Written by: Reagan Kiser, Community Partnerships Coordinator, The British Museum
Talking Objects Collective is an object-based youth engagement programme led by the Community Partnerships Team at The British Museum. The programme aims to bring young people (aged 16-24) together with the Museum and its collections in support of their accredited learning. Since 2012 the British Museum has worked with nine partner organisations, from fashion design students at Working Men’s College, to charities for vulnerable, disengaged, or at-risk young people, including Street League and Dance United. While each group brings their own creative process to the project, one thing remains the same: we work collaboratively to develop a creative response to one key object in the collection, the Lewis Chessmen. The Lewis Chessmen are highlights of The British Museum’s collections, a beautiful and mysterious medieval chess set found on a beach in the Isle of Lewis in Scotland.
Each Talking Objects project allows an important opportunity for creative risk-taking for its participants, our community partners, museum staff, and also for creative practitioners brought in to support the young people. The responses developed by the young people in co-production with the museum challenge our ideas about what can and should happen in the galleries. For example, we have had heard eloquent proposal pitches for new works of art designed for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, listened to collaborative poems inspired by individual characters from the Lewis Chessmen, and seen fashion designs inspired by patterns on the chess pieces. Recently, we staged a contemporary dance choreographed by young people from Dance United around the narrative of the Lewis Chessmen, and hosted an evening’s site-specific performance in the galleries (using theatre, dance and spoken word to unlock the mysteries of the Chessmen) by young people from OnlyConnect.
Each project is co-produced with our community partner, so that weekly sessions are customised to meet the skills development needs of the group. For example, when working with OnlyConnect, the young people used half of each weekly session at the Museum to develop their drama pieces in the galleries and to engage with and perform for visitors. They worked with a storyteller to focus on key characters in the Lewis Chessmen (from the queen to the knight) and then developed three stories that would encourage an audience (of 50!) to follow them from the Asia galleries to Africa galleries and beyond to reveal the mysteries of the unused chess set and its “lost queen.” Another example is when we met the Dance United group for the first time. We decided with the partners that the best way to shape the project and to build up the young people’s confidence in working with the Museum was to actually take part in one of their intensive dance sessions at their studio. Lorna and I definitely broke the ice this way, and by working alongside the troupe learned about the complex process of choreography and the skills they were interested in developing through the project. From film-making and editing skills, to fashion and jewellery design, we have collaborated with local creative practitioners to develop participants’ responses to the object, and sessions at the museum, and to provide them with new experiences and exposure to career paths. The methodology of Talking Objects is object-based exploration and discussion, so we start with young peoples’ personal connections and ideas about the objects, and end by encouraging them to use the objects and museums on their own terms for their future creative projects.
Perhaps the legacy of this type of collaborative work will be to change perceptions (on both sides) of how young people can use museums, and to raise their confidence with accessing culture and heritage. We also feel that by providing a public forum for the participants’ responses, the young people advocate for their place in museums. As an added benefit, by working closely with our partners who are specialists in youth engagement, we have had the opportunity to share and learn best practice. We have learned new strategies for engaging young people, are more aware of the challenges and rewards of this type of work, and have encouraged our partners to consider objects as dynamic platforms for their own creative practice. The best way to describe the partnership work is to link to an amazing blog post by one of the Only Connect participants about her experience with Talking Objects Collective at The British Museum.
Talking Objects Collective is funded by John Lyon’s Charity. For more information, please contact Lorna Cruickshanks, Community Partnerships Coordinator firstname.lastname@example.org