Young People and the Future of Museums: part 1

International Museum Day is an annual celebration day that invites the international museum community to raise awareness of museums as “an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples”. This year’s theme, The future of Museums: recover and reimagine, is all about the new practices and solutions that museums have developed in response to the various social, economic and environmental challenges of the present.

This is a pivotal moment for our society, and we call museums to embrace it and lead the change. The time is now to rethink our relationship with the communities we serve, to experiment with new and hybrid models of cultural fruition and to strongly reaffirm the essential value of museums for the construction of a just and sustainable future.

ICOM: http://imd.icom.museum/international-museum-day-2021/the-future-of-museums/

This invitation feels like the perfect opportunity to share and celebrate the achievements of Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH) at Manchester Museum. In this blog, I (Hannah Chalk, Learning Manager and editor or the hello future blog) attempt to share some of the many ways in which OSCH, led by Dr Sadia Habib, is transforming the role of young people in the future of museums.

Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH) develops, tests, and evaluates new models for engaging young people, aged 11-25, from the South Asian diaspora and their peers with heritage, as creators, decision makers, citizens and trainers. This youth-led project aims to make museums and heritage organisations better places for young people to explore identity and belonging, connect with others, and become active and vocal participants in organisational decision making. Led by the British Council and delivered in partnership with Manchester Museum, Glasgow Life and UK Youth, OSCH is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Kick the Dust programme.

OSCH aims to address a particular problem facing the heritage sector: while the importance of stories of belonging, home and origin to young people from diaspora groups is well documented, cultural heritage is something that is done at home and in family environments, rather than in museums or heritage organisations. OSCH has responded by creating the conditions and opportunities for young people to take the lead in how they want to engage with museums; supporting them to actively participate in shaping how their own heritage and culture is understood, presented and managed.

OSCH poster

Dr Sadia Habib has led this work at Manchester Museum and in the two years since she started her role as OSCH: City Project Coordinator, she has created a rich and varied programme of youth-led activities (see the OSCH Manchester Blog). At the heart of this work, Sadia has consistently sought to challenge the societal stereotype that young people do not engage with heritage. By opening up new opportunities for young people, through youth and community groups, local schools and as individuals, young people are exploring heritage in inspirational and innovative ways. At Manchester Museum, OSCH has created the conditions for young people to develop the confidence and skills to explore and share their own heritage, as well as supporting young people to deliver their own workshops to their peers around the issues and topics that matter to them.

Young people sitting in a room listening to speaker
Museum event, planned and delivered by young people for young people

Before Lockdown, Sadia had established a growing community of young people, both from the South Asian diaspora, but increasingly also from across the diverse student and local communities on our doorstep and beyond. Supported by Sadia and colleagues, the Manchester Museum Young Collective was gaining momentum and growing into a cohesive group who met regularly at the Museum to plan and produce events, activities and campaigns around their interests and passions.

Whose statues whose stories poster

In March 2020, lockdown forced everything to move online and in fact, this shift has actually been really positive for OSCH. As well as a considerable increase in the reach and variety of OSCH activities, in creating a safe, positive and supportive online space, OSCH has also helped to tackle loneliness, isolation and mental wellbeing issues amongst young people. The OSCH Young Collective has also grown threefold in the last 12 months and members have gained many more opportunities (often paid) to develop their collective goals of tackling cultural inequalities and showcasing cultural heritage from a diaspora perspectives.

zoom designer interviews
Members of the OSCH collective participating in the South Asia Gallery designer interviews

Three years into the OSCH project, Sadia has radically changed Manchester Museum’s policies and practices through youth-led engagement: young people now play a massive role in the recruitment of new staff throughout the Museum, support the Museum’s Social Justice Group, and (paid) training Museum staff for issues that matter to them. Young people are actively involved in co-producing content for the forthcoming South Asia Gallery and were also involved in the recent recruitment of the new gallery designers.

As well as embedding young people within the Museum and its decision making processes, OSCH has raised the profile and interest of cultural heritage amongst young people. To date, the Manchester OSCH activities 179 Young People have engaged in co-leadership activities, 192 in Collaborative work, 170 Consulted and we have reached 8,700 Young People through the various online and face to face outputs of the project. Of these 78% of co-leadership, 60% of collaboration and consultation and over 90% of involvement has been achieved since April 2020.

Zoom South Asia gallery meeting
Members of the OSCH collective joining the South Asia Gallery Collective as co-curators.

But that’s not all: we still have another 18 months ahead of us, and in the second part of this blog, Baz Rashid will describe one of the ways in which the Museum is working to embed and extend the impacts of OSCH across the whole organization, and beyond the life of the funded project.

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