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Individuality and Uniqueness: A Museum State of Mind

Claire Benjamin on how the individuality and uniqueness of a museum and its collections shape the emotional well-being of visitors and the value they place on their museum experience. The potential that collections have to strike a chord and make a personal connection to an individual is hugely powerful. However it is not the collections alone that define a museum’s uniqueness or identity. It is the overall holistic experience, be this the visitor welcome, educational message or participation, that makes one museum stand out over another.

As in any personal relationship, a museum must work hard to build connections with audiences, and more importantly sustain them. To do this how museums must find a way to harness the initial spark of interest that has captured a visitor’s imagination and build on it to develop and most importantly nurture over time.

Any social history museum, in fact any museum collection, has the potential to connect with its audience through the very collections it holds in trust. A museum collection is more often than not the result of a collector’s eccentricities, interests, peculiarities and individualities. The very identity of a museum is directly related to the origins of its collections. What takes a museum to another level is how these collections are used to tell a story and engage with all visitors, including the most marginalised and unconnected of audiences.

Depending on the communities a museum serves, the identity of a museum can be multi faceted and at times misunderstood. National Museums Liverpool serves a region where the most deprived wards nationally are located. The city appears unusually highly across every index measuring social deprivation including; high unemployment, high mortality rates, high teenage pregnancy, low educational attainment, the list continues. As such, the perceived identity of a museum, in such a hot spot city, which can be both high culture for many local people and tourists who flock into Liverpool today, but also elitist and exclusive, needs to be redefined to truly reach out to all communities, including the many who have barriers when engaging with culture. It would appear presumptuous of us to think as a museum service, that the community needs a museum, when in fact engaging with culture is at the bottom of a very long list of priorities for survival. Therefore, a museum must find a way to make itself relevant and more importantly, necessary to support an individual to find their inner happiness and well-being.

Using a case study approach this essay will look at examples from National Museums Liverpool that explore the social impact of community engagement within museums, and how projects can help define a museum’s true meaning.

Case Study 1: Mary Seacole House Project
Funded through the Liverpool Primary Care Trust’s Gateways to Active Living programme, which works with organisations who particularly want to engage older adults in healthy, positive activity, National Museums Liverpool worked with the mental health drop in day centre, Mary Seacole House, to deliver arts based activity for their users. The aims of the project were to address and support positive health and well-being for audiences aged over fifty, and to capture potential creativity in people with mental illness. This engagement was encouraged through interesting, expressive and fulfilling creative art forms, including traditional craft techniques. Considering that some of the most socially excluded members of society are users of mental health services (Sandell, 2002), the resulting outcomes and independent evaluation was used to inform and educate health sector organisations and professionals of the benefits to mental health of creative activity. The project also wanted to capture evidence to demonstrate how a museum can impact on wellbeing and health through skills development, increased motivation and self esteem.

Contextual information about the project participants is important to fully understand and appreciate the meaning and value they placed on the project. The group suffered a variety of mental illnesses including social phobia, depression and anxiety and were also from Black Minority Ethnic backgrounds. The primary motivation for the participants taking part was stimulation and enjoyment in seeing new things and going to places they had not experienced before. The members of the group participated in eight museum visits, and by the end of the project the therapeutic outcomes generated for the participants included feelings of well-being and happiness. These feelings enabled participants to experience a sense of escapism from their usual state of mind, and without doubt only possible through sustained relationship cultivated between museum staff and participants, where trust was nurtured and valued. The variety of objects that the participants were exposed to included artefacts of cultural significance which allowed for personal connections to be made.

“Sometimes I would go there [the museum] depressed . . . but once I was in the museum and doing something . . . all the worry went.” (Anonymous – NML 2010)

“It was just something to look forward to which is a great help, getting involved just takes you out of your world.” (Anonymous – NML 2010)

The project enabled the museum to create a special bond with the participants, a bond that could be so easily broken considering the unstable lives and mind set of individuals involved. Only when this trust was created could the museum begin to understand the complex motivations and expectations of the participants and the meaning they applied to their museum experience. The social aspect of the museum project heightened participants’ sense of enjoyment and taking part. Individual care and attention given to them by museum staff was highly important to the group, encouraging empowerment and a sense of real belonging and not isolation. This sense of connection and involvement was further developed with a shift in identity for some participants in terms of their relationship to the museum and their own sense of place in society:

“I remember the museum years ago . . .it was all dickie bows and ties . . .what you are seeing now is ordinary people. Coming from the city and being Black, I’ve not been to a lot of places cause that’s the way it used to be. If I hadn’t come to [the project] I would still have been within myself. I still got those feelings but I intend to release it a bit more now.” (Anonymous – NML 2010)

In terms of tangible results directly involving communities in shaping the identity of a museum, two members of the group made such a personal connection with the gallery that they donated objects to the museum as a direct consequence of their experience there. This demonstrated shared values and meaning, with the individuals not only experiencing the museum but becoming part of it through the very core of its collections and existence.

Case Study 2: Reaching High project
Identity is very much at the forefront of contemporary museums, particularly those tackling sensitive, challenging subject matter. The International Slavery Museum is one such museum that sets out from the very outset its distinct, strong identity, where its meaning and ethos is clear: campaigning, tolerance, respect and telling the untold story. As such, any community project that supports such a museum has to tackle head on the emotions aroused in exhibiting such sensitive history. Audience development and community engagement seeks to shift perceptions, change cultures and tackle prejudices, all of these being no easy task for a community, let alone a museum service.

Connecting with audiences from diverse communities is particularly pertinent when discussing a museum’s identity, especially for a museum that addresses and tells the story of certain cultures, heritage or ancestry. The Reaching High project set out to engage marginalised young Black males with the International Slavery Museum through a twelve week programme of activities, exploring the history of Black music and African-Caribbean influences on contemporary music. The young men involved had pre-conceived ideas about museums, and where they sat in their hierarchy of priorities. Considering the current situation of Black male disaffection, underachievement and unemployment in Britain being untenable and destabilising in the long run (Majors et al, 2001), National Museums Liverpool decided to work with Aim Higher, a government inniative to widen participation in higher education through aspirational activities, on this project to explore a more positive image of Liverpool as a city with the young men, and engage them with culture that is readily available to them.

This took the museum along a challenging path, not only with the project seeking to engage at risk young men, but also to tread the fine line between museum based community work and youth work. The distinctive messages that the museum was attempting to get across was, at times, challenged by the values that the young men attached to the project. This was the inevitable buffer that the staff faced, in terms of connecting and defining a museum identity that was accessible and relevant to this younger, more challenging audience group.

That said, through a combination of collaborative working with the agencies involved and dedicated time and commitment from key museum workers, it emerged that some of the young participants began to make individual personal connections to the story that was unfolding in front of them. The museum did in fact relate to their own ancestral history, and provided a stimulus for them to understand their own identity and heritage. This was possible as a direct consequence of the International Slavery Museum’s ability to connect with young men who may have felt they did not belong. The Legacy gallery of the museum, which brings the museum’s collections into a contemporary setting, also proved to be that much sought after ‘safe place’ for the young people to feel comfortable and positive:

“[Doing it] in the museum made me feel more comfortable because it’s about what Black people are now achieving, like making a good name for your own people.” (Anonymous – NML 2010)

At such a key stage in these young men’s development, it is fascinating to see how a museum can potentially shape an individual’s thoughts about oneself, and a sense of pride within a specific community. The uniqueness of the museum’s collections allowed this dialogue to begin, and perhaps in future years the young people who participated in the project will fully appreciate the value of this learning experience. Highly relevant indeed given the on-going low attainment of many Black boys at school. The museum project had gone some way in addressing what is commonly seen as a major barrier for young Black men in engaging with education and learning, a lack of representation. As outlined in a Home Office report looking into higher prevalence of Black young men in the criminal justice system (Young Black People and the Criminal Justice System 2007), educational institutions could make a difference to how young Black men perceive themselves and re-engage with society by ensuring history lessons are relevant to all young people…attention should be paid to ensuring reference is included to the contribution of Black communities.

Case Study 3: Smithdown Road project
In reference to earlier points made in relation to delivering museum based community engagement work in a city like Liverpool, we must understand the importance many local residents and communities place on ‘branding’ what Liverpool means to them. One of the main goals of the Museum of Liverpool was to engage with representatives of the Liverpool and Merseyside communities so as to create a Museum that was reflective of these communities and had a unique identity. One of the most effective ways identified to accomplish this was through engagement with community and public organisations. The hope was, that by better understanding who the museum engaged with, we would be better prepared having true representative involvement from the Liverpool community.

Emotional engagement was an important factor when beginning to build relationships with Liverpool communities in this project, supporting the theory that nurturing trust relationships with key stakeholders does create emotional value so museums maintain and sustain a position in the heart of the community (Suchy, 2006). The fiercely defended passions of many local residents had to be harnessed and channelled into creating museum content and display that began to map out both the museum’s identity and that of the city it served. The multiple meanings different individuals and communities applied to this new capital project were both challenging and exciting, triggering responses and contributions that collectively defined the very heart of the museum.

The Smithdown Road Project was a community history project which set out to discover how local shop keepers and shops helped shape a particular area and road in Liverpool. As well as the creation of a community photography exhibition, the museum project team set up a ‘Facebook’ site to generate interest among local residents and be a place to share their own experiences of living and working in the area. It was interesting to note that, despite this project being at first only relevant to a niche audience – those who were familiar with the particular street in Liverpool, the social networking aspect of the project was highly popular, triggering memories and responses from different generations, both local and those who had resided in the area and since moved on. The out-pouring of such personal emotions and the connections people made with the museum project contributed without doubt to a shared sense of belonging for all involved.

If something as simple as a residential street can shape the identity of a project, the possibilities for a city museum to capitalise on the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of its collections are endless. The saying ‘one person’s trash is another person’s treasure’ is quite apt here, what interests one visitor may certainly not interest the next, but having a museum collection that at least attempts to represent the diverse communities it serves, will certainly keep audiences interested and coming back for more.

That museums have their own identity, this goes without saying, but for a museum to have a lasting impact on the lives of visitors, this message must not be diluted or misinterpreted. The strength of any museum is what makes it uniquely interesting, and for museum staff to be able to discover this may go some way in understanding why some museums win our hearts and others don’t (Suchy, 2006). It is no stretch of the imagination to understand the importance that some visitors and some communities put on defining themselves through a museum experience, as the case studies have shown. Flora Edouwaye S Kaplan explores this further by asking whether museums represent a collectivity or a multiplicity of competing ethnic, religious and/or ideological groups in a physical space (A Companion to Museum Studies, 2010). What is so interesting about this point, is whether a museum service like National Museums Liverpool can remain neutral, when engaging groups who at their very coming together as a defined ‘community’ represent all things that are not neutral i.e. slavery, militancy, community activism. Museums are excellent vehicles to ‘showcase’ different histories, heritages and cultures, whether past or present, and this opens up such interesting debate around the fundamental meaning of museums. As a museum service in Liverpool, we can only feel privileged to be able to take people on a journey of discovery, and have the potential to elicit such powerful emotions as wonder and happiness.

Claire Benjamin
Deputy Director, Education and Visitors, National Museums Liverpool

Notes | References | Bibliography

Richard Sandell, 2002, Museums, Society, Inequality, Published by Routledge

National Museums Liverpool, 2010, Active Aging Evaluation Report by Nadine Andrews

National Museums Liverpool, 2010, Aim Higher/Reaching High Evaluation Report by Nadine Andrews

Richard Majors, 2003, Educating our Black Children – New Directions and Radical approaches, Published by RoutledgeFalmer

The Government’s Response to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee Report: Young Black People and the Criminal Justice System 2007

Sherene Suchy, 2006, Museum Management: Emotional value and community, INTERCOM 2006 Conference Paper

Sharon MacDonald, 2010, A Companion to Museum Studies – Making and Remaking National Identities by Flora Edouwaye S Kaplan

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