I never thought I would be interested...
‘They have been introduced to an experience which is unusual for them, each has said they would like to return to the museum and attend future organised events as well. One member of the group found that the experience was an eye opener for him to an area that he would [have] never thought he would be interested in and is now considering a brighter future for himself.’ Thames Valley Probation Service
When we explain our role as Community Education Officers, people often comment on the worthiness of the work we do: taking objects out to groups that might not otherwise visit, and thereby broadening the museums’ reach. But although ‘diversity’ and ‘accessibility’ are two words that crop up in most discussions about engaging new and different audiences (and are essential to ensuring the future of museums) how many of us actually stop to consider who really benefits, and how? We know why we want to work with community groups, but why do they want to work with us?
These are exactly the kinds of questions we wanted to answer when collecting evaluation feedback from community group leaders over an 18 month period. More used to simply recording numbers of participants and sharing the occasional stand-out comment or anecdote, we hoped to gather data that would enable us to better understand the groups’ motivations. The results not only illustrate a variety of potential benefits to the people we engaged but also to the museums. In particular, the strengthening of the museums’ role as trusted, safe, and inspiring resources within the local landscape of services.
Following our evaluation, we summarised the motivations and benefits for the community groups under four main headings: learning (skills and knowledge), communication, confidence building, and being part of a wider community. In brief:-
The relative informality, openness, and flexibility of our sessions were highly valued. Accessing and inspiring learning through objects is seen as a fresh approach to many and can be especially effective for people with negative experiences of previous formal learning. Group leaders appreciated the opportunity to demonstrate and capitalise on the fact that learning isn’t restricted to a traditional classroom setting.
When given objects to talk about, people were not only more likely to share their ideas, knowledge, opinions, and experiences but they also demonstrated better listening skills. Such positive communication skills contributed to group cohesion and were highly valued by partners because they are recognised as improving job prospects, aiding therapy and recovery (mental and physical), and promoting bonding between children and parents / carers.
Working with groups over extended periods of time, we become familiar faces at various venues across Oxford and Oxfordshire. These ongoing relationships not only increased people’s confidence to visit the museums independently (because they had a better – and positive – idea of who and what to expect) but also increased general self-confidence, which in turn promoted a sense of wellbeing and belonging.
Being part of a wider community
Helping people to overcome feelings of marginalisation and exclusion was also key. By visiting groups in their own venues, and by acknowledging and welcoming everyone, no matter what their mental and/or physical health, background, age, status, or prior level of knowledge or language might be, we started to break down barriers and helped people to connect, and stay connected, to the wider community.
We made two additional, interesting observations. Firstly, group leaders were often non- or infrequent museum visitors themselves. This, combined with reports of group members enthusiastically telling friends and family about sessions, meant we reach an even wider audience than anticipated. Secondly, people’s experience of visiting the museums increased significantly when a familiar staff member was there to support them. They felt more comfortable and were better able to access the collections.
In summary, by working to reduce real and perceived barriers to accessing the museums, we bring more visitors in, both physically and virtually, therefore strengthening the museums’ positive role in wider issues such as community cohesion, health and wellbeing, and lifelong learning. We already knew that outreach sessions are sometimes challenging, often surprising, but always rewarding. We also suspected, but now know, that they are valued and valuable, with both community groups and museums gaining by working together and complementing each other’s aims.
The Community Outreach team is funded by ACE as part of the Oxford University Museums Partnership’s Major Partner Museum funding.