Community Engagement - The Meaning of Things

The Meaning of Things is an informal participant-centred activity exploring what museums do, by considering the questions ‘What things do you keep?’ and ‘Why do you keep them?’.

Here Sarah Gregson, Community Curator, gives an overview of the new approach to engaging people who experience barriers to participation at The Salisbury Museum and Wiltshire Museum.

The project was designed to tackle the challenges of:

  • meaningful consultation with the community
  • communicating effectively with non-engagers about what we do

It runs over four sessions. Objects are used as conversation stimulus and each session contains some consultation questions and some information about the work of the museum and its collections.

Session 1 – What do museums do? 

  • Participants tell us about their experience of, and thoughts on, museums.
  • We discuss if we are ‘museum people’ and what that might mean and whether we are ‘keepers’ or ‘minimalists’ and why.
  • We create a group list of collections related to our lives, such as ‘Things that changed me’, ‘Things no-one knows about me’, ‘My mum’, ‘Childhood’, etc.
  • The session leader shares a range of treasured objects from her own life as an ice-breaker.

Session 2 – The Museum of You

Participants bring an object from their own life to share with the group and are asked to consider interpretation for that object were it on display. They are asked to:

  • Describe it.
  • Tell us why it is important to them.
  • Articulate why they keep it.
  • Tell us about places and people it connects them to.
  • Write down some key words about their object and its meaning to them.
  • Take photographs of their objects.

Session 3 – Welcome to the museum

  • Participants go on a short tour of the museum, getting to know its layout.
  • They are then shown a range of objects, not on display, and asked to pick out something that most interested them and share a few ideas with the group on why it is interesting.
  • The last discussion is about whether that object connects to any personal memories for them.

Session 4 – Recording your stories

  • Participants are recorded talking about their two chosen objects using a series of open prompt questions and then answer some final consultation questions.
  • The recordings are edited into versions less than two minutes long.

Project aims

  • To reach small groups of non-engagers with a shared experience or barrier
  • To understand their needs by working with them
  • To build a participant/practitioner relationship that gives context to consultation
  • To change participants’ perceptions of what museums do
  • To have 50% of participants consider attending and/or participating in the future
  • To support all participants to feel comfortable in having their recorded stories and images used and valued by the museum
  • To bring people to the museum for the first time
  • To encourage volunteering at the museums
  • To generate a collection of audio recordings that forms a qualitative pool of data about people who experience barriers to engagement.

My Museum Object: “This hand axe looks as though it was made of plasticine and  moulded in a hand before it became stone… It’s so comfortable in my hand.”

  • Being upfront about why their group had been chosen for this project. Participants want to have their barriers acknowledged and are happy that the museum is interested in them.
  • One-to-one time within the project makes it safer for the participant to share stories and to enquire about other opportunities at the museum.
  • Meeting participants in a space that is ‘theirs’ first makes the project work best. The first time it was run entirely at the museum and it took longer to build the contextual relationship with participants.
  • Safe sharing – starting with the session leader’s own objects is essential in illustrating the nature of personal risk in sharing stories and seems to give participants trust in you.
  • Letting participants just talk about their objects with little structure generates the best recordings in the end. Trying to work to a semi-structured interview (as in the first version) limits the outcomes.

Thirteen Club Trophy

Treasured object: “This is one that my father used to give away at whist drives that he ran and I never won one, always wanted one… I think when I die this’ll just get chucked away and people will wonder what that was for. It probably won’t mean anything to anyone else but it does mean a lot to me…”

  • There is little time to be responsive to the participants’ interests, i.e., finding specific items within the museum collections that may most interest them,
  • Audio editing is incredibly time consuming, once edited the sound files really need a second consent from the participant as editing can change meaning and intention.
  • Talking about memories with people who have challenging histories.
  • Time distance between sessions when working with people who have dementia or head injuries can make the process less meaningful for them.
  • Sessions work best when limited to an hour and a half, particularly when people are talking about their personal histories.
  • Before the project, 93% of participants had never been to the museum, or had last visited over 15 years ago. Since the project, 20% have volunteered at a museum, 33% have been to the museum, 6.6% are planning to visit.
  • When asked if they had participated in a ‘consultation session’ before, all said no. After the project, 40% said they would take part again.

  • Small group sizes ensure there is a one-to one opportunity to talk.
  • People from ‘deprived areas’ were not prepared to come to the museum on donation-only days because it is not clear what that means. This was overcome by offering to meet them and walk them in.
  • Those who were physically able were very interested in volunteering as a means of free access to the museum.
  • People need moment by moment opportunities to withdraw consent for certain parts of their audio recording and we need to make those opportunities clear to them at all times. We did this less with our first iteration of the project and this made the editing and re-consent process really lengthy.
  • Groups that are not targets for consultation show lots of interest in the idea of Meaning of Things. I have now created a ‘Mini-Meaning of Things’ as part of my session menu for community groups.

“Why do we keep things? To hold onto the past and to remind ourselves just how far we’ve come.”

The Meaning of Things participant

Sarah Gregson, Community Curator (Wiltshire)

Tel: 01722 820546

[email protected]

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