I joined the Community Engagement team at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) in what was an extremely busy week for any museum team, days before an exhibition launch. I jumped right in because this exhibition was what I was here for. When I applied and interviewed for the placement, it was with the purpose of working in StoryLab, a testing gallery space at BMAG. If you haven’t heard of StoryLab and its unique methodology in the exploration of topics, please visit its current exhibition, Within and Without: Body Image and the Self on till February 2019 (shameless plug).
Joining at the time of the exhibition launch meant I got to witness the thought and discussion that went into the final placement of objects and art pieces, and the many details that went into organising a launch event, which was exciting. I was joining the team on an eight week student placement at the end of my Masters at the University of Leicester. My role within the Community Engagement team at BMAG was to conduct and co-ordinate the evaluation of the Within and Without exhibition. It included devising what evaluation testing methodologies were best suited in order to document the varied responses from visitors and coordinating with nine volunteers who gave their time to be in the gallery.
This exhibition was unique in that it was in collaboration with residents of Birmingham, each of whom had a different perspective to offer on body image. It was curated and designed to get visitors to think critically about body image, representation and who constructs the standards of beauty and self-image.
An introductory panel to the exhibition Within and Without: Body Image and the Self
My interest lies in collaborative community engagement that recognises the power structures that exist and seeks to create meaningful engagement where community collaborators and professionals feel valued and have ownership. The process of collaboration to create this exhibition reflected the value and spirit of meaningful engagement. There is a detailed blog post on the collaboration process by one of the participant collaborators here .
The exhibition is also unique in its questioning of how objects are interpreted in museums, by introducing not one but four different ways of using the space. There are different labels that catered to different kinds of interpretation – a regular museum label, academic, personal responses and a fictional story trail, all leading to further elaboration and exploration of the objects. In terms of evaluation, we implemented observation techniques, questionnaires, and interviews and also had a voting poll board in the space to capture visitor responses. The diversity in evaluation methods gave us a variety of responses, both qualitative and quantitative. I learnt a great deal from being in the gallery and observing visitor reactions to a piece of art or an object, often with personal anecdotes and feedback asserting the power of museums as spaces of reflection and dialogue.
The Empathy Body Trail: one of the many ways of experiencing the gallery.
The many intangible learnings from this placement have only furthered my excitement in shaping a career in the museum sector. It was an insight into the hard work and challenges of working in museums and the passionate staff that are its backbone. I Also gained an understanding of how my previous work experience could be relied upon to finding solutions to making museums uniquely specialist and interdisciplinary at the same time. Importantly, I learnt that community collaboration can be embedded in museum practise and language in ways that are open and equitable.
So thank you to the Community Engagement team for answering my many, many questions, for letting me follow you around and for introducing me to new exhibitions, other BMT sites and filling my placement with joy and learning. Museums remain relevant because of the many individuals striving to make them accessible.