Developing skills and expertise
in partner museums.
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This section gives an overview of the different members of staff who support a Talking Objects project. It highlights what everyone gains and how best to manage different colleagues’ involvement.
“ I gained an understanding of other peoples perspectives on museum objects and displays.”
Involving an object specialist is an essential component of a Talking Objects project. The initial introduction to the object is the catalyst for the group’s responses and interpretations and an opportunity for the group to build an understanding of curatorial practice and object biographies. The object specialist is often the collection curator but it can also be other expert colleagues or specialists within the local community. When this is not possible learning staff have acted as the object specialist, making use of existing research and knowledge.
The original Talking Objects methodology recommends an individual with specialist knowledge of the focus object(s) to be present for the entirety of the project. Given the demanding lives of museum staff this isn’t always possible, but the intensive dialogue between specialist and target visitors is the key component to ensuring the success and sustainability of your project. Therefore it’s important to create key moments at least at the beginning and end of the project to involve the object specialist.
Considering if colleagues have worked with your target audience before is important as you don’t want them or the participant to feel uncomfortable, or that the sessions weren’t ‘pitched’ at the right level. At Colchester and Ipswich staff were aware that their curator had limited experience of working with young people, so as well as giving him the Talking Objects methodology as guidance they also talked through the aims of the project to reassure him.
Ladan Akbarnia, Curator of Islamic Art at The British Museum feels that Talking Objects is not only important for deepening the dialogue between collections specialists and new audiences, but vital in strengthening departmental relationships within cultural organisations. For her, working alongside learning and interpretation staff and sharing knowledge between them was integral to the success and legacy of the programme.
“Sometimes as curators we are guilty of only telling one story, locked up in an object which may have many, many stories to tell. And usually the object itself is a kind of catalyst to the individuals who respond to those objects. That was the case with these young people.”
A Talking Objects project has a number of participants, external facilitators and internal colleagues to coordinate. It is therefore important that a project manager or facilitator is assigned the task of overseeing the planning and delivery. This role has most often sat within learning teams, but has also been the responsibility of curatorial staff. In addition to being the key contact for all involved in the planning stages of the project, the facilitator is also responsible for leading the sessions and ensuring everyone in the group feels engaged and included.
Involving volunteers has lots of benefits, especially with helping to set up spaces and collating evaluative data. At the British Museum, the programme has really benefitted from having a student placement offered for the Talking Objects projects for up to 12 weeks, which has the additional benefit of research findings to feed back into the programme.
Senior management and broader museum staff
It also helps to have your department on board and have senior members of the museum invited to the final day of the project to listen to presentations and/or performances. This boosts awareness of the project at your organisation, encourages cross-departmental collaboration and gives the project greater impact and gravitas.
Reacting to availability
With a work force increasingly comprised of part-time staff it’s really important that you consider availability in the early stages of scheduling the project and recruiting staff. At Newark Museum Services the 5 day project was scheduled over 2 months instead of 4 consecutive days. Among other benefits, it had greater compatibility with the part time nature of most members of the team. The role of facilitator being shared among numerous staff was perceived favourably; rather than jeopardising the continuity of the project it led to wider ownership and learning for museum staff.