What are our museums doing to respond to calls for greater cultural democracy and cultural rights in Cornwall? One of our major cultural democracy programmes is Citizen Curators. In partnership with the Curatorial Research Centre and funded by the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, the programme has two clear aims.
The first, to begin to democratise our museum collections by narrowing the gap between Cornish collections and communities; the second, to provide the start of an alternative pathway into museum work. We first piloted Citizen Curators at Royal Cornwall Museum as part of our Arts Council-supported Change Makers programme in 2017/18. Currently, seven NPO funded museums are taking part in the current three-year programme which offers 35 free places on this free curatorial training course.
Tehmina Goskar, Programme Leader, has recently written about how Citizen Curators was developed for Museum-iD magazine, and showcases some of the results and impact so far.
The Citizen Curators, past and future, will improve our knowledge of new research and contribute to improved understanding of the significance of Cornish National Minority Status by:
Undertaking new research and sharing an understanding of existing collections that have been under-utilised or forgotten, particularly in relation to poorly-represented people
Identify a starting group of c.70 items from museum collections across Cornwall and by disseminating this knowledge through online platforms
Making recommendations for items which reflect Cornishness(es) that museums should collect today
Supporting dialogue with audiences about the project, so that audiences are encouraged to contribute to debate and content.
Why National Collection?
We are calling this a National Collection to directly reflect National Minority status recognised by the UK Government through the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in April 2014. The Framework Convention is also linked to the European Charter of Human Rights and therefore the recognition of those who self-identity as Cornish is a human right. This status and formal UK Government recognition will not be affected by Brexit as the Council of Europe is not part of the EU.
There are different understandings of nationality, nationhood and nation, many of them culturally informed, some of them politically-charged. We need to recognise the existence of all of these in our museums. The Cornish National Collection is intended to celebrate the national without straying into the nationalistic (wisdom spoken by Allison Fox, Curator at Manx National Heritage–the Isle of Man is a modern Celtic nation like Cornwall).
Even though Cornwall is not a nation-state, the corporate of Cornish people inside and outside Cornwall may be thought of as a nation on an equal basis as Scots, Irish, Welsh or Manx. National Minorities like the Cornish can transcend current state boundaries, e.g. the Sami of northern Scandinavia and parts of Russia. Although ethnicity is an important component of Cornish identity to some, National Minority status offers a much broader scope for self-identity that can relate to: birth, ancestry or shared cultural experience.
We are working out how best to represent this idea in Kernewek, the Cornish Language. It might be Argh Kenedhlek Kernow which means Cornwall’s National Ark.
Across the ancient, military, social, natural, industrial, artistic and scientific heritage held in our collections are the hidden (and arguably the most important stories) relating to Cornwall’s cultural heritage, identities and impact upon the world. The Cornish were recognised as a National Minority by the UK Government in 2014 and Cornwall’s museums need to take a leading role in ensuring Cornwall’s cultural heritage is understood and shared in all of its diversity, milestones and controversies.
With unprecedented access to the historical collections of seven museums, the Citizen Curators will explore which objects of local, national and international significance might create a Cornish National Collection that is distributed across the consortia of museums and the communities they serve. They will research, examine and advance ideas around Cornish identity by asking new questions, presenting previously untold or under-examined stories and sharing the collection in new ways in the museum, outside the museum, and across digital channels.
Through their learning and development Citizen Curators will develop an approach to identifying the objects of a Cornish National Collection and explore how they might be interpreted through programming, exhibitions, outreach and online. They will propose areas of need for contemporary collecting, including the collection of digital artefacts. Previous cohorts will be part of this peer-to-peer process with wider staff, volunteers and users.
Cornish identity and distinctiveness is a real and contemporary issue for communities in Cornwall today. Increasingly in Cornwall, discussions about Cornish identity are becoming politicised and extreme; outside Cornwall, Cornishness is usually dismissed as a joke or unheard of.
There is a growing need for a more nuanced, relevant and balanced exploration of multiple Cornish identities. This is a space museums in Cornwall can fill. Our museums are rooted within their communities.
Re-examining the hidden, lost and forgotten objects with new eyes will enable greater recognition of Cornwall’s cultural heritage and its multiple dimensions. The programme will challenge the cohort to use their creativity within curatorial practice to explore new ways to interpret, share and support an inclusive dialogue with audiences in Cornwall about what Cornish minority status means to them.
It’s early days, we are viewing this curating project as more of a campaign than an end product as we do not know to where this will eventually lead.
We are asking Citizen Curators and colleagues to:
Take part in the Cornish National Collection First Survey (August 2019)
Make a list of things you want to know more about in relation to Cornish identities
Identify themes and items from your projects that might be included
Think about under-represented people, ideas and stories that we will curate
Identify types of artefacts outside museums collections that could be included, e.g. intangible heritage.
Dr Tehmina Goskar is the Director of the Curatorial Research Centre and leads Cornwall Museums Partnership’s Citizen Curators programme. We are delighted that Tehmina has kindly written this blog to answer a few FAQs for anyone who is interested in taking part in the programme.
If you are interested in taking part in Year Two of Citizen Curators, here are some of your questions answered.
What is Citizen Curators?
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. It is funded for three years by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund administered by the Museums Association. The Programme Leader is Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator & Director of the Curatorial Research Centre.
Each museum has five places. Each year there will be approximately 35 volunteers undertaking the Citizen Curators course.
What experience and qualifications do I need?
None. Just a thirst for learning, the ability to demonstrate your curiosity, and be willing to find things out for yourself. You should be able to commit the time needed to make the most of this opportunity. We encourage you bring and to talk about your existing skills and previous experience.
How much time do I have to spend on the programme?
You must attend the six core sessions: collections, communities, research, interpretation, communication and curating the Cornish National Collection. These will take place on a monthly basis from October. They will take place in one of the museums in your group. That means about one full day per month. In addition, you will be working on researching and creating content about the collections in your museum. This might be according to a brief set by the museum or it might be on something your group thinks is important. You can expect to commit to between 4 hours to 1 day per fortnight on this. You are welcome to volunteer more hours but this is entirely down to you and your museum. There are also optional opportunities such as field trips and discussion events you will be invited to take part in.
What kinds of things will interest me?
Museum collections contain a wealth of untapped knowledge, stories, and ideas from political events and abstract art to family history and science. Our museums are waiting for you to help them share that knowledge with different people. If you get excited by new discoveries, finding something out or asking probing questions then Citizen Curators is for you. The course will teach you how to curate thoughtfully and meaningfully. It will help you to see the relationship between knowledge creation and communication and you will gain a whole set of specific skills as a result.
This year the cohort will be invited to research collections to highlight new stories, particularly those of under-represented people and subjects. This will also include getting involved in the creation of a Cornish National Collection that will reflect the diversity of Cornish society past and present, while also highlighting our distinctive culture.
What do I need to do to sign up?
The seven participating museums are beginning to look for their next candidates. In the first instance, check out their websites and get in touch with the museum that most appeals to you. In due course, they will send you a questionnaire to complete and we will take it from there.
You can contact the museums participating in Citizen Curators by clicking the links below:
In this blog we catch up with the Citizen Curator team at Wheal Martyn Clay Works about their experiences of the Citizen Curator programme and their new free exhibition ‘Engineering the Earth’.
The exhibition has been put together by Wheal Martyn’s three volunteer Citizen Curators: Carol Weir, Simon Dunham and Imogen Law, who have been mentored by Nikita Brown Wheal Martyn’s Exhibitions and Engagement Officer. Their showcase investigates the role of science and engineering in the china clay industry, particularly looking at the paper-making industry, the use of kaolin (a type of clay found near St. Austell) in cosmetics, and a local engineer – topics which represent the breadth and depth of this vast theme.
The Citizen Curators are encouraging visitors to get involved with the exhibition by guessing the items in the mystery cabinet, sharing knowledge of paper-making industry workers in Cornwall, and checking the ingredients on their cosmetics to see if they contain kaolin, even experts might learn something new!
One of the exhibition cabinets showcasing the paper-making industry.
The Citizen Curator group says, “We hope this exhibition inspires you to also take an interest in museum collections and perhaps volunteer for the next Citizen Curators course.”
Wheal Martyn is one of seven museums across Cornwall participating in the Citizen Curators programme. This programme aims to encourage a more active interest in the collections cared for on behalf of the public and involve people from the local community. The three-year project, led by Dr Tehmina Goskar of the Curatorial Research Centre, is supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, administered by the Museums Association, and is part of Wheal Martyn’s Arts Council England supported partnership programme led by Cornwall Museums Partnership.
Tehmina says, “Citizen Curators is all about unearthing the hidden joys of our historical collections so that more people can learn something new from them. That’s exactly what the Wheal Martyn team are doing through their research and this exhibition. We feel very privileged to have supported their journey.”
Some of the photographs in the Wheal Martyn collection about the local engineers.
The Citizen Curators say, “We have enjoyed the opportunity Wheal Martyn and the Citizen Curators project have given us, from exploring the other museums and galleries of Cornwall to the discussions and activities we worked on in the classes. Our volunteering has not only given us a glimpse behind the scenes of Wheal Martyn and its dedicated staff but also taught us much about the local area.”
A showcase about the use of kaolin clay (found locally in St. Austell) in the cosmetic industry.
‘Engineering the Earth’ runs from 6th April – 11th October in Wheal Martyn’s Atrium. Find out more about the exhibition and get updates on Wheal Martyn’s social media: Facebook @whealmartyncw, Twitter @WhealMartyn, and Instagram @whealmartyn. If you have any information on the objects in the exhibition you can join in on social media using the hashtags #citizencurators #stawesome #whealmartyn. You can also follow the Curatorial Research Centre on Twitter @CuratorialRC.
Last Thursday at Cornwall Museums Partnership’s annual Share and Learn day in Helston, I launched the Citizen Curators Programme and introduced its prospective pilot at Royal Cornwall Museum.
Citizen Curators is basically museum studies in the workplace and takes the place between attending one-off training and a full-on course at a university such as an MA in Museum Studies.
Citizen Curators is a work-based training programme aimed at skilling up volunteers (and also staff who want to develop new skills) in modern curatorial practice. The idea behind this programme was developed over 18 months ago in response to the increasing lack of opportunities to learn curatorial and modern museum skills while working or volunteering in a sustained manner, and have the opportunity to test and assess competencies and in a peer learning framework.
The rural context of Citizen Curators is important. People of smaller museums in large rural regions lack the most access to training, skills, networking and peer groups.
For me it’s an opportunity to experiment with delivering education to workers while they work, and also led by the needs of their work. Colleagues will know about my growing interest and involvement in museum skills development and I am grateful for this opportunity try out something new.
Apart from access to skills and an opportunity to test them out, the Citizen Curators pilot will also focus on recruiting at least 50% under-25s.
The emphasis will be on the participants’ learning goals, rather than on fancying up a regular volunteer opportunity or disguising a dreaded unpaid internship.
That said, participants will have to demonstrate commitment and a dedication to completing the course and creating an outcome that is meaningful to the museum.