University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Welcoming the next generation of museum visitors

At the end of March I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Abu Dhabi to represent the University of Cambridge Museums at a roundtable organised by the British Council to share expertise on the theme of ‘welcoming the next generation of museum visitors’.

When I agreed to chair the ‘roundtable’ bringing together museum professionals from the UK and United Arab Emirates (UAE), I had not quite anticipated the table in question being the size of a small swimming pool. But while it made the task of chairing a little daunting, there was something brilliant and inspiring in seeing the wide range of organisations from UAE who had prioritised coming together to discuss connecting people, particularly children and families, with their collections and spaces.

The event provided an opportunity to explore three inter-linked themes: the inclusive museum, the integrated museum (meaning one in which learning is at the heart of the organisation’s mission rather than an add on), and digital developments. The aim was for us to find out how these ideas are understood in our different contexts and to share practice, learning from one another and getting to know each other’s approaches. To enable us to have an open, honest exchange of ideas and issues we agreed not to share the discussion beyond the room, so (irritating as this may be) I’ll restrict myself to saying that it was an intense, inspiring afternoon.

For me, a particularly powerful moment came when listening to colleagues from a UAE museum describe challenges they faced getting families living literally overlooking the museum, whose children regularly played out in front of the building, to set foot over the threshold – until they took their activities out the door to where the families already were. What struck me was that it was a story that absolutely could have been told about any of the UK museums present. In that moment, despite our different contexts (and assumptions about the nature of that difference we might have come in with), it felt like we were part of the same endeavour.

Model of the proposed cultural area at Saadiyat island

Model of the proposed cultural area at Saadiyat island

As well as discussing practice with colleagues from UAE, the visit provided an excellent opportunity to see some of the new museums and exhibition spaces taking shape in Abu Dhabi. We had a tour of an exhibition at Qasr al Hosn exploring the history of Abu Dhabi and its people, and visited Lest We Forget, a powerful photography and oral history project at recently-opened art space Warehouse 421. I also took the opportunity to explore Saadiyat island, where a new cultural quarter is planned to include three landmark starchitect designed museums including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum. Of these only the Louvre is nearing completion, but Manarat Al Saadiyat, already up and running, offers a venue for temporary exhibitions and associated learning programmes as well as a space to share the vision for the future museums.

As a museum geek, I always think there is something hugely exciting about finding out about new museum projects, especially international ones. I’m fascinated by that sense of blank canvas, the opportunity to see what museum you make when you are starting from scratch in the twenty-first century (and have a substantial budget) rather than working within and making incremental changes to (in my case) a centuries-old institution. I also think there is a real value in understanding how colleagues in different international contexts approach similar aims from outside the current ‘accepted wisdom’ of our UK sector –this was particularly the case when hearing from the more established Emirati museums, for example Sharjah Museums Department. In Abu Dhabi I saw innovative and engaging use of both digital and tactile interactives; inspiring combinations of contemporary collecting, reminiscence and creative response; and a real interest in the role museums might play in connecting children and their families to heritage in a context of extremely rapid change. I’ll be watching with interest how these museums and their programmes develop over the coming years.

With thanks to the British Council for enabling my participation.

Miranda Stearn, Head of Learning, Fitzwilliam Museum


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