What's in a name?

I've been thinking recently about how museums like to categorise the people we work with. It's part policy, part practicality: over the last ten years we've been pushed (and pushed ourselves) to broaden the range of audiences that use museums beyond the traditional, and if you seek to do that you need to have a way of describing those groups you're trying to engage with. Hence audience development and outreach programmes that identify people by such things as age, ethnicity and gender, and programmes aimed at target groups: black & minority ethnic audiences; older people; families; young people. 


I've recently started work evaluating a fantastic project that forms part of the Stories of the World Cultural Olympiad. Precious Cargo aims to engage young people aged 14 - 24 in exploring and interpreting museum collections. I won't describe it in detail as I've done that elsewhere. The most interesting aspect for me is getting to work with a group of participants to support their own evaluation of the project. What questions do they think we should be asking? What does success look like for them?


Which brings me back to the question of categories and identifiers.  At our first meeting in Sheffield on 15 October, Becki from the Barnsley project came up with a fundamental and entirely sensible question: Why is this project just for young people?


As I groped for an answer that involved funding criteria, government priorities etc., it became clear that she'd hit a nerve. The eight "young people" in the room, aged between 17 and 22, uniformly disliked being referred to by that label. They didn't see why they should be grouped together purely by their age when there were many other aspects of their identities that felt more important to them. They also felt it was unfair that other people were being excluded from the project because they fell outside the target age range. They felt passionately about the project and wanted to share the experience, not just with other young people, but with everyone.


Fast forward a couple of weeks to another meeting at Whitby Museum. Whitby is a true community venture: with only one part-time member of staff, the day-to-day operation is run entirely by volunteers. Many of them are retired people who dedicate a huge amount of time to the museum. The project lead was delighted to hear the views expressed in Sheffield and confessed that several museum volunteers were equally disgruntled about the project's youth focus, for similar reasons.  They couldn't understand why so many projects and funding streams were focused so specifically on one age group, and felt the skills and talents of older people were being ignored.


So where do we go from here? We don't have any answers yet, but simply asking the question is an important start. On the one hand, museums clearly do need to broaden their audiences in order to be truly accessible institutions and there are specific demographics that are currently under-represented among our user groups. Targeted 'positive discrimination', as one participant described it, is a way of addressing that problem.  On the other hand, once we do this, we label that person or people through our own eyes. What seems obvious to some of us working in museums (for example, that "young people" self-identify as an audience group) is not all all obvious to other people and might actually create a barrier with the people we're trying to engage.


So where does Precious Cargo go from here? We can't change the parameters of the current project, but we can look at the way we do things in future and think again about our perceptions. For a start, the museums involved are trying to avoid the term "young people", though admittedly we're finding that hard! The participants are going to discuss this and tell us how they'd like us to refer to them.  We're also thinking hard about how we can work with a broader range of people in the next 12 months, and our current participant group is going to take the lead on that. They see themselves as critical friends, and it will be fascinating to see how they develop the project.


For me, this has really demonstrated the importance of working closely with museum users right from the start. Stories of the World has been in development for months and nobody had thought to question one of its basic principles until Becki did that for us. She's made us question the very basis of the way we work, which can only be a good thing.  I'm looking forward to many more debates to come.

posted by Emma | 0 comments

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