Miranda Millward and Thomas Procter-Legg on what happens when you enable young people to curate their own spaces. With Co-curate they did exactly that by working with senior museum staff and children with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) to create a museum-grade exhibition space within their school. The project is the most recent part of a longstanding collaboration that champions the lives of children with SEND, challenges opinions and positions cultural work within relationship centred methodologies
Since 2016 the University of Oxford Gardens Libraries and Museums (GLAM) has been working in partnership with the Iffley Academy, a nearby academy in Oxford, part of The Gallery Trust, a community of special schools. The Iffley Academy is a school for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), primarily cognition and learning difficulties, communication and interaction difficulties and social, emotional, and mental health needs. All students have an Education and Healthcare Plan, and the school is in the top 4% nationally for students in receipt of Pupil Premium (additional funding provided to schools to improve the attainment of disadvantaged children). It is these young people who are central to our work.
The story of the early years of this partnership was previously published in Museum-iD magazine – Building Trust in Co-production: Equal Partnerships for Social Justice – and summarised what we had learnt in our first four years. It told the story of how we developed a sustainable, equitable and co-produced partnership which emphasises Social Justice outcomes (Procter-Legg & Millward, 2020). In October 2022, whilst speaking at the Museums Ideas 2022 conference, our final words touched on notions of what a democratic and inclusive society looks like and how all people can be visible within cultural spaces. This article provides an update on how the partnership has evolved and considers our work within the framework of The Constituent Museum (Byrne, Morgan, Paynter, Serdio, & Zeleznik, 2018), in which the authors explored what would happen if museums made relationships central to their work and regarded the museum audience as an active agent of the constituent body.
At its most basic level, democracy can be defined as the practice or principles of social equality. We argue that we are not fully functioning as a democratic society if we do not have all types of people visible and engaged within our cultural spaces. In short, cultural organisations and their audiences should reflect the make-up of the society within which they exist; this is our mutually agreed goal.
“Within our partnership we have consistently held onto a values-based approach. People matter, strong relationships are key, co-production is vital, and we are bespoke by default”
If we accept the above, that cultural organisations should be democratic and therefore inclusive, we should also accept that their audiences should be regarded as their constituency. A constituency is broadly defined as a group likely to support a particular person, place, organisation or set of values; the group will have shared interests or opinions as part of something bigger than the individual. However, as outlined in The Constituent Museum, these constituencies are ‘fluid’, ‘mutable’ and ‘protean’. By their very nature they adapt, change, and show versatility. This is their expected norm. In return, therefore, our cultural organisations need to be able to respond in a similar way. This poses a significant challenge when we consider the institutional and structural norms of large and long-established organisations.
Within our partnership we have consistently held onto a values-based approach. People matter, strong relationships are key, co-production is vital, and we are bespoke by default. The ideas of democracy are built into the partnership via values that permeate more widely than the museum sector. The Iffley Academy was the first school in the UK to become a restorative organisation (Procter-Legg, 2022) and the core values of restorative work underpin our interactions with young people and throughout our organisation.
In summer 2022 we began a new strand of partnership work with our Co-Curate programme. Co-curate situates a museum-grade specimen case at the heart of the school. The case hosts a series of co-curated exhibitions of loaned objects from GLAM. Students and the GLAM collections staff, curators and learning teams work together to co-produce each exhibition, taking significant risks whilst bringing valuable items on loan from GLAM into the busy school environment. Co-curate seeks to allow Iffley Academy students to curate exhibitions for their school community in a way that enables their own ideas and agendas to emerge. The curation, collections care and loan agreements have the same high standards that GLAM consistently aspires to, but the selected objects and interpretation should very much reflect the ideas and key messages the students want to convey to their school community or their ‘constituency’. This programme embeds values of reciprocity, activation, structures, and negotiation, all of which are set out as essential elements within the notion of the Constituent Museum (Byrne et al., 2018, p. 9). The following article illustrates these ideas in practical terms.
Relationships sit at the centre of our work. If people are supported by strong relationships, they can challenge themselves to try new things; to take risks and to enable powerful and enduring change to happen. This is embodied in the restorative work happening at The Iffley Academy, where individuals matter and where everyone has a unique and valued perspective. These strategies are not about financial gain, advantage, or profit of one side over another; they are of mutual benefit for all involved. They are collaborative strategies, and this is co-labour, where all partners must have a shared vision and demonstrate a clear understanding of each other and the worlds within which they exist. Our Co-curate programme is a model of what reciprocity can look like. It is co-produced and involves all participants in active learning and dialogue. The exhibitions developed through the project evolve thanks to co-labour and a series of exchanges that are based on acts of ‘trust, friendship, kindness and sharing’ (Byrne et al., 2018, p. 9).
“Relationships sit at the centre of our work. If people are supported by strong relationships, they can challenge themselves to try new things; to take risks and to enable powerful and enduring change to happen”
The first Co-curate exhibition ‘Curious about Calculation’ focussed on mathematical objects from the History of Science Museum’s (HSM) collection and sought to make links between the collections and the everyday maths equipment and apparatus the students use in school. The whole project saw exchanges of ideas and information as well as students taking part in hands-on object-based learning from the HSM collection. HSM’s director Dr Silke Ackermann fully engaged with the new curatorial approach, which was co-developed between The Iffley Academy and HSM. This new curatorial approach was conceived in this way to avoid the feeling of the museum imposing their own aesthetics and values onto the Iffley Academy audience within their own space. Dr Ackermann embraced the opportunity to form new relationships and share her time, working with the students throughout the project. She engaged with students whilst at the museum and visited them at their school. Her presence as a museum leader within this programme demonstrates both the museum’s investment in sharing power and a commitment to inclusivity.
From these small roots, the voices of young people with SEND are being heard at an ever-growing volume. A direct output of this first Co-curate exhibition was the idea that Iffley Academy students should be involved in the consultation for Vision 2024, an ambitious capital project and new vision for the History of Science Museum that will result in the physical transformation of the museum. The students will now be central to the redesign of the museum. Their voices are opinion forming, and their contribution means they will have an impact on Oxford’s built environment through centring the needs of students with SEND in the considerations of this capital project. This is true agency, developed from new relationships and co-labour.
Real world, real-life situations are catalysts for social change. Just like any student, students with SEND need to engage with real-life experiences, outside of their schools, to build confidence and understanding of the wider world. Our previous article looked at the importance of building social capital within the museum space; our belief is that Co-curate goes further, allowing students to take greater ownership and providing a lens which requires museum professionals to acknowledge the special school community (their constituency) more fully. Students in this instance are not passive recipients of pre-identified content; they are active agents in the process. This curatorial activity can be seen as a form of activism because the authority of the museum is ceded to the students. The students feel empowered and enabled by the range of constituent activities, and their actions go on to have a significant impact and influence on adults.
The above influence is discussed in the work of Paolo Freire, specifically in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1996). Freire suggests that we do not thrive as a society where there is a ‘banker model’ of knowledge and learning, where learners are ‘piggy banks’ being filled with pre-determined knowledge. Conversely, he suggests that the learner should be the co-constructor of knowledge in a changing and fluid world and that knowledge should be based in reality rather than theoretical frameworks. These learners are constituent and active in their learning; this approach impacts all parties, not just the young people.
The first Co-curate project with the History of Science Museum was followed by a project with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH). Students partnered with learning and exhibition design staff from the museum (OUMNH) to co-produce an exhibition demonstrating how crucial insects are in our world and how several processes required by humans rely on insects, such as pollination. Co-curate display case now features the ‘Incredible Insects’ exhibition, which opened in January 2023.
Within this project students were encouraged to think about not only what they might enjoy, in terms of an exhibition narrative but in addition what their wider school community might be interested in finding out about. This type of thinking looked to develop their understanding of constituency and encouraged students to understand their work in the context of others. Perhaps most interestingly senior staff at the school had no idea what the exhibition would look like and/or influence over the outcome. These school-based exhibition spaces belong to the students, and are designed to provide for a wider audience, including those who are normally seen to hold power and influence.
Both museums and schools have their own set physical structures, which have accepted norms and expectations. Co-curate, however, challenges these norms by placing the museum case within the school. By being located outside its normal physical location, the new context allows for different meanings to take place. The students themselves enable further divergence from the norm – by letting their own ideas and agendas develop, they pass these new meanings on to their peers and the wider school community. The labels and text panels in the exhibition are the students’ own words – what they want to say about their exhibition, to their audience. These words, are elicited by a range of person-centred strategies. Students do not write the labels per se but their words emerge through facilitated dialogue and discussion empowering students to be active and negotiate the narrative of their exhibition.
Here we disrupt the banker model of giving the students pre-determined content to fill their ‘piggy banks’. Instead, we encourage the students to co-construct knowledge within their own fluid worlds. This knowledge is then put into a real-life exhibition. Students are encouraged to be both the constituents of the original museum and a constituency of their own. By blurring the lines between the physical structures of the school and the museum we create a wider and more inclusive space. This space includes everyone, i.e. support staff, the administration team, site manager and catering staff, as well as governors, parents, and carers. Perhaps most striking, staff wanted to bring their friends and families into the school to view the exhibition. This work, therefore, increases and diversifies new audiences in a way in which we could not have envisaged at the beginning of the process.
Throughout the partnership, co-constructive work has allowed us to continually shape, form and redefine relationships of power. Most importantly, the ideas and voices of young people are continually championed within our work. These young people are often marginalised by their additional needs, so the power dynamic has needed to shift even further to allow their voices to be authentic and for these voices to be heard by those adults who hold power. This process can be described as ‘commoning’. ‘Commoning’ refers to initiatives that share resources among a community of users who determine of their own volition the rules of management or use. The resources can be (and often are) enriched via mutual collaboration. Commoning also includes a range of collaborative and participatory practices (Commoning Europe, 2021) therefore the Co-curate programme is an example of both negotiation and commoning.
“Throughout the partnership, co-constructive work has allowed us to continually shape, form and redefine relationships of power. Most importantly, the ideas and voices of young people are continually championed within our work”
Perhaps a neat way to fully demonstrate the constituent nature of Co-curate is that once the ‘Incredible Insects’ exhibition has completed its time at the school, it will then be exhibited at OUMNH in their Community Case. The OUMNH Community Case is situated on the ground floor of the museum near the visitor entrance. The students’ curation will become a part of the regular visitor experience at the museum during the busy summer months. Normalising such interventions within the main museum experience allows many new audience members or constituents to see it. The act of OUMNH showcasing the curatorial work of Iffley Academy students – their constituents – demonstrates elements of all four areas of the Constituent Museum: Reciprocity, Activation, Negotiation and Structures.
Within the Co-curate programme the museum has ceded its power, shared its knowledge and resources with the students. The students, in turn, have shared the physical space of the school, their ideas and their own realities with their wider community, the museum and its staff. Perhaps the most exciting part is the fact whilst we can report on what we have achieved – neither of us knows what will happen next. What we do know, however, is that this project continues to be values-led and that relationships will be prerequisites for everything we do. Moreover, the work of others is highly influential and the ideas found in the work of Byrne et al. (2018) and Cottam (2018) will continue to challenge our assumptions. Ultimately, however, the rotational, iterative nature of this project has the power to influence opinions. This is significant, as together we can challenge attitudes and raise the understanding of senior staff to a point where our work can bring about a real shift in power dynamics of whose contributions are reflected in the cultural space.
Thomas Procter-Legg, Head Teacher, The Iffley Academy; and Miranda Millward, Arts Engagement Officer, Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums
Byrne, J., Morgan, E., Paynter, N., Serdio, A. S. d., & Zeleznik, A. (2018). The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation: A Generator of Social Change: Valiz.
Commoning Europe. (2021). Rediscovering the Commons as the foundation of Europe. Retrieved from https://commoning.eu
Cottam, H. (2018). Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state: Virago.
Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.
Procter-Legg, T. (2022). Practitioner Perspectives on a Restorative Community: An Inductive Evaluative Study of Conceptual, Pedagogical, and Routine Practice. Laws, 11 (1):4. doi: https://doi.org/10.3390/laws11010004
Procter-Legg, T., & Millward, M. (2020). Building Trust in Co-production: Equal Partnerships for Social Justice. Museum-iD. Retrieved from https://museum-id.com/building-trust-in-co-production-equal-partnerships-for-social-justice/