Led by: Kate Noble, Habda Rashid & David Farrell-Banks

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Making Connections Through Collections (September – December 2022) project explored the potential to bring participant voices into the Museum’s collections and acquisitions processes. This project is driven by the Fitzwilliam’s focus on developing more participatory modes of engagement with audiences. Our work was developed with the support of the Participation, Practice and Cocreation Research Community at the Fitzwilliam, which explores the potential of the university museum as a place for creative experimentation, for curiosity, for collaboration and for sharing ideas and practice

The project began with a focus on collections acquisition and development. Initial areas of focus were on exploring and demystifying museum collections policies and interrogating why the Museum says yes to some objects and no to others. As the project developed these questions were enhanced and extended by the interests of the community participants. The rich and diverse experiences and perspectives of the group challenged existing institutional understandings and hierarchies and led us to much wider discussions to consider of interpretation and display design, museum layout, organisational decision making, alongside acquisition processes.

Project Aims

The project began with the following research questions:

  • What questions should the collections development group ask themselves when considering acquisitions?
  • How can the Museum work more collaboratively with members of the local community to inform our collections policy and displays?
  • What are the strategies that artists use to involve a range of people as part of their work?
  • How can Museum colleagues work collaboratively to coalesce and centre thinking on community with collections?

Our central aims were to better understand how we could engage participants in our acquisitions processes, and to develop our own understanding of how participatory and collaborative practice can benefit our work within the museum.

What we did

The project brought together ten participants from across Cambridgeshire, inviting them to a series of four workshops that would explore the museums collections development and acquisition processes. The participants were recruited from existing community partnerships and drew on a range of different lived experiences which included living with disabilities or long-term illness, working as community leaders and activists and as people of colour. We invited participants to a short conversation before and after the workshop series, allowing us to get to know each other a little better and to better understand the motivations and perspectives of each of our individual participants. From these initial discussions, we found an enthusiasm to learn more about how the Museum works, as well as a desire to “make a difference” and “do something useful”. This came alongside an openness to engage with the workshops we held, to talk about our collections and to offer thoughtful and forthright responses to the discussions we engaged.

Through seeking feedback after each workshop, we tried to respond to the interests of our participants in how the workshops developed. In the second, third and fourth workshops we included an opportunity for participants to share some of their connections with items in the Fitzwilliam collection.

What was discussed

The discussions we held took us beyond thinking only about acquisitions, covering a huge range of topics. Participants shared a belief that we have a “responsibility to the residents of Cambridge”, with a positive challenge given to continue to develop a museum that “could be an amazing part of the community”.

We also found a recognition that there are sometimes barriers to accessing collections  that are “not just on a physical level”, including a “cultural barrier” that might stop some people from coming to the Museum. However, there was also an acknowledgement that the participants’ involvement in Museum learning and engagement programmes had helped break down these barriers in the past: “I felt quite intimidated the first time I came [to the Museum]. I don’t anymore”. The group were interested in how these positive invitations and experiences could be extended more widely outside of bespoke workshops and outreach projects.

With regards to conversations around acquisitions and developing collections, the group suggested that focusing on objects which enabled us to tell more stories of relevance to the local region could help make better connections between the museum and that community.

What Next

It became clear to us that the pilot project was only offering us a chance to scratch the surface of what we could do with this or a similar group of participants. The project has since been funded for a further six months by the Research England Enhancing Research Culture fund, with workshops now running until July. It is our hope that these workshops produce further, visible outcomes for participants within the Museum space.

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