A project initiated by

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

"We very much value our collection, our heritage sites, our expertise – but we see those as the tools helping people to find their way in the world, discover their own identities, and so making a difference in people's lives."

Running along both sides of the river Tyne from Newcastle/Gateshead to the estuary at South Shields, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums comprises nine museums and galleries and a regional archive service. The partnership dates back to 1974; current director Iain Watson joined the organisation in 2001 as senior curator, rising to assistant director and then director in 2010, leading a team of roughly 200 staff. Annual turnover is approximately £10m; given that the 10 sites span four local authority areas – Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside and South Tyneside – and two of the museums are run on behalf of Newcastle University, TWAM’s funding economy is complex, but roughly translates as 30% from local authorities, 40% from Arts Council England as part of the National Portfolio, 10% from Newcastle University, and the remaining 20% raised through grants, philanthropy and commercial activity.

Mission: making a difference in people’s lives by helping them discover their identities

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museum’s mission predates the leadership since 2010 of director Iain Watson and, he says, essentially hasn’t changed in two decades. “Ours were among the first museums to move away from a mission that was about objects, culture and heritage, to have a people-focused mission. We very much value our collection, our heritage sites, our expertise – but we see those as the tools helping people to find their way in the world, discover their own identities, and so making a difference in people’s lives.”

Watson came to museums through education – learning departments, but also having taught English in secondary schools – and believes it is the “personal interaction” with objects and heritage that defines a museum’s civic role. Sometimes the interaction with a museum might be as minimal as “coming in because it is somewhere warm and safe to be – and that’s fine. We want people to get more out of the experience, but it’s fine if they come in originally because it’s somewhere to shelter: perhaps that will be the start of their thinking differently, or changing an attitude.”

Although its 10 sites are situated close to the Tyne, TWAM’s reach is across the whole of the north-east: it operates the North East Museum Development Programme, supporting all the small and voluntary museums in the region; and, as an Arts Council England Bridge Organisation, it works with children’s and young people’s organisations again across the region to broker access to all art forms, including dance, music and theatre. The 10 sites themselves range from two Roman forts (Arbeia in South Shields, and Segedunum in Wallsend) to a major art gallery (the Laing Art Gallery in central Newcastle), a railway museum, and general museums, big and small. Using UK statistical office classification, Watson says TWAM “pride ourselves on having more C2, D and E visitors – lower-paid skilled workers, unskilled workers and unemployed people – than most museums”, reached partly through “getting out and working directly in the communities” and partly through “making the sites as accessible and welcoming as they can be”.

A collegiate approach

While some of the individual museums date back 200 years, as a partnership TWAM came together in 1974, and Watson identifies two advantages to this collegiate approach:

1: Economies of scale

Resources can more easily be shared across the different sites. For instance, “most museums would be lucky to employ one conservator, and we actually employ four: a paper conservator, a metal conservator, an objects conservator and a remedial conservator. So if someone at one museum needs an oil painting conservator, we’ve got one.”

2: A place at the table

“If I were the manager for one of these museums on its own, I’d never get to speak to the leader of the council. This isn’t about personal arrogance: it’s about saying it’s important that I can have that dialogue, and make sure that museums and culture are on the agenda for chief executives and council leaders. That advocacy role is really important at a national level.”

Working with communities

Each of the nine museums “has a distinct personality”, and the ways in which TWAM approaches working with communities might be particular to that site or cross-organisation. For instance, at the South Shields Museum, which Watson describes as “a classic, civic museum”, a collaboration with a local substance recovery project led to an exhibition on the history of allotments in the area: “People gathered their photos and stories together and we displayed those. So you can do things that are very local in a particular town, where pride is focused on that community: that can be really important.”

“People gathered their photos and stories together and we displayed those. So you can do things that are very local in a particular town, where pride is focused on that community: that can be really important.”

But TWAM is also able to run projects across all of its sites, and indeed beyond them, to build a sense of regional pride. Watson describes: “a project called Culture Shock, where we worked with a number of partner museums across the region to produce about 700 digital stories documenting people’s experience of life in the north-east. A couple of people said to me at the end of that project that it had changed their life: one had explored gender and sexuality for the first time through it, and felt that he’d come to a new understanding of how he presented to the world; another talked for the first time publicly about being bipolar, and how art allowed him to release those feelings, build confidence, and go on to do things that he would never have done before.”

TWAM’s cross-organisation outreach coheres within four defined programmes: the Wellbeing Programme, supporting “mental health service-users and their families”; the Recovery Programme, for “people in justice recovery, substance recovery, alcohol recovery”; the Platinum Programme, which focuses on people aged over 55; and the Network Programme, through which museum staff work with communities “to produce exhibitions in the community: these might also travel into the museum, but it’s important they start in the community so people can see them without having to come into the city centre”. In all of these programmes, “we work to a needs-based rather than a resource-based agenda: we don’t start by saying, what am I going to do with this collection of barber surgeon’s instruments? We start off by finding out what people are interested in – and you might actually find that they are fascinated by 18th-century surgery! Equally, objects might lead off in completely different ways.”

“We work to a needs-based rather than a resource-based agenda: we don’t start by saying, what am I going to do with this collection of barber surgeon’s instruments? We start off by finding out what people are interested in.”

Watson’s aim is always to be “explicit about the message that we see our museums as being about everybody and engaging everybody in the community”. In 2013 that resulted in a new permanent gallery in the Discovery Museum, in Newcastle city centre, dedicated to immigration in the region. Called Destination Tyneside, “we told the story of migration over the past 200 years: in the mid-19th century a lot of Irish immigrants came to work in the coal-mining industry, the chemical industry, the ironworks; people fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe later in the 19th century; people fleeing Nazi persecution in the 20th century; and so on to Windrush and up to the present day.” The gallery has since informed some of the ongoing work with migrant and refugee groups.

Empowering staff

As well as encouraging visitors to think differently, Watson is keen that “we empower staff to take risks, to develop new ideas, particularly around how we use our collections to engage a wide audience”. Partly this happens through an internal programme called Try New Things, through which any staff member “can bid for a small amount of money to do a project. For instance, we’ve had an exhibition of motorcycles put on not by a curator but a member of the front of house staff. It’s giving people a chance to do things in the organisation, so that not all ideas have to come through a hierarchical structure.”

“We empower staff to take risks, to develop new ideas, particularly around how we use our collections to engage a wide audience”.

The same thinking is applied to relationships with volunteers: TWAM has “about 600 people a year who register as volunteers with us and they deliver about 40,000 hours of volunteering”, doing everything from “working with a collection” to “filing and admin in the library”. Watson points out two key characteristics of TWAM’s relationship with volunteers: through its “social volunteering” strand, “we’ve worked specifically with young people not in education, employment or training, people who are third- and fourth-generation unemployed referred to us from the youth service; and we’ve done a lot of work in rehab, people who have had a brain injury perhaps and are now having a challenging time re-engaging with the workforce”. And volunteers are woven into the governance structure: “My strategic board has three volunteers alongside people who are local councillors, etc; and all but one of my fundraising trust gives their time freely to that.”

Challenges

Watson became director “just as austerity really started to hit: it goes without saying that funding is a huge challenge”. Less obvious is the challenge of changing the museum culture, both internally and in terms of its external relationships. “I think sometimes that museums have too many different professional disciplines: we get into our little silos of curator, learning officer. We’ve been playing around with ideas about job titles like executive producer, show runner – that could be more exciting than some of those historic roles. Knowledge lies in different places: some of it is in the communities, some of it in universities, and we need to network better. Are we fully engaged with the function of other civic agents? If we’re targeting particular groups, are there four other organisations also targeting them, while another group down the road has nobody working with them?”

“Knowledge lies in different places: some of it is in the communities, some of it in universities, and we need to network better.”

What next?

The joined-up thinking Watson identifies as a challenge also presents “huge opportunities: a lot of services that were once delivered by local authorities are now delivered by the third sector, and as museums we need to be engaged in that, and to make our spaces more permeable.”

He also wants “to improve the quality of the conversation that we have with our users, whether they’re personal users or online users, whether they come in as individuals, as families, as groups. We’ve been mentoring volunteers to help them do more on the gallery floor, to talk and engage with people, because it makes such a difference. One of the things that I recognise is that many people in museums do community work: they might be labelled a curator but they have the most fantastic relations with local history groups, or networks of retired engineers, people who are part of our communities. In all of our sites, I think we could get a broad range of staff out on the floor to talk to people.”

Image: Discovery museum, courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Leave a comment