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).
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).
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)
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.