From: Matthew Studdert-Kennedy
Last month (Oct ’23), the Collection’s Learning Team received the fantastic news that they had attained a prestigious Sandford Award – the work of education staff & volunteers being adjudged as ‘outstanding, across the board’. The Sandford scheme, managed by the Heritage Education Trust in partnership with Lincoln’s Bishop Grosseteste University, is the only nationally recognised quality mark for heritage learning.
A key factor in the assessor’s judgement was our work with young volunteers. Experiences, opportunities and training given to SVAS student section members were highlighted for praise, as was the demonstrable impact the Discovery Team has had through encouraging their involvement in the Trust’s strategic planning.
It is important that we continue to recognise and assure advocacy for this work, as it is crucial in helping ensure the SVAS are able to provide a sustainable supply of engaged volunteers to the Collection for generations to come. Our commitment to this is aptly demonstrated by the Discovery Team Partnerships Co-ordinator, Jen, who was invited to represent the SVAS Student Section at ‘The Future is Now’, a youth summit organised by the progressive inclusivity charity Kids in Museums. Jen’s report follows:
The Future is Now, Jen May Lewis
Earlier this month, I attended the Kids in Museums Youth Summit at Think Tank, Birmingham, to learn more about youth engagement in heritage and to offer my feedback as a young person working and volunteering in the sector.
It was clear from the outset that the organisers had made a conscious effort to create a comfortable environment for young people to network and share ideas. I spoke to peers from a wide range of museums and heritage organisations, from National, London-based museums to local independent collections, and learnt a great deal about how they work with young people.
The summit began with an opening speech from Eve Orford, a member of the Birmingham Museums Trust Youth Climate Forum, who shed light on her motivations for getting involved in museums and provided an insight into some of the projects that she has been involved with as a result. Eve was followed by the presentation of two key case studies: We Don’t Settle (Birmingham Museums Trust) and Culture of Freedom (Tullie House Museum). Both of these projects sought to elevate the voices of underrepresented groups by putting young people in the driving seat and allowing them to speak to communities and produce innovative outputs. The director of the Culture of Freedom documentary, Mariana McNee Tecuanhuey, who was 18 at the time that the film was created, joined the summit via Zoom and shared some useful insights into how and why she has continued to engage with Tullie House Museum despite the project coming to an end.
Moving on, the afternoon discussion was primarily future facing. A panel of representatives from five organisations were asked to consider what the ideal museum for young people would look like and how this might be achieved. Common themes raised in this discussion included: ensuring that young people are empowered and given meaningful roles within museums; the importance of providing dedicated space to young volunteers and stakeholders; and ensuring that all engagements with young people are mutually beneficial.
In addition to structured panel discussions and presentations, the day was peppered with valuable opportunities to network and offer written and verbal feedback to museums and heritage organisations about what young people want to see in future engagements. Large pieces of paper posing questions about topics such as recruitment and the use of technology were placed at the back of the room, creating a dedicated space for sharing ideas and starting conversations with likeminded individuals from the sector.
After an incredibly enjoyable and interesting event, I came away from the day with three major learnings that I hope that carry forward in my future work with the Discovery Team and within the heritage sector generally:
- Youth engagement in museums should not be considered an add-on or tick box exercise.
Young people should be made to feel empowered within the organisations that they collaborate with, as opposed to feeling like a token brought in on a project-by-project basis. It was suggested by the panellists that a few key ways of ensuring this is by creating opportunities for young people to deliver projects that matter to them and that are suited to their needs and interests; and resisting the need to over-simplify things for young people, as this can isolate them and make them feel distant from the organisation.
- The recruitment of young people to museums needs to be carefully considered
Following their discussion about future facing challenges, I asked the panel their thoughts about the effective recruitment of young people. The panel offered a few ideas, including the suggestion that we use arts and heritage specific platforms to advertise our offer and utilise targeted social media ads and hosting pilot initiatives and projects to engage young people in the first instance. The common thread that ran through all of the panellists responses, however, was the importance of making young people feel seen. This might be achieved by simply asking what they would like to achieve from their engagement with a museum, as opposed to a museum imposing a preconceived project upon them.
- We need to consider the question: why are museums obsessed with young people?
In all engagements with young people, it is important to consider our motivations. Young people should never be passive partners, their contributions should always be valued and it is important that we demonstrate that value. The question posed above is one that a panellist raised in the afternoon discussion, and it made me think a lot about how young people perceive museums. To ensure effective engagement, we must put young people first and keep their experience at the heart of what we do.
I came away feeling incredibly inspired by the people I met and the talks that I heard at the summit, and I hope to implement my learnings in the near future at Shuttleworth.
If you would like to find out more about the exciting opportunities available through the Discovery Team, please email email@example.com