Collecting Birmingham: evaluation of a Prize Winner!

Much as I love all my clients, it’s a tremendous buzz when their work wins prizes!

Birmingham Museums Trust commissioned me to evaluate their terrific Collection Birmingham project during 2017-2018, and then used elements of my report to help them win the Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives Award 2018.

The project was funded through the HLF Collecting Cultures programme and focussed on bringing people from some of Birmingham’s diverse communities together with artists and curators to shape the future of Birmingham Museum Trust’s collecting policies.

Over 1,800 objects were acquired through consultations with local people including The Rivers of Birminam, a series of 100 black and white photographs by Vanley Burke chronicling 40 years of Caribbean heritage in Birmingham. The photographs are by far the largest and most significant collection of work by the celebrated photographer in any public collection and were displayed at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery earlier this year.

I feel like the photos belong to the people of Birmingham as so many people feel connected to the stories and experiences documented in them. I’m very pleased they will be part of the city’s collection.

Vanley Burke

As an evaluator, it was exciting to see how eager the Collections Team of curators, conservators and cataloguers were to get involved with community engagement activity more usually carried out by the Learning & Engagement team members.

As the project team worked across the whole Trust to bring many permanent staff members’ skills to bear on creating networks, it is clear that Collecting Birmingham has significantly increased the network of communities and local experts with whom Birmingham Museums Trust hopes to work in future.

The very public nature of the project and the open consultation processes employed have gone a long way to demonstrate goodwill to and build trust with communities who had previously had reason to suspect the institution’s intentions. The team have also supported external partners to ensure a more representative process of collecting and presenting culturally significant objects to wider audiences in future years.  As a result, participants have demonstrated changes in attitude towards BMT that augur well for future collaboration.

There is no doubt of the impact that Collecting Birmingham will have on BMT’s Collections Development Policy and on the organisation as a whole. As Rebecca Bridgman, Project Manager and Curator said:

As a result of Collecting Birmingham, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the method whereby only curators decide what new objects to acquire for the collection.

You can download the report pdf here: Collecting Birmingham Evaluation Report 2018

Improving museum access practice

picture1Monday’s post about the VocalEyes report on The State of Museum Access for people with Disabilities drew a lot of attention on social media from professionals seeking or driving change in their own institutions. I’ve had some really good conversations about breaking down barriers and heard about some excellent resources, and I thought it only fair to share!

It was particularly brilliant to hear from Roz Chalmers (@elsiebiades) who is a freelance audio describer and trainer, Thanh Sinden at Culture Coventry who is currently reviewing access practice in-house, and Becki Morris,  a museum professional specialising in inclusion and representation of Disabilities in museums.

Becki drew my attention to the Disability Co-operative Network in Museums, which is committed to raising the profile of inclusive practice in the museum, heritage and cultural sectors.  You can follow them on twitter @museumDCN.

DCN aims to raise confidence, challenge preconceptions and reduce barriers to service delivery by broadening audience participation and engagement.  They work with corporations, businesses, charities, organisations and individuals to identify and challenge barriers, support inclusive service delivery, technological innovation and attract disabled talent to the workplace.

Their website is available to all museums, art galleries, heritage sites and cultural venues and includes free resources and case studies contributed by heritage, arts, charity and corporate sector organisations.  It also includes a free virtual exhibition space for disabled artists which includes profiles and links to the artist’s website.

One long term goal for the website is to begin a blog for disabled people to share and feedback on their experiences of cultural venues.  For further information, you can contact DCN directly.

Challenging museum access practice

As someone with poor sight, I am always intrigued to see what provision museums make for blind and partially sighted visitors.

It is a strangely overlooked area – most services manage to provide Large Print captions, but there is still a lot of work to be done around providing handling materials, tactile interpretation and the navigation of darkened exhibition spaces.  On one occasion, my negligible depth-perception meant that I nearly pitched headfirst down a very stylish but completely unreadable flight of ash-wood stairs that had no contrasting colour-stripe on the steps. My ‘favourite’ experience, admittedly 10 years ago, when asking at a museum reception desk about the prize-winning special trail advertised on their website, was to be asked “Just how BAD is your eyesight?” before being given a water bowl for my (non-existent) guide-dog.

So I admit that it is a bit depressing to read in the VocalEyes State of Museum Access Report 2016 published today, that, in 2016, for too many museums, website access information for blind and partially sighted people consists of a solitary message welcoming guide dogs.  As VocalEyes point out, it might be useful to note that for every guide-dog owner in the UK, there are around 75 registered blind or partially sighted people who do not use a guide dog, and for whom information about resources and events at the museum would be a welcome and necessary prerequisite for a visit.

The State of Museum Access Report 2016 shares the results of an accessibility audit of the websites of all 1600 accredited UK Museums.  The report breaks the data down for Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland and the English regions, as well as for categories of museum (independent, local authority, university, military, national museums, and heritage sites), and is very valuable reading for us all.

Evidence shows that online access information is a key factor in the decision-making process for disabled visitors, and that many will not visit if access information is absent. With that in mind, some of the key findings from the report should give us pause for thought:

  • 27% of UK museum websites audited provide no access information for disabled visitors planning a visit
  • Only 30% of UK museum websites provide information that would be useful for a blind or partially-sighted person planning a visit
  • Only 18% of museums publicise the fact that labelling or information about their exhibits is available in Large Print.
  • Only 10% of museums advertise that they offer live audio-described tours / handling sessions for blind and partially sighted visitors.
  • Only 5% are taking advantage of websites that provide detailed access audits such as DisabledGo.com and Euans’ Guide, a site offering Disabled Access Reviews by disabled people for disabled people

An element I find really interesting here is how few museums advertise on their websites the access resources they do actually offer. Many of the museums I have worked with over the years have invested time in providing Large Print captions or handling sessions for the public at large.  Some have even trained their staff in audio description.  But the number who don’t actually advertise the fact in their publicity material means that very few blind or partially-sighted visitors take up the offer and these access services lapse into disuse.

So – two take home actions here people –

  1. Check out and implement the good practice guidelines that VocalEyes helpfully provide to help museums move towards far better practice in accessible web, digital marketing and social media
  2. TELL THE WORLD YOU DO IT!