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Our Museum: sharing learning with the National Trust

Régis Cochefert - Director of Grants and Programmes
Régis Cochefert – Director of Grants and Programmes

Régis Cochefert visited the National Trust to share learning from the PHF programme ‘Our Museum: communities and museums as active partners’. This blog is the first in a series that will explore learning from the programme.

As I was very slowly crossing a grid-locked Birmingham, due to a burst water main, on my way to a residential Away Day at the University of Birmingham organised by the National Trust, I thought about Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s own slow journey through the Our Museum programme. Started in 2012, on the back of a three-year research phase culminating in Dr Bernadette Lynch’s report Whose Cake Is It Anyway?, this initiative enabled us to work closely with a group of museums and galleries across the UK – and their community partners – to support them through a process of organisational change to embed community partnership and agency at the core of all their work.

Over the course of the programme we learned a lot about what works well, and what does not, when embedding participation. In summarising our learning, through a final publication; two in-depth evaluation reports; and an extensive online multimedia resource, we have tried to highlight what could have gone better and to analyse the challenges inherent in this type of work.

Since the end of the programme in March 2016, we have been sharing our learning across and outside the museum sector. We felt strongly that learning about how museums and galleries can embed community participation was also relevant to many heritage and cultural organisations. We therefore contacted the National Trust to initiate a discussion with them about how what we found through Our Museum might feed into the work that they do.

When Dr Piotr Bienkowski (Our Museum Project Director) and I went to Heelis in Swindon, the gleaming open plan Head Quarter for the National Trust, to meet with Helen Timbrell (Volunteering & Community Involvement Director) and Mark Crosby (Head of Participation), we found colleagues who are engaging with the very same issues that our museum and community partners have been juggling with. The long-standing focus of the National Trust on volunteering and community participation across its many sites made Helen and Mark think that the experience of Our Museum partners would be helpful in the context of their own teams. They suggested that we might provide a helpful keynote/provocation at an away day they were planning for the participation consultants in Mark’s team – hence Nia Williams (Head of Learning, Participation & Interpretation at National Museum Wales) and I attending this residential get-together in Birmingham November.

After a convivial dinner getting to know some of the participation consultants, we started the day. Using some of the resources available on the Our Museum website, we asked National Trust staff to discuss in small tables who they think local communities are; how well various properties know them; how much representation there is amongst volunteers or through other activities. Building on the National Museum Wales model, we also suggested that third sector organisations can be an effective way of reaching local communities, particularly those potentially harder to reach directly from a National Trust site point of view.  We also introduced the notion of tailoring what is on offer in each property to the needs of the communities around them – exploring the potential of such an approach and its challenges.

Nia and I enjoyed the discussions with National Trust Consultants and we could relate their reactions, thoughts, aspirations and worries to that we encountered in Our Museum partner organisations.

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