Day 2 of #GEM2019 conference kicked off with a captivating keynote from Dhikshana Pering, the Young People’s Producer for Brent 2020 – London Borough of Culture. As someone who lives in North London myself, I was really interested to hear from Dhikshana about her methods of engaging young people in arts and culture. The honesty with which she talked about her work was very refreshing. Brent is an extremely diverse borough with 147 languages being spoken – the herculean task of representing all of the 79,000 young people that live in the borough was not lost on Dhikshana as she started her work. In her keynote, she spoke about the importance of honesty and power dynamics in regard to co-production. The young people that she worked with truly shaped how the programme was viewed and how it will develop. The legacy of the “Brent Blueprint Collective” will live on – these young people are unstoppable and have/will accomplish amazing things!

The second keynote of the morning was from Dr. Dominique Bouchard, the Head of Learning and Interpretation for English Heritage. Her keynote was similar to Dhikshana’s in speaking about co-production and consultation (and the difference!), but different in that she was speaking about how a museum or heritage centre empowers communities to tell stories that they might not necessarily want to engage with. Her passion for working directly with local communities really came through in her talk. She shared the importance of enmeshing oneself within the community to fully understand the story that needs to be told. She worked with communities in Ireland and Northern Ireland to create narratives that were honest but productive in four different initiatives.

  • Making History[Northern Ireland]
  • Cultural Connections[Northern Ireland]
  • Cultural Fusions[Northern Ireland]
  • Communities of Culture[Republic of Ireland]

Dr. Bouchard shared that the outcomes of the projects were successful in that people continued to engage with museums and culture. There was a great sharing of heritage and understanding that you could own a certain heritage, even if it wasn’t the tradition you subscribed to.

After a caffeine and sugar top-up (one of the many reasons I love Britain – tea is always a priority), participants went off to their morning breakouts which included:

  • “It feels like home”: how to build a community-centred museum service with Kate Fellows, Head of Learning and Access, Leeds Museums and Galleries; Adam Jaffer, Curator of World Cultures, Leeds Museums and Galleries and Gabrielle Hamilton, Community Engagement Manager, Leeds Museums and Galleries
  • How to adapt your offer to connect with new audiences with Jack Shoulder, Head of Learning, Towner Art Gallery
  • Analysing school connections: Artsmark partnerships with Jenny Kohnhorst, Learning Officer, Primary Schools / Route into Work, London Transport Museum and Megan Dowsett, Schools Programme and Interpretation Manager, London Transport Museum

There was an audible buzz about all of the sessions and the takeaways/learning outcomes during lunch. I admittedly didn’t attend any of the sessions as I was feeling a bit poorly and needed a bit of a rest, but I caught up with participants afterwards and encouraged them to share their thoughts on Twitter. I feverishly then retweeted all of the participants tweets and lived vicariously through them. Long story short – check out #GEM2019 for more on the morning workshops!

The afternoon sessions kicked off a bit early and included the following breakouts:

  • Another brick in the wall: protest through archives and making with Debbie Challis, Learning and Outreach Officer, London School of Economics Library
  • Working together: creating a plan of action with Ffion Davies, Senior Volunteer Coordinator, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales
  • Asset-Based Community Building with Tracey Cabache, Community Development Manager, Torbay Community Development Trust with awesome last-minute addition, Marianne.

I was in Debbie Challis’s session and was delighted to see lots of hands-on making used to work through difficult topics like protest and dissent. As an American, it was very interesting to think about how walls have historically been used to shut people out (Berlin Wall, Great Wall of China etc…) and the same seems to be sadly happening in my own country. A very thought-provoking session.

Moving onto Members’ presentations – first up was Andrew James, Learning Manager at Historic Environment Scotland. He spoke about a co-curation project that he undertook with young people called Visible Girls: Revisited that was inspired by the absence of girls from the 1980’s skinhead movement. The project was shaped directly by the young people who used various mediums like video, photo, collage, mapping, fanzine, sculpture and installation art to communicate their identity.

Next up was Rhiannon Watkinson, Heritage Outreach Officer from The Royal Air Force Museum. She spoke about the museum’s initiative to unite the people of Barnet through a conversation café hosted every Wednesday – it’s open to all!

Marie Sellars, Heritage Learning Officer (West) and Caroline Wilkins, Heritage Learning Officer (South East) of the Churches Conservation Trust shared the massive remit that they have – there are SO many churches in England to care for! They look after these importance historical markers and sites of worship – a massive task indeed!

Do you like dinosaurs? Bones? Whale skeletons? Then speak to Rosalyn Wade, Learning Officer at Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge as she works with them on the reg! The museum recently re-opened and Rosalyn shared some of what happened before the renovation as well as afterwards! There were some INTERESTING audio effects including the mating call of a male bearded seal, the sound of a healthy coral reef and the sound of waves crashing up against the shore (made by us!)

Lindsey Atkinson, the Community and Young Person Coordinator at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery filled us in on their Secret Garden project and gave us all super tips on how to involve communities in museum projects. She also got to spend the whole summer in a garden – how great is that?!

To wrap up the #GEM2019 sessions for the day we had a panel discussion presented by South West Museum Development, our conference partner, featuring the following panelists:

  • Rachel Bellamy, Somerset Community Heritage and Museums Development Officer, South West Heritage Trust
  • Ruth Gidley, Engagement Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum
  • Michael Gorely, Local Heritage Education Manager, Historic England
  • Lizzie Mee, Heritage/Arts Freelancer and Printmaker
  • Sarah Gregson, Community Curator, The Salisbury Museum & The Wilshire Museum – Wessex Museums Partnership

It was great to hear from so many South West museums and a great and productive discussion was had by all. In terms of working with communities, it was agreed by all that it’s very important that within project steering groups we all understand the aims of partners first and foremost, and to appreciate one another’s expertise. Sarah Gregson added that a lot of engagement is about articulating your welcome, to have an open-door policy – you can’t just HAVE your door open, you need to SAY it’s open! She followed this up with presenting some helpful ABCDE words to remember…

  • A – Awareness
  • B – Bias (check own)
  • C – Care
  • D – Description
  • E – Empathy

Another major takeaway was that organisations working in partnership with communities need to ask themselves “What wouldn’t have happened without the partnership?” It’s important to evaluate the aims and outcomes with that caveat, reminding ourselves of the necessity of engaging with the community and not acting in an insular way.

The day ended with some fizz and networking in a drinks reception kindly sponsored by Wessex Archaeology – it’s always a good time when museum/heritage educators are able to let loose after a productive day! Now off to grab some Deliveroo, watch some telly and rest up for tomorrow – the final day of #GEM2019!