British Museum Knowledge Exchange: part two

Background

During November 2021, Caroline Brick, who co-ordinates the Hebridean Connections digital community archive at Museum nan Eilean, spent a week at the British Museum in London as part of its Knowledge Exchange programme. This professional programme is funded by the Vivmar Foundation and forms part of British Museum’s National Programmes activities, which brings together collections, best practice and expertise. The Knowledge Exchange programme aims to develop skills, relationships and insights across the heritage sector.

Caroline writes:

I’ve described how the start of my exchange programme got off to an exciting start – and day two continued in the same vein.

Community partnerships

I started the morning with two staff members who oversee public participation – but in quite different ways. Firstly, I met with Kayte MacSweeney, the British Museum’s Community Partnerships Manager. Kayte’s team liaises with approximately 600-700 London-based community partners; these range from small local groups to large organisations such as charities. The key concept with these collaborations is partnership – participants are not volunteers but rather, co-curators and community consultants (and as such are paid). The British Museum does not currently have any permanent community galleries (though this is under review by its forward-planning Rosetta project) – so the Community Partnerships project-based work is crucial in giving voices to traditionally under-represented sectors. Projects have pre-defined tangible outputs, such as a display, event or a piece of research; they aim to disrupt traditional museum practices, and include liaison not only with the British Museum curators, but with other professionals such as conservators. Kayte can be heard discussing concepts of participatory practice in this Wonderhouse podcast.

Volunteering

I next met with Stuart Frost, Head of Interpretation and Volunteers. Stuart provided an overview of volunteering processes and operations at the Museum. Over 500 people currently volunteer in both front and back of house activities. These might include tour guiding, staffing hands-on desks where the public get to handle artefacts, or helping curators with cataloguing; volunteers never undertake core staff duties but instead add value to the British Museum’s activities. I was gifted a copy of the Volunteer handbook which outlines support available to volunteers, as well as their responsibilities:

Stuart’s remit overlaps with that of Community Partnerships to some extent; for example, both are committed to increasing diversity and inclusion. Examples include youth projects, and establishment of tours where blind and partially-sighted visitors can explore objects through touch. Working on Hebridean Connections entails me coordinating and supporting our team of volunteers who undertake data input – so it was immensely interesting and useful to compare notes with Kayte and Stuart on aspects such as outreach and recruitment, training and moral support, managing expectations, and legalities, rights and responsibilities. A hot topic post-pandemic is how to provide volunteering opportunities via remote working; Hebridean Connections has of course been doing this for years! And at the heart of discussions was the key concept of mutual benefit – that community partners and volunteers gain voices, empowerment, enrichment and upskilling, and the Museum gains commitment, new insights, and expertise. Stuart also went on to explain his allied role of overseeing interpretation at the British Museum. This of course informs the tour guiding work undertaken by volunteers, and also forms integral parts of the exhibition and publication processes of the Museum. For instance, exhibition planning will include objectives, messages and structures of new projects; these in turn can form legacy content for museum publications such as exhibition catalogues and guides. These details supplemented the overview of British Museum research publications as explained to me the day before by the Museum’s Editorial Manager.

Digital Heritage

My next Knowledge Exchange appointment was with Dan Pett, former Digital Humanities lead at the British Museum, where he designed the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (which I was to find out more about later in my Knowledge Exchange programme). Dan is now the Head of Digital and IT at the Fitzwilliam Museum, so our meeting was by video conference – but it still gave us chance to talk about digital archives and exciting developments in the digital heritage fields. I explained that Hebridean Connections is undergoing substantial technical review, aiming to improve interfaces for both researchers and for data input – this led to a consideration of designing information architectures and workflows to match users. Dan also pointed me in the direction of other interesting projects, for example, Towards a National Collection (TaNC). TanC is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and over a five year research period, aims to identify how machine learning and citizen-led archiving can dissolve barriers between collections – thereby opening up research access. Definitely an initiative to keep an eye on!

Contrasting Island Communities

My final consultation of the day was with Gaye Sculthorpe, Head of the British Museum’s Oceania curatorial department. We compared notes about capturing the heritage of island communities. Whilst Hebridean Connections mostly documents the intangible cultural heritage of the Western Isles, with its focus on genealogy, local history and folk traditions, Gaye’s recent research has been specifically artefactual: surveying collections for her recently published work, Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums:

The book considers not only the objects themselves but the originating makers and communities, and the collectors, networks and institutions which dispersed and curated them. Complex and challenging histories and relationships are explored, and provoked me to consider the relationships between producers and consumers of the information held in the Hebridean Connections database.

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything

I rounded off my second day at the British Museum with a completely self-indulgent treat: a visit to its temporary exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything.The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai is probably best known for his print, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, popularly known as The Great Wave:

Copyright: British Museum

This exhibition featured 103 recently acquired drawings, produced in the 1820s–1840s for an illustrated encyclopaedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything. These artworks throw light both on Hokusai’s techniques and on nineteenth century Japan’s worldview. Should you find yourself in London I recommend catching the exhibition before it finishes on 30th January 2022; it provided me with a beautiful end to a thought provoking second day of my Knowledge Exchange.

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