I only recently learned of the Open Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. This museum is part of the broader Glasgow Museums and is focused on bringing collections to people around the city. Not only does the Open Museum has traveling exhibitions and handling kits, it works to develop exhibitions with and for local groups. As stated on the Open Museum’s website: “You (the community group) decide what your display is about, what goes into it, and what you want to say. And you get our support and guidance the whole way!” I find this mode of working impressive, because it means that museum professionals’ skills are used to directly serve the community (as opposed to our sometimes abstract notion of being in service to a community that functions in a trickle down fashion). In this blogpost, Rachel Erickson, Outreach Assistant at the Open Museum shares more information about her museum’s model along with a couple projects the museum is currently working on.
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For the past 25 years, the Open Museum has operated within Glasgow Museums as the ‘outreach arm’ of the museum service, finding new ways to connect the people of Glasgow with the museum collections, with a focus on those who can’t, won’t or don’t visit the museum venues. The Open Museum is essentially a museum within a museum – we have our own Curators, and Outreach Assistants, and our own technician, graphic designer, and conservation contact. Operating within a large local authority (Glasgow Museums employs 293 staff across 9 museum venues), this puts the Open Museum in a unique position, enabling us to work within the short time frames that our community partners often require, time frames that aren’t always attainable when working within a large organization. Our autonomy from the rest of the organization serves a number of purposes, one of which is our ability to get projects done efficiently, flexibly, and responsively, against a backdrop of the museum venues that are operating to 3-5 year work plans. For the most part, our projects and exhibitions are generated collaboratively with various organizations around the city, including hospitals, prisons, care homes, and integration networks; our ability to respond and react to often unpredictable changes in circumstance ensures that project partner’s needs are met and that the social value of our work is felt by all participants.
We develop travelling exhibitions that rotate amongst libraries, community centres, shopping centres and other community spaces, and we also develop site-specific exhibition spaces out in the community, such as memory walls, used to engage with dementia patients in local hospitals. We also build ‘handling kits’ – portable boxes made up of real, accessioned museum objects that are free to borrow, available to any community group operating within the city limits. We have access to the whole of the Glasgow Museums collection when developing our handling kits and travelling exhibitions – that’s over one million objects – and as there’s no reserved ‘handling collection’, no object is off limits (in theory). We select objects appropriate for each context, and make decisions alongside the museum’s conservation staff over what to include, considering, among other things, whether the object is robust enough to withstand years of repeated handling. The philosophy of Glasgow Museums is that the collection belongs to the people of Glasgow, and it’s our job to make sure they are able to access it, whether that’s through exhibitions, handling sessions, pop-up events, or community-based displays.
In addition to these core services, our staff also work on both short and long-term projects, either in response to specific requests by community groups, or in reaction to a current, contemporary issue such as the European ‘migration crisis’, or the aging population and dementia in the UK. At the moment, we’re working on a migration project that began as a handling kit idea, looking at the idea of ‘Glasgow as home’ and what it means to live here as a newcomer; we’re focusing on the last 25 years of migration to Glasgow, to coincide with our 25th anniversary as a department. Although it started as a handling kit, an idea that relies on objects from our collection, that idea was quickly derailed as we discovered that Glasgow Museums has very little in the collection that reflects the diverse communities who have settled here since WWII. Considering that many recent migrants come to Glasgow with very little, sometimes nothing at all in terms of personal possessions, we’ve decided to focus on oral history collection, and we’ve commissioned a local illustrator to work with participants to represent their unique journeys and lives here in Glasgow. We are trying to think creatively about contemporary collecting; beyond incorporating these stories into the system as it currently exists, we are involving people in the collecting process, challenging traditional methods of collecting, and redefining what constitutes a ‘museum object’.
As outreach work, this project is relatively straightforward; we’re working with two pre-established ESOL classes in two different areas of the city, building relationships through the use of our handling kits and facilitated visits to the museum venues. Looking inwardly into our own organization is where this project gets a little more complicated – like most museums, exhibitions are scheduled years in advance, and new acquisitions require proposals, processes, and ‘pitches’. Looking for ways forward with the migration project, we hit a wall, of sorts: how can large museum services allow for responsive practice? (Beyond a short-lived pop-up event or public programming output, both of which, though possible, would receive little marketing support unless organized at least three months prior.) While it’s understandable that staff time and resources need to be allocated and strategically set aside, these strict schedules and long-term work plans can prohibit responsive work, which is why the Open Museum’s independence often works in our favour. Our networks across the city are full and supportive, enabling us to quickly link up with groups and audiences who might be interested in participating in a project that aims to capture contemporary lived experience.
While the legacy of our projects is strong in terms of our community partners and the social impact of our work, the archival record in the collection of this community-driven meaning-making is often non-existent. This past year we’ve started to ask ourselves critical questions: how can we as outreach staff work in partnership with collections teams and curatorial staff? How can we integrate the voices and expertise of our community partners into the ‘official’ museum narratives? In response to these and other questions, the Open Museum has helped to develop a ‘migration forum’ – a working group of Glasgow Museums colleagues, as well as external partners such as the University of Glasgow, the Muslim Elderly Day Care Centre, the Scottish Refugee Council, and local, freelance artists interested in themes of migration. Through this forum, we hope to connect colleagues both within and out with the museum service and find ways to respond to this contemporary issue, while enabling ourselves to better navigate the processes in place in our own organization. We hope that the migration forum will help enable overall institutional responsiveness and confront the challenges of inclusive representation, beyond project work.
When we started this project, migration was a hot topic – frequently reflected in the media and political debate, particularly during the recent UK election and the Scottish Referendum last year. Since then, however, the issue has become part of everyday conversation – rarely a day goes by when news of the ‘migrant crisis’ isn’t on the front page of most newspapers, and yet as a museum service we separate ourselves from these major events, in terms of collecting, public programming, and general dialogue. While the migration project has illuminated some of the limitations of the Open Museum in its current form, it has also encouraged us challenge the social role of the museum service as a whole. We’re now having conversations with various staff members who are excited by the prospects of responsive work and we are finding new ways of collaborating with both internal and external partners, committing ourselves to ‘inclusion’ within our own organization.
Rachel Erickson is an Outreach Assistant with Glasgow Museums Open Museum. Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, she completed her MA in Museum Cultures at Birkbeck, University of London, and has been living and working in Scotland for two years. She is interested in socially engaged museum practice, contemporary collecting, and community building, and she can be reached at email@example.com.