SUMMER THEATRE: Scratching at museums

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In an Arts Council-funded enterprise, Battersea Arts Centre is lending its unique theatre approach to museums as they seek new ways to address audiences

 

On the face if it, theatre and museum management have little in common - the first is about movement, the second about explanation. But David Jubb, head of Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), quickly realised that the one big thing they have in common is that they both have audiences, and it was a short step from there to see that there is another vital commonalty: they both tell stories.

He was confronted with the proposition three years ago when he was asked to take responsibility for the neighbouring Wandsworth Museum which was having to close. 

The BAC has its own extensive archive, accumulated over years. “It was a matter of finding ways in which the two collections could work together” he says. In April last year he began a 12-month trial with the Wandsworth Museum’s curator, Sue Walker, bringing her curatorial expertise to the BAC, and in April this year she and Jubb knew it could work, but in a way that no conventional museum has worked.

All this was going on while the BAC was entering the nitty-gritty of a major recasting by the architects Haworth Tompkins, and then came the disastrous fire that destroyed the building’s great hall. In the subsequent year the building scheme has been nuanced, and with money raised in record time the repairs have gone on apace. And the museum project, BACX Moving Museum, is a goer.

The plan in longer term is to have elements of the museum in various public parts of the rambling building, or they might be inspirations for shows. The call has gone out for London Stories, an event for the autumn when local people will tell local stories to small audiences or five or six at a time, using objects to help. And artists have been invited to design the bikes that will take objects to schools, day centres, hospices and other public parts of the borough. There will not be a conventional display in this very unconventional museum, which is what the BAC has become.

The BAC and Wandsworth Museum worked out how to make their marriage work by deploying the BAC’s own “scratch” process. Scratch is a method of building a piece of theatre by inviting the audience to participate in the creative process, one which has resulted in some of the most surprising and delightful entertainment in modern time – Jerry Springer, the Opera sprang out of it - and it is a process that has now been applied to all of the centre’s activities. The key is contact and exchange with audiences.

The initial discourse with the Wandsworth Museum coincided with another conversation, with Gaby Porter, the museum and heritage consult- ant who has worked with everyone from the Association of Independent Museums and the University of Manchester to the British Museum and the Churches Conservation Trust. She had been introduced by the BAC’s chairman, Michael Day, who is also chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces with which the Gaby Porter Partnership has worked. Her interest is in moving the heritage experience forward, making it an ever more personal experience for audiences, and she wanted to see how the BAC system could be applied to small, Arts Council accredited museums. Creative Museums was born.

“For me, experiencing the work they (the BAC) do, the quality of the relationship they have with the people who come, is truly extraordinary, and theatre is only one expression of that” Porter says. “I sensed an opportunity here to use this to revitalise some museums. The museums environment is too often a very long term, linear, cumbersome, costly process of conventional interpretation that isn’t useful now. They need responses to be much more alive, much more hu- man, and much more adaptable.”

Support

With the enthusiastic support of the Arts Council and its funding, the Creative Museums scheme was born, with BAC producer Sarah Golding leading it. “When I went to the Manchester Jewish Museum” she says “I was shown around by an elder of the synagogue who had such pas- sion, humanity and deep knowledge that it was an unforgettable experience”, and this is the spirit of the new approach: “We need to be personally subjective as well as factually objective”. Last summer there was a seminar, incorporating workshops, to which 30 or 40 museums sent representatives and were subsequently asked to send bids for what would be an 18 month pilot programme. Six- teen did, five emerged as the chosen and artists – actors, directors, producers, painters, architects – are working with them.

As the Rio Olympic Games approach, Brent Museum in London realised that it has a large Brazilian element in its community with which it has almost no connection. It is holding a series of consultation events outside the museum, at local Brazilian butchers’ shops, cafés and churches, to get ideas for a community exhibition later in the summer to be called What Does It Mean To Be Brazilian In Brent?

Leominster Museum’s proposal is to start by creating job descriptions for two new volunteer roles through which to consult the community on the renovation of the museum’s building. And a bun from the First World War is to be the catalyst for a centenary event in collaboration with local cadets and the historical society as the museum cultivates a supportive local network.

Manchester Jewish Museum is working with BAC producer Bethany Hayes to embed a scratch process in a major HLF capital project, exploring ways of co-producing events and exploring controversial issues with local communities and residents from the Cheetham Hill Road area, probably one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the world, which has historically been home to migrants from across the globe.

Deeper insights

Nuneaton Museum’s scratch is The History Factory, which aims to gather deeper insights into what the local community want to see, experience and create in the museum, though a constantly evolving exhibition of lo- cal stories chosen and displayed by local people, working with artists and BAC producers.

And Scarborough Museum is working with a BAC team on interpretation of local stories within the building’s Rotunda space in collaboration with artists and the local community.

“What we get is an important chance to share practice with the part- ners involved” Sarah Golding says. “As we begin our journey as a muse- um, it’s invaluable to hear from these peers and learn from their experience. Advice and reflection around the process of accreditation has been ex- tremely useful as we begin to develop our plans. We’re also at the point of enhancing our work with volunteers, and our excellent discussions with the cohort around this area of work has fed directly into the shape of our new thinking.”

Creative Museums is radical and its pilot period will end in spring next year, but Gaby Porter believes many more small museums will be clam- ouring to join the next iteration. There will be a round-up, not only on what it has meant to the first five museums but what the Battersea Arts Centre has learned as well – “we need to be really creative” she says “but it’s long term”.

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