A new programme aimed at engaging 18-to-25 year olds with museums and galleries hands over control of the creative direction to the young people themselves. Sophie Alonso explains.
Where we are… is a national programme delivered by the British Museum and supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Running until 2025, the programme works with third sector and cultural partners across the UK to develop meaningful arts and cultural projects in co-production with young people aged 18 to 25. These projects will respond to something in their local area that the young people are passionate about.
As the specific creative output will be determined by the young people’s interests, the details of what the projects will look like are as yet unknown. From a planning perspective this takes me slightly out of my comfort zone. But from a project perspective, it’s incredibly exciting as the young people are in control of the direction the project takes. This is the direction that museums, galleries and cultural spaces need to be moving in if we want to become relevant and adaptable spaces.
This year we have three projects across the UK – in Edinburgh, Leeds and Leicester – with each partner approaching the programme in a way that suits their needs. For example, in Leicester, Attenborough Arts Centre and Pedestrian is recruiting from various networks over an extended period of time. But the Geraldine Connor Foundation and Harewood House Trust in Leeds and Museums and Galleries Edinburgh and Edinburgh Young Carers are tapping into young people they already work with.
We hope that working in this way we can ensure that the programme learns from the third sector and localities across the UK about how best to recruit and work with underrepresented young people on creative projects.
Definitions of ‘culture’
Importantly, this programme speaks to broader definitions of ‘culture’. In the scoping stage of the project, young people defined culture as food, festivals and friendship rather than paintings, theatre or exhibitions.
A key aim is to listen to what is relevant to young people; it is for us as cultural institutions to reflect what underrepresented young people want to see. It’s not about trying to make our existing offers relevant to them but listening to what we need to change. These young people are not ‘hard to reach’ or ‘disengaged’ – rather, we are hard to access and need to adapt.
Use of language
Defining the language and the terms to use were also vital in the scoping phase. We adopted an assets-based approach to working with young people. By focusing on their skills, interests, identities and knowledge, we can better support them to feel valued and to put them in the lead.
This is in contrast to deficit-focused approaches that focus on disadvantages young people face, describing them as ‘disengaged’ or ‘hard to reach’. While it’s important to recognise the challenges young people face, the research clearly shows that focusing on disadvantages does not develop young people’s confidence in their abilities.
Who are the under-served?
The under-served young people we want to work with are those underrepresented in the arts and cultural sector. Being specific about who we want to work with and not just blanket labelling all young people as ‘diverse’ is essential to this assets-based, equitable approach that values young people for who they are.
The young people we want to work with include, but are not limited to, those who define themselves as: LGBTQIA+; from working class backgrounds; neurodivergent; disabled; having a migrant or refugee experience; from African diaspora; from South, East and South-East Asian diaspora; and/or ethnically diverse. The programme recognises the intersectionality of these identities.
By working in co-production, collaboratively designing and delivering the project and embracing the value of everyone’s life experience, skills, personalities and assets, we hope to create an environment where young people feel ownership, are welcome in cultural spaces and are able to use the cultural spaces to express themselves.
It will of course be up to the young people how these projects develop. In Leeds, Geraldine Connor Foundation and Harewood House Trust will work predominantly with young people who define themselves as from the African or African Caribbean diasporas. They are scaffolding the sessions based on the title ‘My House’. This was suggested by a young person who has worked with them before. The idea is to facilitate a space where the young people can explore what Harewood House means to them and how the divisive and brutal history of the house, linked to the slave trade, can be explored in a way that benefits their community.
In Leicester, Attenborough Arts Centre and Pedestrian will collaborate with young people in an LGBTQ+ friendly project to explore activism and social justice. These young people will have full unrestricted access to the resources of both organisations to produce their project in response to the upcoming exhibition programme around this theme.
Each partnership will have a facilitator that will run the sessions with the young people, and Museums & Galleries Edinburgh and Edinburgh Young Carers will be working closely with their facilitator to shape sessions that will draw out of the young people what culture means to them and how they want to express themselves creatively.
Ultimately, we want to create a sense of agency in these young people, support their confidence to grow so they feel ownership of cultural spaces and feel confident in their ability to create an artistic output. We want to develop their skills and assets and support them to articulate this for employability.
Success in this programme could look like many things. Learning from the third sector about how to recruit and work with under-served young people would be a great indicator of success. But for me, if the young people who take part can have the confidence to come into a cultural setting and develop a project that means something to them with a sense of ownership of our spaces and their projects, then the project will have been a success.
For more information about the programme, visit our website.