What do universities have to learn from museums?

Katherine McAlpine, 09.10.2018
Fostering change from the inside out
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be awarded a place on the Museums Association (MA) Transformers scheme. No, we’re not robots in disguise, but museum professionals, volunteers and affiliates looking to change a sector that, though we love it dearly, needs a bit of a shake-up.

Before I joined the Centre for Public Engagement, I was public programmes producer at Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG), and I continue to be an active member of the museum community, as a mentor for Group for Education in Museums, and a London rep for the Museums Association.

Before I left RMG, I was part of the project team to deliver the new Tudor & Stuart Seafarers gallery, part of four new galleries. As part of that process, I was adamant that we needed to include the perspectives of women and people of colour within the gallery, which was made possible by collaborating with researchers who were working in these areas.

Conflict is a key theme in the gallery, with the Anglo-Dutch wars being an important conflict we wanted to talk about. But beyond the battles, I wanted to reflect on the human cost of the war. To do so, I worked closely with Hannah Worthen, then a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester, on her work on war widows. Together we identified some women who were widowed as part of the conflict who wrote to the Admiralty demanding they be paid what was owed their now deceased husbands. It was a great example of getting cutting edge research into a museum exhibition and changing the narrative.

When I joined the Centre for Public Engagement I signed up to Transformers to help me figure out how I might better work with more researchers to get their research into museums where they can help change tired old narratives.

Transformers is all about changing museums, which isn’t all that far from what public engagement people like me are trying to do in universities: we’re trying to change them from the inside out. We want to create a culture where universities and research have other voices embedded in their heart, and that’s what the MA wants to see: museums rooted at the heart of their communities.

At our first Transformers meeting we talked about how changing the way you see and changing the way you do are two different things: there’s no point thinking something is good unless you put structures in place to support it. That’s why we began fortnightly advice surgeries offering bespoke advice, plus funding to enable participants to do what they want. We can help with applications for other funding, provide training, and point participants in the direction of opportunities for them to test things out.

We also talked about the time that change takes: the difference between a handbrake turn and shifting an oil tanker. Some people work well with a handbrake turn, they change overnight, other people need more help.

This is why we work with people to deliver activities for the Tower Hamlets Festival of Communities: a ready-made opportunity to develop public engagement skills in a low risk environment. We take care of all the annoying stuff from marquees to marketing, so all participants have to do is turn up. And from that small change (and seeing just how great public engagement can be) change starts to happen. It may be slow but it can be powerful.

Katherine McAlpine is the public engagement officer at Queen Mary University of London’s (QMUL) Centre for Public Engagement, London rep for the MA, and a participant in the MA’s Transformers scheme.

This article was originally published on the QMUL website.