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29 Sep 2017

The making of a people’s museum – one gallery space at a time

Museums are a treasure chest, a hoard of objects brimming with multi-layered histories. 

Behind the glass panes of illuminated cases or hanging in frames in perfectly measured mathematical rows are collections that draw local art appreciators, inquisitive explorers and accidental walk-through the door-ers. Whether they’ve come to see the galleries housing the ancient Egyptian or the Modern European, the items in a museum exist as portals to the past; key holders to the personal stories of its makers, thinkers, creators and contributors. True, the modern age of technology has its own place in art galleries, providing an alternative expression of a concept or reflection on our current world, even allowing for online access to collections. But what about the tangible collections and objects not seen by the public eye, the ones that aren’t currently in the cases or on the walls?

Often when I walk though galleries I notice the hushed voices, the slow shuffling feet and contemplative faces and I can’t help but feel there is an unspoken ‘museum code of conduct’ we all seem to adopt. A code of behaviour that is often overly cautious to make too much noise, ask too many questions or engage with others around about the collections. We see, we read, we move on. It’s unsurprising then that that scarcely ever has a member of the public walked up to museum staff and boldly exclaimed, “Excuse me, I don’t really like these pieces, they don’t resonate with me and my history – can I see the ones you have in the back please?” 

This begs two questions: what would a museum look like if its collections, environment and staff developed and fostered a space that encouraged conversation about the objects? And, what if those objects had been chosen from a preserved collection by the general public, who had contributed to interpreting meaning from them through personal connection?

Tour of the museum and gallery by Story Lab volunteers

Surely, the same museum that energises the café with weekly new additions, embellishes the activity programme with late night events and constantly refreshes its offer in functionality can do the same with its collections? 

How would that even work? 

It would be a process; a journey of seeking and finding; discovering the unheard voices and stories of community groups; understanding how we make meaning from objects that may have little contemporary importance without the context of human reflection. It would be a process of significant change. Change to the way a museum approached curation, interpretation, display and interaction both internally and externally. It would need a laboratory style set up, a testing space. It would need a ‘Story Lab’!

Story Lab group meeting

Change is only possible through action and at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery we have been actioning this very idea. A team of curators, designers, exhibition experts and community engagers teamed up with a group of community artists, writers and activists - testing how the idea works in practice, not just theory. This is the very basis of Story Lab, a new gallery space aimed at testing storylines and their connectivity to the people of Birmingham. Currently, we’ve been working on the story of Empire for the gallery, finding a way to marry the professional museum voices with those of our contributors who have been writing passionate interpretations for objects that represent Empire. The Story Lab which will house this exhibition is an evolving space, one that is never ‘finished’ because it exists to provoke comment, opinions, reaction and interaction on a daily basis from visitors. With voting booths, spaces to debate and programmed events to blow open featured topics, we are seeking to test the idea of a Museum for Birmingham. This environment will be one that encourages the visitors to feel a part of the fabric, part of that journey. Objects will be chosen because the storylines have sent us on a ‘seek and find trail’ to gain new insights and stories, bringing meaning to the collection through a number of local voices, moving away from one curatorial voice. 

Photo of a seagull with notes and comments around it

Notes on the wall from a Story Lab meeting

Museums are a treasure chest of objects brimming with multi-layered histories, but Birmingham is a treasure chest of stories brimming with multi-layered histories, stories that will inspire the future of our museum. This is a principle of Story Lab, this is the basis of change in action. 

Want to be a part of fostering and inspiring conversation and response in our unique gallery? Join our team as a Evaluation & Engagement Assistant volunteer  and come along for the journey on this exciting new venture that seeks to truly and dynamically do things a bit differently! 

The Empire Gallery in our Story Lab is due to open the end of October. Check the website later for more details.