Dippy at Ulster Museum

It’s all about you (us)!

Are you visible in your museum or science/discovery centre? Do visitors to your space see you, or hear your individual voice as well as that of the organisation?

Last May, I attended the Museums and Heritage Show, and one of the talks was about an after-hours event organised by and held at the National Gallery, specifically aimed at lonely people. It was a great project and it was great to hear how the organisation were keen to reach new audiences, and how they used MeetUp as a platform to develop an audience and reduce barriers to attendance.

The talk has stuck with me since, because it raised a question for me about audiences, and a curator or public programmes organiser’s relationship to them. Audiences are us – as individuals, we are lonely, we have kids, we are affected by dementia, we struggle with noisy spaces and crowds, and we can’t afford your ticket prices as well as your café! If we recognise that we are some of these things, as well as a whole host of other things, should we (or could we), use our own voices to develop programmes and exhibitions with our visitors? Is there a more subjective way to identify audiences we want to work with and ways we might develop and tell stories? Would we be able to make more powerful connections if we were able or prepared to say (for example) – “I sometimes feel lonely and find it difficult to feel comfortable in social situations. I wanted to create a space to share with other people, where we can feel safe and make new connections”. For me, that individual voice would help me feel I could attend, that the event was created by someone with an understanding of my needs. I feel it might also communicate an understanding of the complexities of individual needs, rather than something broadly arranged for an ‘identified’ audience.

I visited Ulster Museum in Belfast last year, as part of my trip to the MA Conference. It was hosting Dippy the dinosaur as part of its tour. In the first room of the exhibition was a drawing of a dinosaur made by the natural history curator when they were a child. It explained how their childhood love of dinosaurs had led to them working in museums and to this point. It was a great way to introduce the gallery, and make a personal connection to their sense of wonder and excitement. As I moved around Dippy and the other wonderful exhibits, I felt more receptive to the pieces and the stories, and found that I was able to enjoy the exhibition in a more engaged way.

These examples are both different ways we engage with museums, through events and exhibitions, but I hope they illustrate the idea of the individual voice as a way to engage people. I think it is a way to communicate that my concerns and interests are your concerns and interests, are our concerns and interests. It potentially creates a shared space and experience rather than a hosted one.

What do you think? Do you think the curator/programmer/exhibition designer’s voice belongs in your museum? Is it inviting or self-indulgent? What great examples do you have of individual voices being used in your space or spaces you have visited?