A sense of belonging

Sharon Heal, 25.07.2018
Museums are dispelling myths and connecting communities in Cornwall
Very roughly translated, Hireth is the Cornish word for belonging. It can also mean yearning, and a longing for place.

I was fortunate enough to visit Cornwall this week to meet colleagues and explore museums and was struck by the richness of the conversations about identity and place that museums can offer.

Cultural stereotypes about people and place can be deeply annoying, especially when they lead to misperceptions that skim the surface of reality. The outsider view of Cornwall is sometimes one of a rural area of wealth and privilege, with sun, sea, pasties and Poldark.

Of course, the reality is very far from this narrow view. Cornwall has some of the poorest areas of the UK, with high levels of deprivation and low levels of cultural investment. Away from the beautiful coastline there is a post-industrial spine that runs through the region that includes former tin and copper mining sites.

Communities suffer from isolation, poor infrastructure and a lack of transport connections, and young people still leave in large numbers in search of opportunities that can’t be found at home.

The tourism influx in the summer months is a both an opportunity and a challenge. Visitors bring income but they also block roads and amenities and lead to seasonal opening that leaves little in the way of jobs or cultural opportunities once the summer is over.

But if people do arrive clinging to a stereotypical view of the area, museums are there to debunk that myth.

There is a network of small museums dotted around the Cornish landscape and many are striving to paint a broader and richer view of Cornish history for visitors and locals alike.

They are also helping to generate that much sought after sense of belonging that locals and those that return are seeking. The Museums Association’s vision for the sector is of inclusive and engaged museums at the heart of their communities and I saw this writ large in Cornwall.

Despite the difficulties of geography, the museum sector is connected and networked and draws strength and knowledge from sharing across a diverse group of museums through the Cornwall Museums Partnership. And the collaboration goes beyond the sector to partnerships with a wide range of cultural and other organisations.

From the Citizen Curators’ intervention at the Royal Cornwall Museum to the Young Curators at the Cornwall Regimental Museum and the fabulous volunteers at Helston Museum there is a refreshing energy and connectedness to community in Cornwall that museums elsewhere could do well to learn from.