Who Cares? Interventions in 'unloved' museum collections

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Archaeology

Abstract

'Who Cares? Interventions in 'unloved' museum collections' explores the role of enthusiasm, creativity and affection in the stewardship of 'unloved' or under appreciated collections. The project asks how care for objects has varied over time, and in relation to different time periods. It also considers what this experience means for how we care for collections in the future. Most significantly, from the professional curator to the serious hobbiest, to the nation as a whole, we consider who cares about collections and why.

The core team will bring together their collective expertise to interrogate, rediscover, engage, and experiment with collections of seemingly mundane or everyday objects. Through a combination of theoretical dialogues and action research case studies the project will examine the affective components of stewardship, engagement, and collections-based research. As well as considering who cares about collections now and who cared in the past, this project also aims to develop strategies for opening these collections up to a wider audience. These interventions include workshops with teenage non-participants, events for an adult audience at national museum, focused workshops for enthusiast groups, and collaborations with creative practitioners. Many of these interventions have been tried by museums in the past, but in the course of practical museum work there is often little time to research what these brief events mean in the context of the full life of the collection.

The project is focussed around 3 case ctudies:
1. Science Museum Group: The Lock Collection is a comprehensive record of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ranging from the elaborate to the everyday. Until recently a small proportion of this collection had been on display in the 'Secrets of the Home' exhibition but it will soon all be in storage. This case study will work with the Lock Collectors Association who describe the study of locks and their history as a 'specialised sector of Industrial Archaeology'. Dr Hess will explore the role of community enthusiasm and national museums in keeping this kind of collection alive in the public imagination even when they are not on display.

2. Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust: The National Slag Collection housed at Ironbridge comprises an enormous number of samples of archaeo-metallurgical residues. Most of it was collected and processed by the former Ancient Monuments Laboratory (now the English Heritage Centre for Archaeology). The collection includes samples from excavations undertaken on sites of all periods across the country since WWII. It has been augmented since 2000 with samples from recent excavations undertaken by Ironbridge Archaeology and others. Working with young people and the Historical Metallurgy Society, Dr Woodham will explore strategies for reinvigorating this collection.

3. Museum of English Rural Life: This 'Designated' Collection' was formed by academic collectors and private enthusiasts and holds multiple regional examples of certain kinds of objects, in this case hand tools. As the Museum embarks on a HLF funded redisplay the thematic scope of these stored objects is once again being explored. Working with crafts associations, students, enthusiasts and collectors groups the project will explore the histories held in MERL's hand tool collections. Dr Smith will draw on current research into collectors and collections at MERL and examine the role of nostlagia, crafts and enthusiasm in shaping connections with these objects.

Though very different, these collections face similar issues. In a world where time, money and space are at a premium within heritage organisations, finding innovative ways to meet these challenges becomes all the more important. The project engages with experimental forms of stewardship by bringing traditional stakeholders together with new audiences. In this way it explores creative solutions and imagines new futures for these collections

Planned Impact

Cultural impact is pivotal to the proposal. Workshops will bring together academics with heritage professionals, enthusiasts and students. Through facilitated creative, exploratory and discursive activities these groups will share skills, knowledge, experiences and perspectives. This will feed into enhanced interpretation for the museum collections and create partnerships and develop skills and knowledge which will last beyond the life of the project.

1) Project Partners
*The recognised project partner is Ironbridge, however professional staff at MERL (University of Reading) and the Science Museum (IRO) will also benefit from the project and pathways to impact will be similar for all organisations.
Staff in these organisations will benefit from working with academic researchers on a collaborative project. The workshops will engage them in new partnerships or strengthen existing partnerships. They will learn more about their collections and experiment with different ways of thinking about the significance of stored collections. Through enhanced impact activities they will also benefit from expert consultancy which will allow them to engage with non-participants or focus the interest of casual participants.

2)The wider heritage sector
As well as the specific individual impact generated through working with our participants we will be using these examples to reflect more generally on the nature of collections care and the role of the general public. Through involving both academics and museum practitioners these solutions can be executed in concrete and specific ways: by ensuring institutional partners are involved from the project's inception, practical and implementable ways of public engagement will be addressed from the start. This adheres to the principles of action research.We are particularly looking to produce open source materials with recommendations on collections care.

3) Enthusiasts and interest groups
Enthusiast and interest groups (historical societies, collectors groups, craftspeople) will develop new or strengthen existing relationships with collections professionals and other related groups. They will have the opportunity to work with non-participants and recieve assistance from creative practitioners and consultants when considering methods of making their specialist area more engaging for new audiences and generations of curators.

4) Non-participants
The project will deliver enhanced impact activities at partner sites aimed at groups who do not participate with museums or who only participate with displayed rather than stored collections.
- The partnership with the Science Museum will facilitate engagement with a diverse audience; developing outputs as part of the Science Museum's LATES programme which attracts on average 10,000 visitors to each event.
- At Ironbridge and MERL investigators will work with the creative practitioners and an expert in engaging teenagers in museums to deliver workshops aimed at this group.

Publications


10 25 50
 
Description The key deliverables of the project were:
1. Research into enthusiasm: Workshops and associated interviews with 'enthusiasts' at the Science Museum (locks and fastenings collection), Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust (the National Slag Collection) and the Museum of English Rural Life (historic hand tool collections).
2. Inter-disciplinary and cross sector debate: A concept generation workshop with heritage professionals and academics, an inter-disciplinary conference at the Science Museum, engagement in the AHRC Care for the Future/Labex Pasts in the Present Joint Workshop 2015, and an associated advisory panel.
3. Impact activities: A series of workshops aimed at new audiences for stored 'unloved' collections , creative interventions, and a late night event with new audiences.

Enthusiast workshops and interviews
• 'Enthusiasts' spend large amounts of money and time on curating personal collections 'boring' objects.
• Historically 'enthusiasts' were responsible for the formation of many museum collections.
• Both museum professionals and enthusiasts have concerns regarding the long-term future of personal collections as many stores are at capacity. This can emotionally be difficult for collectors and friends or family who curate collections following the death of collectors.
• Some 'enthusiasts' are heavily responsible for the care of stored collections in accredited museums and others are keen to assist professional staff.
• Many 'enthusiasts' had worked in related professions and brought years of experience to their 'hobby'. Some referred to a need to be 'useful' in retirement.
• Emotional connections of family, profession, and place were cited by those who cared for these collections. However, many 'enthusiasts' expressed their connection in markedly 'unemotional' terms, referring instead to a sense of 'duty'.
• Curatorial staff and young curators found that workshops with 'enthusiasts' helped to develop their own collections knowledge. These workshops also led to discussions regarding how these connections could be continued beyond the life of the project.

An inter-disciplinary conference at the Science Museum
• The advisory panel and interest surrounding the conference demonstrated that this is a topic which was troubling and interesting many within the heritage sector.
• There were twice as many papers from the call for papers as spaces, the conference was at capacity with all 100 spaces taken and it was also heavily followed on social media.

A series of workshops and a late night event with new audiences
• 4,714 adults attended a late night event around the theme of 'Cravings' at the Science Museum. They engaged in a vote, contributed to an art installation and creative writing project, and engaged with discussions at handling stations. This included a British Sign Language tour. Responses demonstrated that there was an interest in these objects when they were pitched in an engaging way.
• At a workshop with the Young Archaeologist's Club at Ironbridge the Historic Metallurgy Society young people learned about the National Slag Collections and co-created labels for display at the Science Museum event.
• Young curators 16-25 at Reading worked with 'Teens in Museums' founder Mar Dixon to design an event at the Science Museum. They also engaged in a historic tool workshop and delivered content at the Science Museum Late. This demonstrates that with the right structure and incentives young professionals are willing to engage with 'unloved' collections.
• An artist, creative writing specialist, and social media expert consulted with professional staff and the project team, engaged in workshops, and delivered content at the Science Museum Late. They also drafted self-led visitor facing resources for use across the three museums.
Exploitation Route How can the project be taken forward?
• The project team are currently exploring a number of publication options including 2 articles and a possible edited volume.
• The AHRC's Care for the Future theme's Large Grant Award Project 'Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage' explores some issues which are touched upon by the Who Cares project. Members of this team engaged with the Who Cares team and were represented on the advisory panel. The Who Cares team will be continuing engagement with this larger project.
• The museums and academics involved in the project are continuing their partnerships beyond the life of the project and enthusiast groups are continuing to work with professional staff.
• The team are also exploring the possibility of follow-on funding to enhance the impact of the project.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
URL https://whocaresinterventions.wordpress.com
 
Description This project had impact at its heart representing a partnership between: • The University of Reading • King's College London • The University of Birmingham • The Science Museum • Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust • The Museum of English Rural Life The project worked with 'enthusiast' groups who volunteer their time and money to collect, care for and interpret private and museum collections. As part of this project our staff interviewed and explored future connections with: The Tools and Trades Historical Society; The Lock Collectors Association; The Historical Metallurgy Society; and the charity Tools for Self Reliance. Professional staff from the following museums and SSNs also shared best practice and engaged with the project via the conference: The Hunterian Museum University of Glasgow; The National Railway Museum York; The Infirmary, University of Worcester; Powell-Cotton Museum; Leeds Museums and Galleries; Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives; The Social History Curators Group; The Society for Museum Archaeology. New audiences engaged with these stored collections via collaborations with: Ironbridge Young Archaeologist's Club; the Student Panel and Young People's panel at the Museum of English Rural Life; the Science Museum Late team; and resources and activities created and delivered by three specialist consultants Mar Dixon (social media and 'Teens in Museums'), Julie Roberts (maker), and Rebecca Reynolds (creative writing). The project delivered impact via: • A Science Museum Late workshop in the Making of the Modern World gallery at an event which attracted 4,714 people over the age of 18. • A workshop bringing together the Historic Metallurgy Society, Ironbridge Museum Gorge Trust's staff, and Ironbridge Young Archaeologist's Club. • A historic tool workshop bringing together specialist independent researcher Chris Green and members of the Youth Panel and Student Panel at the Museum of English Rural Life. • A series of meetings and filming and object analysis session in the stores between members of the Lock Collector's Association and curatorial staff at the Science Museum. • A workshop between creative consultants, the project team, and the learning and outreach team at the Museum of English Rural Life. This has resulted in drafted self-led creative resources for us in museum stores at the three partner museums. • A website, a blog, and a social media campaign. • A conference which was delivered and attended by heritage professionals, academics and students. NB An AHRC follow-on funding bid will enhance this impact if awarded.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal
 
Description LABEX and AHRCCare for the Future travel grant
Amount £300 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 01/2015 
End 01/2015
 
Description Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust 
Organisation Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Interviews with Historic Metallurgy Society exploring their motivations for working with the National Slag Collection Running and funding a workshop bringing the Young Archaeologist's Club and Historic Metallurgy Society together Funding and organising for the Archaeology Curator to present at a conference at the Science Museum Funding and organising for the Archaeology Curator to bring collections and run a handling station at a Science Museum Late
Collaborator Contribution Archaeology Curator contributed expertise to conference and workshops Archaeology Curator brough expertise via advisory panel and concept generation workshop Facilitating contact with the Historic Metallurgy Society Facilitating contact with the Ironbridge Gorge Young Archaeologist's Club Allowing use of facilitites for workshops Allowing use of collections at Science Museum Late
Impact Draft joint academic paper for inclusion in a journal and planned edited volume Joint conference paper Science Museum Late event Workshop for Ironbridge Young Archaeologist's Club
Start Year 2014
 
Description Museum of English Rural Life 
Organisation Museum of English Rural Life - MERL
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Funding and organising a workshop with a specialist researcher with non-specialist staff and young curators in the museum stores. Interviews with members of the Tools and Trades Historical Society and Tools for Self Reliance. A workshop with Mar Dixon for members of the Youth Panel and Student Panel to co-curate an event at the Science Museum.
Collaborator Contribution The Science Museum Late event hosted the MERL contribution to its Late Event. Staff at MERL contributed to a workshop on creative engagements with museum stores.
Impact A conference paper A planned edited volume and planned journal articles Draft creative engagements in stores resources
 
Description Science Museum 
Organisation Science Museum Group
Department The Science Museum
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Funding and facilitation of meeting and a workshop with members of the Lock Collectors Association. Funding and organisation of a workshop at the Science Museum Late 'Cravings' event. Filming and interviews with members of the Lock Collectors Association in Blythe House stores.
Collaborator Contribution Partner organisations contributed to the Science Museum Late event. Members of the Science Museum research and curatorial team sat on the Advisory Panel. The Science Museum hosted the project conference.
Impact Meetings and a workshop with members of the Lock Collectors Association. A workshop at the Science Museum Late 'Cravings' event. Filming and interviews with members of the Lock Collectors Association in Blythe House stores.
Start Year 2014
 
Description FutureLearn MOOC 'Archaeology: From Dig to Lab' https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/archaeology 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In this MOOC clip PI Dr Rhi Smith talks about the Who Cares project in respect to capacity issues stored collections and approaches to reconnecting audiences with stored collections https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/archaeology/3/steps/170326
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/archaeology/3/steps/170326
 
Description Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A workshop at Ironbridge brought together members of the Historical Metallurgy group with members of Ironbridge's Young Archaeologist's Club. The members of the club learned about the National Slag collection from expert members of this enthusiast group and co-wrote labels. The labels and the handling collection were displayed at a Science Museum Late which was attended by around 4,714 people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Museum of English Rural Life engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This engagement programme involved a collaborative workshop between members of professional staff and creative consultants which resulted in the drafting of self-led creative resources for use in stores (these resources will go on to reach further audiences). There was also a workshop in the stores for Young Curators (school and university students and young members of staff with an interest in working in the heritage sector) where they learned about the interpretation of the historic tool collections from an expert. Finally this group engaged in a workshop with Mar Dixon (Teens in Museums) in which they co-developed the workshop plan for the Science Museum Late event. This same group then went on to present on the night by managing a public ice -breaker around a theme of 'unloved' collections 'pontoon' and calling on the public to take part in a vote.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015