South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

Conference blog: Co-producing with ‘disengaged’ communities

This blog post the latest in our series of posts that share knowledge from the recent South West Fed Conference. Here, Jane Marley reflects on her learning from Finn White’s workshop session.

Bristol Culture’s You Make Bristol display changes every year to a new co-produced community exhibition. Displays have covered a range of communities who previously had relatively little engagement with Bristol Culture, including white working class communities from one of the UKs most deprived neighbourhoods, Bristol’s diverse Somali communities, African Caribbean groups, who felt particularly misrepresented, and young people. Finn White’s workshop documented the project’s challenges, pitfalls and successes. Finn provided practical examples, with some clear tips on what to do and what not to do.

‘Disengaged’ people are defined as ‘those who do not use our services’. Finn described three projects that faced the potential challenges of co-producing:

The Somali Heritage Project, which aimed to create a display highlighting Somali identity in Bristol, faced cultural, language and literacy barriers and multi-communities. The project overcame the barriers through a new way of working with creatives from the Somali community - a photographer and an artist – and paying them for their services. The project provided training to community Somali volunteers to record and collect fantastic oral recordings.

The Knowle West project, based in a white working class community aimed, to create a display to celebrate the buildings and places that locals felt most connected to and were proud of in their neighbourhood. Many of the public buildings had been closed in Knowle West. The project faced barriers about who to connect with, that some people were not proud of the area and attitudes that the museum was ‘not for us’ and partners not knowing the community

A St Paul’s Carnival planned to create a display was about the 50th anniversary of the carnival by recording its unsung heroes. Originally celebrating multiculturalism, the event has gained more Afro-Caribbean focus over the last four decades. The display was planned during the 3rd year of cancellation of the Carnival by Bristol City Council. The project faced a lack of trust on both sides, difficulty in finding unsung heroes, and attitudes, of some, that the museum was ‘not for us’ and was viewed as ‘the enemy’.

Here are the key learning points I took away from Finn’s workshop:

• Co-producing can be seen as culturally exploitative and using personal, sensitive stories at people’s expense and ‘taking away our heritage’
• Don’t assume a community partner or leader knows their community. Ensure you meet many people from each community to get to know it – walk and talk to everyone and use multiple partners
• Consider changing your brief where it does not match the community’s needs and aim to address some of the issues the community faces, to avoid an output (e.g. a display that is perhaps too ‘nice’)
• Be prepared to accept different standards
• Lay out key museum audience expectations from the start
• If you are spending money, try and spend it in the target community and pay as many people as possible
• Give training - it’s a great incentive to community members to get involved

Jane Marley is part of the South West Fed’s 2019 Conference Team. Finn White is Engagement Officer - Communities, Bristol Culture, and has worked in museum engagement in Bristol and London for 5 years and has been responsible for numerous co-production and community engagement projects. He previously worked for many years in adult education where he specialised in ESOL and literacy. Finn's passion and expertise lies in attempting to remove the barriers many people face when engaging with art, history and culture.