representatives of some of those who made or used the objects in the collections’.

The result is wonderful and has received very positive feedback.

Museum Ideas_3Digital Engagement:  Using Technology for Museum Outreach with Audiences at Risk of Social Exclusion
Elizabeth Galvin, V&A

Elizabeth is leader of the Digital Programmes team at the V&A and started her talk with a wonderful quote from Nina Simon, Executive Director, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History:

Don’t ask “How can we get new people into Museums?”  This leads to lazy and judgemental answers such as “maybe those people don’t like culture.” Instead ask “What are we willing to change to welcome new people?” and “How can we change so that people feel like they belong here?”’

Elizabeth went on to explain her remit – to engage audiences and expand access to the collection – and the digital goals at the V&A:

  • To be audience-focused
  • To use the ‘best tool for the job’
  • To foster long-term engagement
  • And to work laterally combining research, exhibitions and displays

To illustrate this work, Elizabeth went to deliver case studies on three innovative – and emotional – projects that sought to engage digitally with excluded communities.  The first was inspired by the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up where the digital team worked with children from Great Ormond Street Hospital in London to create and decorate self-portraits.

The second focused on a free photography workshop for the homeless and the last, looked at how 3D printing can produce ‘objects’ to share with institutions outside of London.

All the projects where hugely inspiring and looked at opportunities for museums to engage with issues around exclusion and belonging.