Birmingham is a multi-cultural and socio-economically diverse city, yet the items in its museum venues did not reflect this, and nor did the footfall through their doors.
The Trust wanted to address this but when it went out to local residents it discovered that a lot of mistrust had built up over several years. Previous efforts to engage with the city’s communities had been piecemeal and clumsy, and failed to resonate with the lived experience of residents. Items collected from those communities had not been treated with appropriate care and respect; some had never even been displayed. The Trust realised that if it wanted to be more inclusive it had to do things differently, and address ethical questions around power and value in the process of collecting objects and interpreting people’s lives.
In 2015 it secured a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop its collections to make them more representative of the city’s inhabitants and their histories. It consulted widely with a range of groups, and determined that the new collections would be co-curated with the people they would represent. It focused on four particular communities – Caribbean, Muslim, LGBT and people under 25 – and set a target of collecting 40 new items.
Over the next three years, the Trust’s outreach team worked hard to rebuild relationships and engage new audiences, and succeeded in acquiring, by purchase or donation, 1,800 new objects to exhibit. Throughout the project 3,541 individuals were consulted at 83 events, open days and workshops, and four local schools collected items for their own mini exhibitions. By choosing acquisitions through community consultation instead of museum staff making the decisions, Collecting Birmingham gave people from some of the most ethnically diverse and socially deprived areas of the city a central role in selecting themes for exhibitions. The diversity of visitors to the Trust’s venues increased and strong new relationships were cemented with various groups.
The project has fundamentally changed the way the Trust operates and engages with its audiences, and provided a model for other cultural institutions to follow. A new collections development policy is now being devised with audience consultation and co-curation at its heart.
Charity Awards judge Ruth Ruderham said the project held many lessons for the wider charity sector, particularly around shifting power to service users, valuing lived experience and building trust.
Cathy Phelan-Watkins said the project was “exemplary in terms of co-curation” and Jehangir Malik said it was “revolutionary in its nature and in the impact it is having on the city, reconnecting with disenfranchised and marginalised communities”.
CC reg no: 1147014