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Collections & Communities: co-curation, consultation and collaborative working

Polar Worlds gallery. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum & Casson Mann

Rather than be defined by outcomes, Royal Museums Greenwich wanted their £25m Endeavour Project to be shaped by the journey – by Mike Sarna, Gail Symington, Sarah Lockwood, Birthe Christensen, and Philippa Mackenzie

Voyages of exploration – historical, cultural and personal – lie at the heart of Royal Museums Greenwich’s Endeavour Project. This £25 million venture, part funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, includes the opening of a new purpose-built collections and conservation centre and four permanent galleries at the National Maritime Museum.

The Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre at Kidbrooke in south-east London includes storage for many of our most precious objects, state-of-the-art conservation studios and most importantly, improved public access. The Endeavour Galleries are four permanent spaces – Tudor and Stuart Seafarers, Pacific Encounters, Polar Worlds and Sea Things – which together nearly double the Museum’s display capacity. In different ways, these galleries examine how men and women ventured beyond Britain’s shores to explore the ends of the Earth in their quest for knowledge, riches and adventure. We are also revealing how contact between different peoples and European explorers irrevocably changed lives, and how Britain was, and continues to be, transformed by these encounters.

Yet this project is much more than a new store and a display of objects: it is a chance for the Museum to reflect on who it is and its purpose; it is about being brave and thinking outside of the traditional museum ideology; it is about embracing the opportunity to extend our reach beyond the Museum’s walls, and it has meant careful future-proofing for sustainable change.

A museum for everyone
To truly transform the Museum and the way it works we needed to listen and to learn from others. We needed to be open to change and to acknowledge that the best way to grow was to collaborate. We did not want to be defined by our outcomes, but to be shaped by our journey. From an early stage we identified the following four-point framework for our activities:

• Remove barriers to make the museum more accessible
• Create community ownership; become a useful space
• Represent invisible histories; explore our identities
• Collaborate to create a social and inspiring place

The Endeavour Project is about ensuring we are a museum for everyone, overcoming our shortcomings and obstacles, to offer new ways into our amazing collection and be a meaningful part of people’s lives. We hope to challenge, engage and inspire new generations as they set sail on their own voyages of imagination, discovery and understanding.

Removing barriers
Removing intellectual, physical and cultural barriers and facilitating access were fundamental to the Endeavour Galleries’ design brief and execution. Early consultation with our current and potential audiences told us that visitors wanted more than a traditional gallery approach. They wanted to experience a ‘sense of place’; things that would help them connect emotionally to the locations and stories within each gallery, elements of surprise and opportunities to participate throughout. They also wanted points of access and engagement that related to their own lives, as well as spaces to interact socially with friends and family. The galleries have been designed with the users at their heart.

In Tudor and Stuart Seafarers the overall design approach is both dramatic (dark woods and moody lighting) and rich (panels of gold and coloured silks on the walls) with intriguing juxtapositions of objects, audio-visual interventions and graphics. These encourage engagement and ensure an experience different from the other galleries. Taking inspiration from the tantalizing movie trailer, three large interactive touch tables sit at the centre of the space which draw the gallery’s major themes together in an understandable way and inspire visitors to interact with, and participate in, stories of adventure, wealth, power and conflict.

Tudor & Stuarts Seafaring gallery. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum & Casson Mann

In stark contrast, the Polar Worlds gallery evokes a place that is harsh and cold with blurred edges and vanishing points where huge ice blocks (display cases) frame and control the view. Visitors are encouraged to explore the terrain and are rewarded with familiar features, such as evocations of the Northern and Southern Lights, and unfamiliar encounters including contemporary performances by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit artist and singer. Surprising and playful elements include a huge ice saw which appears to be cutting through the gallery itself and the visitor’s first meeting being with a contemporary female polar scientist or an Inuit storyteller, rather than the predictable European male explorers from the past. There are also places to rest, gather and discuss the issues facing the polar regions today which is brought together in a large interactive digital table at the centre of the gallery.

In Pacific Encounters a sense of place is created by metaphorically ‘flooding’ the gallery. Visitors are greeted by a vast ocean lapping the shore at both ends: there is an animated, sculptural wave at one end and a contemporary Drua (Fijian canoe) at the other. Across the gallery a waterline supports objects, collections and stories which sit on, and below, the ocean’s surface and emphasize the cultural importance of the seas to the peoples of the Pacific. Accessible seating has also been strategically placed to enhance the experience, whether viewing an important painting or simply needing a point to rest along the way.

The design of Sea Things works hard to accommodate as many objects as possible and to allow visitors to get up close, and in many cases, touch the real things on display. The oceans are never far away in any of the galleries, and the large digital seashore which washes across and between the objects in Sea Things makes an effective connection between visitors, objects and the sea. Interactive and participatory points encourage visitors to reflect on their relationship with the sea: ‘Memories of the Sea’ asks visitors to share their maritime reminiscences, ‘Ship’s Badges’ explores identity and belonging, while ‘Sea People’, a co-curation project working with underrepresented communities, questions what is missing from our collection through a playful display of busts and figurines.

Sea Things gallery. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum and Casson Mann © Hufton+Crow

Collections access beyond display
Overcoming barriers to access extends beyond these four new galleries, and with over 1.5 million objects in the collection, providing full and unfettered contact with all of the Museum’s objects is a challenge. The Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre is a new and exciting way for us to meet this challenge and make our reserve collections supremely accessible to the public for whom they are cared for. This new facility will balance increased access with the needs of care, preservation and security to deliver a range of engaging programmes – ‘behind-the-scenes’ tours, handling sessions, seminars and workshops – for those warmly welcomed to the Centre.

Each of the five conservation studios (frames, objects, paintings, paper and textiles) has been designed to accommodate a large group of visitors who can see conservation up close without impeding on the work programme. The intention is to have different types of tours ranging from an introduction to conservation to a more detailed in-depth study visit about a specific conservation discipline or object. We will also run a series of care-of-collections sessions where it will be possible to gain a better understanding of our objects and how we care for them.

Yet conservation is not just about ensuring objects are preserved for the future, it also aids the interpretation of objects, provides understanding of their construction and manufacture and helps unlock the stories hidden within them which give resonance and meaning. While some objects retain an instant aesthetic or evidentiary value to a contemporary audience, others can become less easy to decipher as time goes by. Conservation can be used to mentally deconstruct these objects and encourage engagement that is different, yet complementary to, that at the main museum site in Greenwich.

Community consultation / ownership
In the development of the new galleries we consulted over 28,000 individuals from local, national and international communities, to unlock the potential of the Museum’s rich collections. We have actively encouraged and welcomed debate about our collections, stories and subjects, creating a space for often difficult conversations between communities and specialists. Consultation and collaborative projects are at the very heart of the new galleries and have helped visitors negotiate complex and challenging themes, like Britain’s role in empire. These have also created familiar entry points for audiences to engage in the debate. Our goal with Endeavour was to help communities make connections and become active participants in ‘their museum’.

Tudor and Stuart Seafarers gallery. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum and Casson Mann © Hufton+Crow

We have collaborated on several co-curation projects working with local schools (St Stephens Primary School in Deptford, Linton Mead Primary School in Greenwich), colleges (Southend Adult Community College, Newham College of Fashion), community groups (the Caribbean Social Forum, Mermaids UK) and societies (Girlguiding, Action for Refugees in Lewisham) to inform the content of the galleries. These have shed new light on familiar stories, created artistic interventions, alternative interpretations and challenged some of our own ideas about objects, galleries and museums. Pacific communities in Britain have helped us understand, display and interpret their Taonga (treasures) in the Pacific Encounters gallery and inspired us to reconsider the impact and legacies of contact with European explorers. We have reached out across oceans, making fruitful relationships with Pacific Islanders, and have sought help from the Inuit and Wampanoag peoples of the Americas to help us tell important stories of exploration in the Polar Worlds and Tudor and Stuart Seafarers galleries.

Community consultation has also been a focus for testing and reviewing all aspects of design and content. Our audiences have ensured that we have stayed on track and have not got carried away with inaccessible design solutions. From font sizes, illustrative approaches and audio visual design to the overall look and feel of each gallery, we have paused along the way to reflect with our partners and co-curators to make sure the galleries are the very best they can be.

The scale of the Endeavour Project has provided an opportunity for meaningful, transformational change in the Museum. It has necessitated cross-museum involvement in its delivery, prompting a revision of our own policy as we increase the quality of the dialogue undertaken with our community stakeholders. We have used a layered approach to the project’s development: one-to-one discussions, group consultations and collaborative workshops which have informed the design and content of the galleries and associated programming. Overall we have aimed to alter people’s perception of the Museum, deepen understanding of our collections and ultimately become a more welcoming, inspiring and useful place for our communities. This project marks a ‘step change’ by creating a catalyst for long term impact in the way we connect with our communities and how we embed an audience-led focus into all that we do.

Representing invisible histories
Community collaboration and consultation has uncovered unknown or invisible histories which we have sought to represent in the new galleries – the experiences of women, BAME, LGBT, disabled people for instance – which provide fascinating and inclusive new perspectives on familiar narratives. The practical realisation of these has probably been the biggest challenge for us. The outcomes by their very nature are unknown, thus difficult to design into the overall scheme. We have adopted a flexible approach, which allows elements of displays to be accommodated later by creating frameworks, and agreed constraints, which all teams can work with. This has been particularly effective in the Pacific Encounters gallery where artist commissions were given spaces to develop within an agreed brief while the rest of the gallery was designed and built around them.

Of course, our new approach is not just about the collections we already have. It is about making sure our collections remain relevant and representative in the future. In a new Collections Development Policy, we have identified collecting areas of particular interest and, in consultation with other collecting institutions and key stakeholders, will identify material that has stronger contemporary links. We are working to be more mindful of emerging events and underrepresented communities and target our collecting around these. For example, the Museum has recently acquired a painting by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley whose work is primarily composed of heroic portraits of people of African descent that appropriate and reclaim the settings and postures of old master paintings. Entitled Ship of Fools, the work explores themes of migration and isolation. Royal Museums Greenwich have also recently been selected for one of the UK’s Art Fund New Collecting Awards for a project to collect contemporary cartography relating to forced migration.

Changing the way we work
Our Endeavour Project is not just about new buildings and galleries but is a fundamental shift in how we operate as a museum. While we have a long history of working with underrepresented communities in the development of galleries and public programmes, we are now embarking on a new voyage collaborating much closer with our communities to better refine and shape the whole visitor experience. The stories we tell have a powerful impact on people’s lives and it is hoped that the galleries and programmes consciously create a transformative and meaningful experience that is shaped by our audiences and communities and brings together people and ideas in unexpected and exciting ways. With the completion of the Endeavour Project, it is hoped that visitors will experience a museum that is inspiring, engaging and relevant, truly reflective of modern Britain, and somewhere they feel they belong.

Mike Sarna, Director, Collections & Public Engagement (former); Gail Symington, Director, Collections & Public Engagement; Sarah Lockwood, Head of Learning & Interpretation; Birthe Christensen, Head of Conservation & Preservation (former); Philippa Mackenzie, Head of Collections Management (former).

Endeavour Project, Royal Museums Greenwich
Location: National Maritime Museum
Budget: £25m (galleries and stores)
Designers: Casson Mann
Architects: Purcell
Basebuild: Concept Building Services
Fit-Out: Realm Projects
Display Cases: REIER GmbH
Media Producer: Squint/Opera
AV Integrator: Sysco Productions
Interactive Producer: Clay Interactive
Storage (stores): Rackline

Main funders:
Heritage Lottery Fund
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Sackler Trust
Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation
Mark Pigott KBE KStJ
The Chancellor using LIBOR funds
The Wolfson Foundation
The Foyle Foundation & others

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