Cultural Democracy in Practice – Citizen Curators
Citizen Curators, Cornwall Museums Partnership
Citizen Curators is a collaboration between Dr Tehmina Goskar and Cornwall Museums Partnership (CMP). It was piloted in 2017/18 as part of the Arts Council England Change Makers programme with volunteers from Royal Cornwall Museum (RCM). Aiming to move away from a tradition of museums just wanting to do things to people not with them, Tehmina designed the programme in order to begin moving to a place where communities could commission, have control and build relationships with the collections that museums care for in trust for public benefit. Tehmina talks about the nature of how often organisations fall into the trap of allowing decisions to be made on the basis of position or long-term service instead of actual knowledge and expertise, and how this could be reversed by recognising the value in a range of voices and ideas.
The pilot programme took place over 6 months, working with 5 volunteers from the community (the majority of whom were under 26) who received high quality training, coaching and support and were allowed to create their own programme of events– the only rule being that it should fit within the strategic aims of the museum. They came up with 3 main outputs: Supporting the curation of an exhibition on the relationship between Cornwall and China, hosting an event as part of this programme on Chinese New Year, and developing a hashtag-led art exhibition on Instagram called #Hireth. Hireth is the Cornish language word meaning longing and belonging to a landscape, and feelings of home.
Working with the Citizen Curators had a significant impact on the museum. Because the curators weren’t bound to a desk, and had a freer remit, they went out to find their information, chatting to community history projects and community organisations, really building relationships with Chinese community and understanding the issues relating to the objects in a different way. They found information that Curators in the museum would never have come across and managed to raise people’s awareness of both sides of Cornish colonialism. The exhibition and event were hugely well attended and the museum received a lot of praise and recognition as a result. It was referred to as ‘the best exhibition they had put on.’
In taking over the Instagram account, the Citizen Curators took a personal approach, signing off the posts themselves, and developing online personas that were welcoming to a whole new audience – increasing the engagement 12 fold in 6 weeks. This was a platform that had previously been underused by the museum so this engagement is a lasting legacy for the programme – hopefully encouraging an ongoing increased interaction online. The young people gained confidence and skills, enabling them to work towards employment, as well as developing relationships in their local community and a better understanding of themselves. The combination of the practical work as curators as well as the training provided by the team, meant that not only did the relationship feel mutually beneficial but the experience was, in itself, strongly curated in order to provide a held space for the participants to grow and learn.
Describing the learning from the programme, Tehmina talked about the importance of giving permission, building trust and making a meaningful process where everyone is an equal participant in decision-making. Of course, this integration isn’t always easy, established curators may feel threatened initially by new, inexperienced people seeming to take an equal role to them, but the learning from this programme showed the importance of both roles, and how beneficial it can be to both parties to learn from each other.
The pilot was so successful that the programme will now roll out to all 7 museums as part of Cornwall Museums Partnership. Most importantly, Tehmina stresses that this kind of engagement is about raising, not lowering aspirations around programming – ‘Don’t lower the bar, open the door’ she advises other venues, ‘don’t be afraid of information.’ Listening and empowering communities can transform the way you work.