The Life and Times of a Citizen Curator – Part Three

Citizen Curators is a free work-based training programme in museum awareness and modern curatorial practice aimed at volunteers from our community. The programme is provided by Cornwall Museums Partnership in collaboration with seven museums, with the main goal of providing a new form of meaningful museum participation.

The programme is led by Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre. The Citizen Curators have just completed year two out of three and to celebrate, we wanted to share with you some of the wonderful experiences some of our Citizen Curators have experienced throughout the programme.

Please keep reading to hear from Citizen Curator Carolyn Thompson, volunteer at the Museum of Cornish Life

Yes, I do have a full time career that consumes a vast amount of time and energy and no, I definitely wasn’t looking for more work in my life. What on earth was I doing looking at a poster advertising a course for Citizen Curators and furthermore, actually considering joining the 2019/20 group of students?

Reader, I enlisted.

Among other things I am a volunteer at the Museum of Cornish Life in Helston. Essentially my time at the museum is spent chatting, (some might say gossiping), on the front desk. Two of us work, running the shop, the information centre and generally creating a convivial atmosphere for visitors to enter. I love a local museum and always have. Memories from my childhood centre around many rainy days spent in local museums, (yes I holidayed in Britain). They are quirky, random, unexpected and full of curiosities. The Cornish Life museum is tops in all categories. It is not only a museum of Cornish life but of all life and in this respect, there is something relevant in the collection to each of us.

It was here that I came across the poster.

Fast forward to June 2020, the course and its tasks have been completed – what have I learned and experienced since its start in the balmy days of Autumn 2019?

The course covered training in museum awareness and curatorial practice for volunteers from seven designated Cornish museums. We learnt how to care for and how to learn from museum collections, and heard first hand accounts of the different areas of work within the museum community. Interwoven with this was a historical guide and commentary on the formation of museums, both national and local, and the leading goals and aspirations that accompanied the establishment of their presence in our lives. This led to some challenging and interesting discussions about the stories that museums and galleries tell, knowingly and unknowingly. Voices from the past that have dominated our history have been challenged for many decades but now in the light of Brexit, Black Lives Matter and contemporary issues on gender and diversity, these discussions were particularly pertinent.

Our job as curators was to learn, to listen, and to hear all the different voices in these discussions and to use this information to enable us to undertake the specific task of creating a Cornish National Collection. In addition to this we were asked to evidence our journey through this course. My own wish was to create a visual handbook for children, illustrating the various topics we had encountered and explored. (I think visual imagery is under used as a powerful tool in communications). For some strange reason I thought this was a great idea. Ah yes, the clarity of hindsight.

The mission for the Cornish National Collection was to present a collection that would reflect the diversity of Cornish society past and present, and to pay particular attention to hidden stories or voices previously unrepresented. No worries at all then for me who had pretty much zero knowledge of Cornish history, had never passed a minute thinking about the cultural nature of Cornwall or examining the Cornish identity. I mean other than reflecting on the quality of the Cornish cream teas I regularly wolfed back.

This question needs to be answered.

In 2014 Cornwall gained recognition as a National Minority, this comes with an obligation to bring an understanding of its cultural heritage including the controversies. Discussions about Cornish identity can become politicised and in particular, with Brexit as our back drop it sometimes felt uncomfortable to be thinking about cultural differences rather than our commonalities. It’s clear that Cornwall needs to be understood and celebrated as more than a holiday destination and that a wider set of voices and stories should be heard within the museum and gallery sector. Our proposals had to support this aim.

My particular contributions ranged from objects within the museum space, (the float suit), to man made structures in the landscape, (the Cornish Hedge), to the artistic imagination expressed in a film, (Gorthwedh). All of these were intimately bound up with a unique expression of Cornishness not generally heard or noticed.

To be brief, (and that would make a change) the float suit by Trengrouse was one of many life saving devices he designed after witnessing a fatal shipwreck on the Cornish coast. As you can see from the photos, very little has changed since his original design. Imagine the lives he has saved, thousands of these suits are bought each year for toddlers and yet he’s unknown. I thought it might be timely to celebrate people who had saved lives rather than individuals who have massacred thousands in the pursuit of British values.

I wanted to include the Cornish Hedge firstly because I love them, but also I felt that landscape had so clearly shaped the lives of Cornish people that it would be an omission not to put forward something from the natural world that is crying out to us and needs to be heard. “Cornish hedges are older than the pyramids, older than Stonehenge and the oldest manmade artefact known to be still in use for their original purpose”( What’s not to celebrate?

The film Gorthwedh is made by a collaborative of Cornish artists led by Callum Mitchell. It’s an exploration into the industrial past and the hidden stories of the tin coast in Cornwall and its meaning to the local residents. The focus was on those who are not usually given the opportunity to be heard. That ticked all the boxes for me and it’s also a deeply moving film.

Many more things were learned and mulled over in the time of this course and it’s given me a depth of understanding about the land of Cornwall. I left the course determined to undertake study in Medieval Cornish history, learn the language, learn the furry dance. Have I done any of these things? Watch this space…

-Carolyn Thompson

Citizen Curators Two Years On – Part Two

Citizen Curators is a free work-based training programme in museum awareness and modern curatorial practice aimed at volunteers from our community. The programme is provided by Cornwall Museums Partnership in collaboration with seven museums, with the main goal of providing a new form of meaningful museum participation.

The programme is led by Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre. The Citizen Curators have just completed year two out of three and to celebrate, we wanted to share with you some of the wonderful experiences some of our Citizen Curators have experienced throughout the programme.

Please keep reading to hear from Tehmina Goskar of the Curatorial Research Centre

I developed the Citizen Curators programme while working with Cornwall Museums Partnership as an Arts Council England-supported Change Maker in 2017/18. It is rare in our sector to be able to support and see change over time – projects come and go, new audiences come and go. To be able to continue working with CMP and the seven participating museums underlines the commitment of museums in Cornwall to being open to change over the long term.

“I wanted to thank you for everything; this entire experience has been really inspiring and I’ve never felt so confident to speak up. I’ve felt engaged and involved in my community.” (Carla Symons).

Citizen Curators is an adaptive and flexible programme whose main goal is to provide a new form of meaningful museum participation. A flexible opportunity that can be shaped around participants’ other commitments – those who want to take part but who find it difficult to engage via traditional volunteering (turning up on site at specific times and days). This year, as last year, many participants had care commitments, studying alongside, worked, or lived at a distance. The quid pro quo (equitable reward) is important. Participants benefit from a high quality and wide-ranging experiential learning course alongside working on ideas within their museums. They help museums diversify the voices that interpret and represent them, while benefitting from practical real-life museum-based learning, and an opportunity to learn directly from museum professionals. Learning from the things that were tried and didn’t work is just as important as learning from those that did.

“It’s made me review my life. I left school at 16, I didn’t go to university, I didn’t do anything. I educated myself through art.” (Carolle Blackwell).

Citizen Curators is also an active research project where we collect evidence on experiences, reactions and changes in understanding and awareness. Does such a programme really contribute to diversifying processes and cultural democracy in our museums? How do the views and confidence of participants change over the course of the annual programme?

“I was keen on the opportunity to learn/develop in an area that I never really thought I could play a part. I’ve always loved museums, and this felt like a different kind of volunteering. It’s an excellent scheme. I feel I’ve lucked out at the Museum of Cornish Life.” (Julia Webb-Harvey).


Diversity of Citizen Curators

In 2018/19 our analysis of diversity and inclusion within the cohort suggested that certain dimensions of exclusion were being tackled by the programme:

• Age range of participants seems to be broader than regular museum volunteers (not tied to a particular programme) with over 40% under 30
• 39% identified as working class, while 10% did not ascribe to any social labelling
• Nearly 60% reported a condition that affected their daily life or relationships, from physical disabilities to health conditions such as diabetes. Most responses pointed to unseen disabilities or conditions that most people deal with without comment or notice, such as mental ill health especially anxiety, dyslexia and dyspraxia and challenges with words and language
• The financial situation of participants varied across the cohort with 35% of the cohort reporting financial independence
• Travel preferences varied with 37% owning their own car and the majority of the cohort relying on public transport, car shares or lifts
• Both the above demonstrate the impact of this programme on Cornwall’s ‘time and cost of travel’ barrier to cultural participation.

A critical part of this Museums Association Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund programme is how the budgets are used with dedicated budget for direct expenses incurred by volunteers and an insistence that those volunteers have some say over how those budgets are spent.

“I have toughly loved being able to learn new skills surrounded by likeminded people… I have gained a lot more confidence as a result.” (Rob Palmer).

Areas that still need addressing in terms of diversity – and as we shortly evaluate the diversity and inclusion of the Year 2 cohort we may be able to better understand what is going on – is the gender imbalance. Last year women made up 71% of the cohort and 42% held Masters degrees. These two dimensions of museum volunteering in Cornwall suggest that we need to address both recruitment and expectation from volunteering.

Small museums rely on self-starters to make their museums work. Capacity spread thin means providing support can be challenging. This means that we tend to attract the attentions of those who are already confident and already have some sense of what a museum’s functions are. Why all the women? We are still trying to understand this but it is reflective of a situation across the sector.

“As I hoped it would when I applied, the experience and knowledge I have gained will be of great value to my role as a trustee at Geevor.” (John Swarbrooke).


Curating during lockdown

Just as the formal learning part of the programme ended in mid-March 2020, lockdown severed many volunteers from their museums, including the Citizen Curators. This year the emphasis has been less on outcome and more on process and participants were asked to chart their journeys and reflect on their experiences whether or not a product emerged at the end. Many had already been drawn into the core of their museums’ work, shaping and creating content for exhibitions (e.g. Penzance Selects at Penlee House and exploring the Benow 2020 at Falmouth Art Gallery), developing digital storytelling at PK Porthcurno, co-curating an animation festival at Museum of Cornish Life, Helston, working on provenance research on taonga Māori held by Royal Cornwall Museum, making a start on reinterpreting the Indian Mutiny Gallery at Bodmin Keep, and attempting to find women’s stories of the China Clay industry at Wheal Martyn.

I was fully expecting much of the cohort to abandon ship, with pressures on work and homelife taking precedence. But they didn’t and that’s a tribute to their tenacity as well as the high esteem in which the programme and our museums are kept. Through a series of video messages, sharing of resources (e.g. access to online journals and books) and online support 23 out of 29 participants successfully completed the programme, using lockdown to share their journeys individually with us in a variety of formats: photo essays, scrap books, videos, portfolios, blogs, reflective prose. In the series of blog posts that follows this one some of this year’s Citizen Curators will share their journeys with you while we also work on showcasing their work online. A critical aspect of the programme that we all sorely missed is the annual celebration event where all the groups meet each other, sometimes for the first time, show and tell their work and receive their certificates. As Programme Leader I particularly have missed this opportunity for togetherness.

“Thank you so very much for everything. Your support, generosity of time, and the very interesting training sessions we have received over the programme has made the process an absolute joy to be part of and I’ve learned so much.” (Kerrie Bramhall)



What next?

Our Citizen Curators already came with an array of talents and experiences. We so often overlook these in the context of museum volunteering: a medic, accountant, professor, students, graphic designer, farmer, artists and writers, NHS worker, mental health professional, a motorcyclist and a potter, how lucky are our museums to benefit from these diverse lived experiences?

“Thanks a lot for the course, I really did enjoy it and learn a lot. Also, it definitely helped me to get the job at Lanhydrock! Great to have that learning under my belt. It also helped keep me sane for the period that I was unemployed.” (Marella Alves dos Reis)

Last year some Citizen Curators remained as volunteers but most went on to do new things, including going onto formal qualifications and jobs in museums or archives. Trainee Curator Siân Powell (Wheal Martyn) was one of our original Citizen Curators during the pilot. She now supports Wheal Martyn Citizen Curators. Stephen Murley, formerly Citizen Curator at Penlee House and volunteer at Hayle Heritage Centre undertaking his AMA (Associateship of the Museums Association) now works for Geevor Tin Mine. For this year’s cohort it’s still early days. Some continue to support their museums, others are going their own way, returning to their main practice or finding new opportunities elsewhere or being inspired to take on professional development in other sectors such as mental health. Some are looking to develop their experience with more specialist training such as a Masters degree or CPD, one will take up an internship in the USA as soon as travel permits, another is working up a partnership between Penlee House and Geevor Tin Mine (both within a few miles of each other in the far west of Cornwall).

“Just today I have been told that I won the History department’s annual award for best local history dissertation! I truly could not have done it without your support or the existence of the Citizen Curators programme.” (Anna Somner)

The final year of the Esmée Fairbarin Collections Fund is coming up. The pandemic and the ongoing constraints around access to buildings, collections and other people mean we have to remodel—our commitment to Citizen Curators being responsive and adaptive is really being tested. We are working together now to see how the programme can support digitally-based online participation in museums. The core programme will be delivered online—in many ways this opportunity may broaden who will apply but we are also aware this will mean some will not apply as they don’t feel comfortable or able to participate online. The new cohort’s experience of museums will feel significantly different but that is a good thing. I feel a need to use this opportunity to continue to change how we do things and how we think about the very boundaries of our museums.

-Tehmina Goskar

Curator Storyteller – Citizen Curators Part One

Citizen Curators is a free work-based training programme in museum awareness and modern curatorial practice aimed at volunteers from our community. The programme is provided by Cornwall Museums Partnership in collaboration with seven museums, with the main goal of providing a new form of meaningful museum participation.

The programme is led by Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre. The Citizen Curators have just completed year two out of three and to celebrate, we wanted to share with you some of the wonderful experiences some of our Citizen Curators have experienced throughout the programme.

Please keep reading to hear from Lesley-Anne Harris, Citizen Curator at Bodmin Keep Museum…

When I signed up to be a Citizen Curator I expected to learn things – how to pick up old teapots (not the handle!) or the perfect length for an object label (shorter than that!), but what I didn’t expect to learn was a deep, dark truth about myself – that I am a communicator.

It’s an uncomfortable revelation for someone who considers themselves rather stoic and unreadable, but the fact is most of my life revolves around communication. My job as a graphic designer is all about conveying information and my “job” as a musician is all about conveying emotion. Unfortunately, I am a storyteller and I’m just going to have to own it.

One of the things we discussed as Citizen Curators was the idea of a curator as “creator and communicator” and where on that spectrum we as individuals might lie. The answer to that for me was always very skewed towards the “communicator” end of the spectrum, but the scheme certainly helped me to develop my “creation” skills as well – ask me about my own personal research rabbit hole, the military quilt.

As a designer I’m used to being given raw information and developing a way to present it to convey a message – but being involved in the process from the very beginning and trying to generate that information has been fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. The big advantage I normally have comes from swooping in at the end of a project with an outside perspective that allows me to focus on what serves the message rather than, “this bit is my favourite, we must keep it at all costs”. Attempting to keep the internal editor alive and well has been a tricky challenge.

What Citizen Curators has really inspired me to do is open up the ways I think about communicating in a museum setting – I love a tasteful info panel as much as the next person, but we have the means – and the obligation – to move beyond that.

For some people, museums are a place of preservation, of facts, objectivity and detachment – for me museums are places for storytelling. The objects we display in a museum are not an end in themselves, but a vivid and beautiful illustration in the story we are trying to tell.

The more we can explore and diversify the way we communicate, the more we can engage people’s senses and the more we will resonate with our audience. Approaching a museum exhibit, or even the display of single object, with the idea of “What story do I want to tell?” rather than “Which facts do I want to teach?” is incredibly inspiring and exciting for me, and I hope for you too.

Citizen Curators has really given me a chance to explore new avenues for communication and the confidence to start to evolve my practice as a designer. The passion and dedication of museum professionals and volunteers is an amazing thing to be a part of. Let’s embrace the communicator buried within us. Let’s tell stories.


-Lesley-Anne Harris Citizen Curator at Bodmin Keep

#RDNetwork: Mental health and wellbeing in children and young people

During 2020 the Cornwall Museums Partnership Twitter page will be handing the reigns over each month to local organisations, who will be guest hosting our Rural Diversity Networking hour; #RDNetwork.

In May, Alison Bowyer, Executive Director of Kids in Museums, kindly took over our Twitter page to discuss how museums can support children and young people and their mental health and wellbeing. Please continue reading to hear all about Alison’s experience of our #RDNetwork Twitter Takeover…


We were pleased to host May’s #RDNetwork chat to discuss whether museums and heritage sites play enough of a role in the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a great opportunity to celebrate what museums are already doing and see how we can expand this work further.

Mind has described young people’s mental health as “rapidly becoming one of the major challenges our society faces.” Research from Understanding Society shows that children’s level of happiness has fallen significantly in the last decade. With many young people separated from their friends during lockdown, and museums with a great opportunity post lockdown to connect to their local community, this is likely to become even more of a priority over the coming year.

The questions we asked during the #RDNetwork were:

1. How can museums and galleries better support mental health and wellbeing in children and young people?
2. How could museums and galleries do more to support their younger community?
3. How could museums and galleries help tackle mental health in children and young people during or after COVID-19?
4. Do you feel museums and galleries play a big enough part in mental health awareness, wellbeing and health of children and young people? What would you like to see more of?

Museums joined in the conversation from across Cornwall and beyond, and were in consensus that museums are ideally placed to support young people’s wellbeing, whether it is in person or online. When you consider the Wheel of Wellbeing, heritage sites can provide the opportunity to learn, connect with others, take notice, give time and look after the planet.
Participants questioned whether wellbeing should be added to formal learning programmes and pointed to the role of museums as a safe ‘sanctuary’ outside of a structed learning environment.


From our Hurdles to Participation report, we know that young people often think of museums as ‘boring’ and ‘not for them’. If we want to offer wellbeing support, we need to think about whether our spaces are attractive and welcoming to them. To best engage young people, museums need to consider pricing, age-appropriate activities, an engaging digital presence and how to represent their views through displays, youth panels or volunteering opportunities.

Penlee House Gallery and Museum stressed the importance of acknowledging young people’s views and showcasing their work. How can we use objects as catalysts for promoting creativity and self-expression?

We shared this report from Beatfreeks, which is useful in understanding how young people are experiencing COVID-19. 65% of those surveyed said COVID-19 had made them worried about mental health. They felt connection with others helped most with this and want to be consulted about the response and recovery from the pandemic.

During lockdown, museums have been providing a wide range of activities for young people online. We enjoyed hearing great examples from SS Great Britain and Bodmin Keep.

One key point that came up in the discussion was how important it is for museums to partner with local organisations to reach and engage with young people. Museums need to understand the needs of their local community and ask young people themselves what they would like to see.

As communities recover from COVID-19, there is a big potential role for museums in this space and it would be great to see more getting involved in wellbeing work. The Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance website is a good place to start.

Kids in Museums has held wellbeing training for museums staff in the past and hopes to do so again in future. We are really keen to hear from museums in what other support and resources they would find useful.