Marge Ainsley advocates putting young people at the heart of the curatorial process
Stories of the World (SoTW) is one of ten Cultural Olympiad projects, led by the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in partnership with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). Young people (our co-curators) aged 14–24 are being placed at the very heart of the curatorial process, to present new museum exhibitions and events across the UK in the run up to 2012. The global collections held in our museums are being investigated and connected with relevant communities both here and overseas.
In the Northwest, we are focusing on the relationships developed through the cotton industry between Manchester, Lancashire and the world. It involves the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Bolton Museum & Archive Service, Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall, (Manchester City Galleries), Lancashire County Museums Service (Queen St Mill & Helmshore Mill Textile Museum), and Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery. Since 2009, a team of co-curators have worked with each museum to explore, interpret and display collections in order to tell the global stories about the production and consumption of cotton.
SoTW is not just about changing the way museums work with young people. A core principle is to provide our co-curators with access to high quality training and foster new skills. They have gained experience of working with high calibre professionals, such as Gavin Fernandes (London College of Fashion) and Flux magazine. Strands of the SoTW programme are being embedded in courses at Trafford College, Manchester College and Burnley College, offering additional learning opportunities for their students. Social media experts MediaSnackers were commissioned to train six of our co-curators as ‘digital journalists’ (DJs). Coordinating the DJs workload has been a steep learning curve (we now set them regular ‘missions’). They attend events related to the project, covering news stories and features on their blogs.
All SoTW partners have worked with the National Youth Agency and are using their Hear by Right framework to put young people at the centre of plans. The Collections Trust’s Revisiting Collections methodology is being used to document new information about collections from the young people, forming a permanent record with objects for the future. SoTW has allowed the museums to trial new approaches to partnership working, and develop meaningful collaborations with young people. However, putting the co-curators genuinely at the heart of the curatorial process has really challenged how the museum teams have had to work. As far as we're aware, the SoTW programme is the largest ever youth participation initiative run by museums. Collaborating with young people in this way presents a unique opportunity for museums to change the way they work, becoming more open and creative institutions.
Marge Ainsley is a Freelance Marketer and Stories of The World Northwest Project Assistant. This piece was written in collaboration with Ayisat Hassan and Ruby Henderson, Digital Journalists.
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