University of Cambridge Museums

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Meaningful museums and marvellous moustaches

Speaking at and sharing stories at the Museums Association Conference

I’m Joanna Holland, Outreach and Access Officer at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Along with my job share partner Jacqui Strawbridge, I also lead on inclusion based work across the University of Cambridge Museums, working with my colleagues to ensure that our museums are places for everyone, including people who might be at risk of social exclusion. This could be because of illness, disability or economic disadvantage.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Museums Association (MA) Conference with Edye Hoffmann, Director of our invaluable project partner organisation dementiaCOMPASS. Together we lead a workshop which shared learning from Portals to the World – our programme for people with dementia and their care partners. As well as passing on lessons from our own experiences, we were also able to hear from others across the UK and beyond involved in similar work to make museums more inclusive.

Our workshop

2015-11-26 13.51.40We were told to expect 30 people and 65 turned up! It was reassuring to see so much interest in this area of work but only having 30 minutes meant that we had to do a bit of a whistle stop tour and we know that there is much more to share. Portals to the World is now in its fifth year and we have learnt a great deal about working with both people with dementia and their care partners. We shared how we work across the museum; how the course includes speakers from conservation, to curatorial teams as well as learning and relevant external organisations. And indeed, how we now work across the University of Cambridge Museums, with recent sessions being led by staff from Kettle’s Yard, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Polar Museum.

We concentrated the talk on our approach which is ‘ability over disability’, and in particular looking at brain function and how we can work with this, our participants’ interests and the collection to enable greater dialogue, interaction and experience. Critically, we utilise all of these experiences to build rapport and to continually develop participants’ sense of belonging and ownership of the museums. Hopefully we also communicated what fun this work is. The participants’ on Portals to the World have an excellent sense of humour and there is always a lot of laughter in the sessions.

There were many questions from people who had attended the session and both Edye and I felt that we had only just scratched the surface in terms of knowledge sharing. So we decided that we now need to write our own tool kit to share more broadly with our museum peers and beyond. We will be working on this in 2016 so watch this space. A number of people also asked us about training opportunities which we have done in the past and would like to offer a number of these in 2016. If you would like more information about these please contact us. In the meantime here is a link to a recent article about Portals to the World, which might answer some of those questions.

My highlights from the Museums Association Conference

There were many interesting conversations to be had at the MA Conference and case studies to share and sessions to choose from but my particular highlight was Museums know nothing, a joint presentation from Cajsa Lagerkvist, the Head of Exhibitions and Karl Arvidsson, the Head of Learning, both from the Museum of Gothenburg, Sweden.

The learnings in this session will be taken forward in my own work, and to be honest it would be hard not to remember Karl’s moustache but that is probably for another blog next Movember…

Cajsa shared how she had led the most amazing (my words not hers!) programme of work with their local Romany community, which culminated in a stunning exhibition which then toured around the country. They also produced a beautiful children’s book.

The museum’s dedication to inclusion and taking the time to understand this community was second to none. Their whole approach was ‘to know nothing’, taking ‘unlearning’ as a tool for their inclusion work. I have recently undertaken some training in audio description to engage more blind and partially sighted people with our work and I had to ‘unlearn’ the whole way I teach in order to embrace this new method – so I really heard what Cajsa was saying. However, what was particularly remarkable was the commitment to the project and buy-in from the whole organisation. Everyone from the museum (learning, exhibitions, front of house and more) worked side by side with the Romany community to let them tell their stories and represent themselves which has not only resulted an exhibition, book and programme but in a real change in perception about the Romany community for the whole city of Gothenburg. Amazing! Hats off!

I thought how could Karl possibly follow this extraordinary case study but he had the whole room’s attention by the end of his first sentence…

‘Shouldn’t culture exist for everyone? We don’t think of people as disabled but of our museum as disabled if it is not a place that welcomes everyone’.

Brilliant. Here at the Fitzwilliam we have been using the social model of disability as a guide to being accessible and inclusive for some time, but to think of museums as being disabled opens up a whole new way of thinking and experiencing – which Karl and his team have called:

FUNKTEK – a co-creative museum development function variation.

I know, I know, but all you need to know is that it is about co-creation and working with people to bring about sustainable accessibility for everyone at museums. And it’s great. Google FUNKTEK and have a look for yourselves. Or you can read about it here:

All I want to know is who will sponsor my trip to Gothenburg so that I can learn more and share more back here in Cambridge!

Other talks at the conference about working with people with dementia

I also attended a very interesting session entitled More than reminiscence with Paul Camic, Professor of Psychology and Public Health at Canterbury Christ Church University and Jeremy Kimmel, Audience Development Officer at Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery. I really enjoyed the session and what is wonderful is to see that there are others undertaking similar work with similar results and that there is a growing body of professionals and organisations that are passionate about active participation by people with a dementia diagnosis and a focus on the here and now rather than purely a focus on reminiscence. It was great to share stories with Paul and Jeremy and both were very interested in the work we are undertaking here at the University of Cambridge Museums. Even better, these new connections have revealed possible opportunities for more sharing via a key Journal and forthcoming conference.

Jo Holland, Outreach and Access Officer, Fitzwilliam Museum

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