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Participation, Risk Taking and Experimentation

Catherine O’Donnell – Engagement and Events Officer at the People’s History Museum in Manchester – on their project to make the museum more relevant to today’s audiences. The experimental and multidisciplinary project pushed organisational change in every area by radically altering their approach to become more resonant and responsive to their visitors needs. 

The People’s History Museum in Manchester is the national museum of democracy and the home of ideas worth fighting for. We tell the radical story of how ordinary people fought for their rights, including the right to vote and hold the largest collection of political material in Britain. Whilst we cover many historic campaigns from the past 200 years, including Chartism, Votes for Women, Equal Pay and the Miners’ Strike, the material on display in our main galleries stops at about 1997. We have therefore taken an innovative approach to how we can reflect on more contemporary issues.

Play Your Part is a project funded by Arts Council England that aims to make the museum more relevant to today’s audiences, by responding to current events, linking them to campaigns of the past, with the hope of inspiring activists of the future. The project is truly multidisciplinary in that we are affecting organisational change in every area, by radically altering our approach to become more relevant, resonant and responsive to our visitors needs and those of the wider world. The project is experimental, embraces risk taking and has resulted in innovative outcomes.

The project was initially funded for one year from April 2013 to March 2014, delivered by two full-time project posts: the Collections Research Officer and the Engagement and Events Officer. Whilst the project was split between our own areas of focus, informally referred to as the ‘stuff’ and the ‘people’, in reality there was a lot of crossover between our roles in order to increase engagement with our collections and we found this cross-departmental approach was essential to the success of the project.

The initial brief was intentionally loose to encourage research-led experimentation. Whilst working without a set of defined outcomes was at times challenging, this approach was professionally very liberating and gave us the space to take risks and shape the project in response to our findings. We began by learning from others: researching the work of national and international organisations, both within and outside the sector. We created a mood board of ideas and best practice, visited venues including MShed in Bristol and Bishopsgate Institute in London, and began to plan how we would build participation, dialogue and contemporary issues into our work.

Parallel to this we learnt from our visitors by experimenting with different methods of onsite and online engagement to establish what would work best for our audiences, within the framework of our organisation and be sustainable in the future with limited resources. Our Collections Research Officer wanted to compile a list of ‘top ten’ objects for the collections page of our website, so we began by asking our visitors what their favourite object in the museum was. We experimented with a number of methods including chalkboards, post it notes and voting in ballot boxes and recorded the number and type of responses. We found that chalkboards and post it notes encouraged more engaged responses than the ballot boxes as visitors could see others’ answers and respond directly, whilst the ballot boxes were more transactional. We also learned a valuable lesson in the phrasing of questions: simply asking visitors ‘What is your favourite object?’ resulted in answers including ‘my iPad’, ‘my boyfriend’ and even ‘One Direction’! It is important to be specific in really saying what you want to find out, instead of expecting visitors to read your mind!

We took this approach a step further by placing post-it notes within the galleries and asking visitors to stick them next to objects and write their opinions, memories and questions. We had researched high-tech methods of onsite engagement, such as apps at the Manchester Museum and the QRator project at the Grant Museum and we had seen our low tech approach as the beginning of testing ideas such as electronic tagging of objects. However we found that the instances of engagement were extremely low compared to the experiments we had conducted immediately outside the galleries. On reflection, this may have been because when entering the galleries visitors are faced with object rich displays with different levels of interpretation and interactives, and adding in the post-it notes was a step too far. We found that asking questions outside the galleries, where visitors had more space to reflect without being bombarded with information, led to deeper and more instances of engagement. We have therefore created a chalkboard outside the galleries and use it to ask visitors topical questions, such as ‘should the voting age be lowered to 16?’ and ‘should prisoners have the right to vote?’ These questions generate engaged and thoughtful answers, which we publish via our blog and social media in order to continue the dialogue online.

As the brief was so broad, we structured the programming side of the project with a ‘theme of the month’ approach in order to work with a variety of community and activist groups and connect with different areas of our collection. In total, we delivered seven pop up exhibitions in the museum foyer over the course of the project. These all tested different approaches and methods of engagement, including co-curation, artist-led installation, online exhibitions, exhibiting existing activist displays and using our own collections to create topical exhibitions. This was an ambitious approach, and in reality meant that each project was delivered with a very tight turnaround and little room for breathing space. With hindsight, we would have focused on fewer themes in greater depth, however the projects were successful and provided useful starting points for focusing activity in the future.

The approaches that had the greatest impact were those that engaged individuals, community groups and activists on a deeper level. Pride in Progress?, co-curated with members of the LGBT community in Manchester, succeeded because the participants felt a deep emotional resonance with the objects. All workshop participants felt that they’d had their voices represented in the museum and one participant commented that ‘It was brilliant to be able to influence & have input into our ‘outsider’ history’.

We experimented with different approaches to events and aimed to create an innovative events programme that would have engagement, debate and dialogue at its heart, that moved away from straightforward tours or talks, and that would encourage visitors to play their part. We programmed some events with partners, including the Race for a Living Wage event run by Labour Behind the Label. These brought other voices into the museum, linked to campaigns and encouraged visitors to participate. We experimented with events including Soapbox Sundays, a ‘live’ continuation of the topical debate chalkboards, Focus on… tours which aimed to subvert the idea of a museum tour by asking visitors the questions and focusing on the emotions behind the objects, and events highlighting recent acquisitions. We also programmed two weekends of events, POLLfest our Politics Festival for Parliament Week in November 2013 and Play Your Party, our celebration of the project in March 2014.

We also took the museum out ‘on tour’ to many of the districts in Greater Manchester to reach out to grassroots activists in different areas. Highlights included a joint stall in Rochdale town centre with Rochdale and Littleborough Peace Group, visiting the anti-fracking camp at Barton Moss in Salford and taking handling objects to Gallery Oldham. This helped to reach new audiences, and has built relationships with groups that have continued to engage with the museum through donating objects and successfully applying to exhibit in our Community Gallery.

Throughout the project we researched contemporary campaigns and approached activists to collect their material. We collected items relating to the No Bedroom Tax campaign and the Scottish referendum and updated our LGBT and peace collections. We also created a new handling collection to use for events and outreach. We increased access to our collections by digitising objects and creating a collections highlights page on our website.

We received funding from ACE to continue the project for a further year from April 2014 to March 2015. Unfortunately this year the funding only covers the post of Engagement and Events Officer, so capacity has been reduced. The focus, therefore, has been refining lessons learned in Year 1 of the project and embedding the Play Your Part ethos throughout the organisation in order for the project to have a sustained legacy and impact.

A key focus over the summer was Work in Progress (12 July – 14 September 2014), an evolving, experimental space, where visitors came to do, not to see. The exhibition made Play Your Part visible, including relocating my office within the exhibition and conducting all meetings on public view. I extended an open invite to groups to come and use the space for meetings, workshops and events and overall we delivered 18 events as part of an evolving events programme. Groups also created displays about their campaigns and the exhibition grew over the course of its run. We also included a Debate Space with rolling news broadcasts, headlines of the day and space for visitors to leave comments about topical issues.

The most successful part of Work in Progress was our Microresidencies project. We received 90 proposals from early career artists to base their studios in the exhibition space for a paid residency. We shortlisted the 12 best ideas and held a public vote to determine the three winners. The three winning artists had one week each to explore our collections, engage with our visitors and create something inspirational. Using artists as mediators led to greater participation and seeing collections in a different way and I would be keen to run the project again, perhaps with longer more in-depth residencies to provide a platform for early career artists who really engage with social issues.

To complete Play Your Part, I am currently working on four key strands: using observational research and experimentation to redevelop a focal wall in the museum’s foyer; consulting with LGBT groups to develop a LGBT History Tour, redisplay our LGBT collections and continue to grow our collection; developing volunteer-led object handling stations; and continuing to deliver high profile events.

The key lessons we’ve learned from Play Your Part are:

• Experimentation and risk taking are great, but you need to have structure. Know why you’re doing it and don’t just do it for the sake of it

• Freedom to take risks is actually a safety net. Knowing that we had the support from SMT, that we could learn from our mistakes and that nothing had to be perfect first time

• Variety is successful. Try different approaches for different audiences and topics

• Low tech is often better than high tech

• Play Your Part is all about participation, but not just with the museum. It’s important to encourage visitors to participate in the wider world and with social activism

• The ‘theme of the month’ approach gave us the opportunity to work in depth with a variety of groups, however it was an unsustainable approach. I don’t feel that Work in Progress has had that depth of contact, but hopefully provided the starting point for that contact

• I need to remind myself that I’m just one person and I can’t do everything myself. The key to this is getting everyone in the organisation on board so they think more ‘Play Your Part’. From starting small by writing a blog post, to including more elements of participation in an event they’re planning, to our exhibitions team planning on introducing a contemporary displays section in the museum

The impact of this participatory, experimental and risk taking approach has been significant and we have benefitted from our funder’s support in this approach. Our visitor numbers have increased by 20% over the past 12 months, with a rise in repeat visitors. There has also been a noticeable perception change in how people talk about the organisation from museum professionals, artists and community groups, with more people wanting to work with us.

I will, however, feel like the project has not succeeded if these changes aren’t long-term. We have always been conscious of legacy throughout the project and the project’s impact on how we think as an organisation. My vision for this legacy is that we will continue to embed the contemporary in everything we do, not shy away from challenging conversations with visitors and engage in topical debates, to build elements of participation into all our programming and to nurture the relationships we have built with activist communities. Then we will truly be a museum for the past, present and future of ideas worth fighting for.

Catherine O’Donnell
Engagement and Events Officer, People’s History Museum

Find out more about Play Your Part on our blog

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