NWFed Board Member Claire Sleightholm reviews the afternoon sessions at our sold out event at the People’s History Museum #InConversation

After lunch and networking, we heard from speakers from around the region who shared their own co-production experiences.  It was a packed programme with each speaker limited to ten minutes, such was the response to the call out for case studies.

An inspirational project Meet Me at the River: Creating space for dialogue and reflection on the legacies of historic slavery and NML’s Waterfront Transformation Project was presented by Mithila Ramagavigan, Participaction Producer (Communities) from National Museums Liverpool and Dr Jennifer Verion, Artistic Director from Migrant Artist Mutual Aid (MaMa).  They shared the learning from their co-produced series of four pop-up exhibitions exploring the transatlantic slave trade. Their visitor experience was an immersive visual and audio soundscape including a live choir to “allow people to reflect on the topic”.

Their aim had been to “disrupt long-standing power relationships” and give visitors the opportunity to witness a “process of transformation”.  They argued that it was not enough to care for or display collections to make them meaningful for everyone.  Creative co-production should be at the core of practice and is the only way to grow an audience.

We were reminded that a challenging subject matter needs advice and support on hand throughout the process, and that you can only “work at the speed of trust”.  It was recognised that museums, with their ready established networks, can become “great places of participatory democracy”
as long as you can “avoid instrumentalisation”.

The closing piece of advice from the project team for a successful co-produced work was to make the meetings with participants matter, and record, video and photograph the times spent together.

Next, we heard from Rachel Donnelly, Project Manager at the Imperial War Museum who were working with eight regional partners around the country as part of their Second World War & Holocaust Partnership Programme (SWWHPP) to find and tell local stories culminating in events for Holocaust Memorial Day in 2023.  In the north west their project partner was the Manchester Jewish Museum (MJM) represented here by Dara Laughlin, Creative Producer and project artist Becky Prestwich.

At the MJM they worked with young people at the high school close to the museum, both with and without a connection with the Jewish community.  The young people created a performance with artist Becky that wove objects from the collections and stories of those with experience of the Holocaust into the piece.

Dara recounted how working during lockdown and using Zoom to meet participants worked in their favour. Working remotely and hearing difficult stories meant that the young people were in a space they felt safe and could easily step away if they needed time to process.

Rachel confessed that co-production was a new way of working for the IWM group so they were keen to share their successes and learning points.  In fact, they concluded that “co-production is not scary” and that the work has given them more confidence in being “brave with programming”.

Following this, Alex Patterson, Assistant Curator of Fine Art from National Museums Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, presented her work with the sculpture gallery – namely the portrait busts of the Sandbach family. The family’s links to the international slave trade was known but was not previously referenced in the gallery alongside their works.

Alex worked with a group of young people to develop the research into the family.  Each participant was paid, and they held just six session of three hours each. These sessions were used well and Alex stated that they achieved much in this time.  Finding suitable participants was a challenge, and highlighted that, as curatorial staff, there are no regular links to community to draw upon.

The young people felt no hesitation in “challenging the institution” in their research and the result is a series of permanent panels in the gallery juxtaposed with the existing interpretation. As there had been no complaints from visitors about the content of the panels, any fears from the institution were short lived.

In reflecting on her experience, Alex highlighted the need to draw upon the work of colleagues to successfully bring this type of project to fruition, something that large museums are not necessarily set up to do. Despite the challenges, the project “changed the way I will work in the future” and has given her the appetite for a much bigger scale project.

Discover Wyre Trails was presented by Peter Gardom, Director at this great adventure.  He provided details of the six digital trails around Fleetwood and Wyre that give visitors the opportunity to discover the area in a new way, with Peter and his colleagues believing that “the unexpected is an opportunity”.

Working with the people of Fleetwood, the project leads set about presenting stories about the town that would otherwise have gone unrecorded. Over the duration of the project a series of QR codes around Fleetwood will lead to games, stories and other content linked to the spaces visitors are experiencing, and the opportunity to generate their own content related to the area.

One of the challenges of this project is in the digital itself. Accessing content requires your own device and mobile internet service, and ongoing contributions gathered via upload to a website. All require a level of digital literacy that is not necessarily represented within the community.

In conclusion, Peter believed that the this great adventure content had the “ability to touch individuals” and that to get the best out of a co-production partner you must respond to their needs rather than deliver a “one size fits all” approach.

By the end of this afternoon session, we had been presented with many innovative ways in which museums have chosen to communicate stories that have been hidden for so long.  Despite the difficult nature of much of the material shared, co-production ensured these stories were told with sensitivity and authenticity, resulting in an uplifting conference that left me feeling inspired and empowered.

Look out for more NWFed In Conversation events coming soon!