Heart to heart with Sunday Assembly

A guest post from Shanna Lennon about Sunday Assemblies at the museum.

At the heart of the Courtyard Development is our vision of a Museum for Life. This vision sees the museum as an engine for civic engagement: promoting joy, curiosity, personal wellbeing and social change. We are not alone in our ambition, and are currently exploring different ways of working with new and existing partners to achieve this.

One such partner is Sunday Assembly which is a secular congregation celebrating life and helping people “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More”. It is an opportunity for strangers to meet and explore life through talks, songs, crafts, poetry and much more. It is a space to celebrate all that we have in common.

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Since our Museum for Life vision aligns so well with all that Sunday Assembly hope to build, we have developed a natural partnership with them. Through this, we are hosting their Manchester gatherings at the museum on the second Sunday of every month.

These are the sorts of partnerships and new ways of working we hope to develop and nurture over the next few years. Through this we hope to learn lots about how the museum can create the conditions for people to connect with others, be socially active and develop a deep fascination, appreciation and awe for the world around them and the people in it.

This month we had the chance to experience the multi-faceted and joyous experience of the Sunday Assembly ourselves when we hosted their first assembly at the museum. We also got the chance to speak to some of the congregation about how they feel about the museum as a venue for gatherings such as these, what draws them to the Sunday Assembly, their relationship with the museum and what they feel a Museum for Life can offer them in the future.

Jonny, who has attended both of the Sunday Assemblies which have taken place at the museum, said:

“At first the venue sounded a bit odd, but coming here I get why it makes sense. [There are] all the things to explore and, yeah definitely the Wonder element really fits with the Sunday Assembly”.

When asked about what he enjoyed about the Sunday Assembly, Jonny spoke enthusiastically about how it allowed him to hear other people’s stories and explore a theme from lots of different, multi-disciplinary angles. He drew parallels between this and what a museum could do:

“Take a simple cooking pot, that might tell all sorts of stories about a culture, about gathering together… I want to hear those stories from the people themselves”

People are looking for a space they can meet together and share stories but it’s how those stories are told here at the museum that interests us most over the next two years.

We know that we are a museum that appeals to families and we don’t want to lose that. However, one thing we really want to encourage is adults – visiting by themselves! Again, part of our work on Museum for Life is exploring how the museum can work differently, to create opportunities for adults as well as children; opportunities that speak to what matters most to them, and shows that wonder and discovery are not just for kids.

One congregation member who came to the last Sunday Assembly had never visited the museum before. Since February’s assembly he has come to the museum on his own to explore the collection; the experience of Sunday Assembly made him feel that he should explore more.

Speaking to another Sunday Assembly attendee, Lisa, revealed a really interesting insight into adult visitors. This was the Lisa’s first visit to the Sunday Assembly since we have become their venue, and her first time at the museum since her son was younger. She admitted that she felt a little sad when she arrived:

“I remember coming here when my son was little – he used to love dinosaurs. There’s a little bit of me that’s sad because I remember those times and now he’s all grown up.”

Lisa did say that the museum itself was a good venue as “it just has this kind of energy” and she is making arrangements so that she has time, following next month’s assembly, to explore the museum. She was also really interested to know about programming specifically related to adults and she talked about feeling the need to have an invitation or excuse to visit – something she knew would be specifically for adults. This was something shared by others that we spoke to and emphasizes the need for programming around the interests of adults.

Sunday Assembly

One woman spoke about “wanting layers of experience” from a Museum visit, which is what is attractive about the Sunday Assembly.  She shared that most of the time she wants to explore alone but would like to meet people afterwards for conversation and discussion – particularly if it was around a certain collection or exhibition.

In terms of the Museum’s future plans, she spoke about it being a “reinvention” and how we all go through reinventions that suit the ever-changing context we live in: it is part of life, so why should a Museum be any different? Particularly a Museum for Life!

Everyone who we spoke to about the experience of Sunday Assembly was enthusiastic about meeting others and exploring a theme from lots of different angles. Hearing authentic voices and having an active experience shared with others, was really important. They themselves recognised opportunities at the museum and shared our excitement for our ‘reinvention’.

We hope that this relationship continues to blossom and forms part of our journey towards being a true Museum for Life.  You can join Sunday Assembly Manchester at Manchester Museum next on the 11th March, 11am – find out more via their website or twitter. In the meantime – here’s a top tune if you missed out on singing at the last one!

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