Goal of the project:

The Museum of World Cultures in Leiden aimed to connect to young people with a culturally diverse background to:

  • Enhance the museums' story
  • Foster a sense of identity and belonging with the youngsters through the collection

The goal of the co-creation process was to design one or more “interventions” inside the museum or related to its programme, that illustrate how this group of individuals would like to deal with cultural heritage: what do they think is important within a museum collection? Which stories would they like to see being told with these ethnographic collections? And what is the most suitable (interactive) form for relating to these particular stories?

Description of project:

As part of the RICHES project the Museum of World Cultures (RMV), specifically the Museum of Ethnology Leiden, and Waag Society hosted three co-creation sessions with young adults to explore (new) connections between themselves and cultural heritage. The final goal of these co-creation sessions was to design one or more interventions, both to demonstrate how the young public deals with cultural heritage and to discover what they think is important in (ethnographic) museum collections. The interventions fit within a larger trajectory that aims to better embed diversity within the structure of the Museum of World Cultures.

riches_co-creation

Activities:

In each of the three co-creation sessions, between 15-20 young adults and 3 to 6 museum staff participated. The sessions were facilitated by two people from Waag Society, assisted by a moderator. The aim was for the group of young people (18-35 years old) involved to be as diverse as possible in terms of educational, geographical, socioeconomic, gender and cultural backgrounds.

Prior to the sessions the partners collaboratively defined a number of guiding principles:

  • Need to create a safe place
  • Equality of participants (no hierarchy, no dominance of museum professionals, the use of creative techniques)
  • Make sure that no participating institution unconsciously conveys certain power or keeps control
  • Clear research approach per session (session 1 - explore / analyse existing reality; session 2 - ideation, exploring directions; session 3 - prototyping to make directions concrete)
  • Focus not on consultation but on co-production and empowerment
  • Focus on long-term relationship between participants and the museum

Following discussion between partners, fuelled by a feeling of uncertainty with the museum over the outcome of an intuitive, personal co-creation approach, the partners decided to take the existing museum practice as a starting point for discussions and to focus on analysing the existing relationship between young people and the museum. The museum feared issues raised in the workshop might potentially be too sensitive. In addition, engaging in co-creation felt quite scary for the museum because some of the museum staff felt they had to cede part of their authority as professionals.

Outcomes

Themes that were addressed during the first two co-creation sessions by the young adults:

  • A lot of emphasis is put on having to come to the museum instead of the museum coming to their lives/world. Be visible (and accessible) at more locations, e.g. outside the museum walls, because young adults do not go to a museum easily.
  • To be interesting for young adults, a connection needs to be made to contemporary debates; by youngsters, not for youngsters.
  • There is a need to be (more) careful in the wording: gender neutral, not stigmatising, respectful, not making the “other” exotic.
  • Use the collection to encourage reflection, enrich perspectives, stimulate re-use and help build craftsmanship skills.

After the co-creation sessions, a critical and diverse group of young experts was established in preparation towards one specific intervention: hashtag Decolonizethemuseum. With the #Decolonizethemuseum campaign the organizers wants to make sure that the stories the visitors find inside the museum reflect the diversity in Dutch society. With this hashtag, the much needed conversation about decolonization isn’t confined by the walls of the museum. Using the tag offers a swift, accessible way of not just documenting but also archiving and sharing different takes on the current, colonial interpretation of what a museum is, while generating conversations about methods for deconstruction. In addition, the museum aims to set up a disruptive route that can be part of the newly developed audio tour in the Museum of Ethnology.

In the realisation of the intervention(s), the museum is in the lead. Transfer of the experiences to the larger organisation within the museum and making the relationship with the youngsters sustainable is an important next step. The Head of the museum’s Research Centre for Material Culture, Wayne Modest, says about this next phase: “Co-creation is about the process, not the outcome. If you focus on the outcome, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s about this process of sensitisation and knowing each other. [...] The only way this can be successful is that it is happening in relation to other developments in the museum.” Chief and Senior Curator Laura van Broekhoven states “You should definitely improve something in the way you communicate, but you especially need to do something about [the monoculturality of] your staff.”

Lessons learned:

  • The preparation process of the three co-creation sessions would have benefitted from a more explicit and open discussion between partners, exchanging their worldviews and values - to be able to better understand each other and to secure a common language that would foster a relationship based on trust.
  • In the preparation phase creative techniques might have been more prominent to take away the initial reluctance of the museum. In the words of one of the research assistants: “Only when we started doing it, we noticed that it worked.”
  • Recruiting is key: carefully organise real diversity of perspectives. Allow for enough time to recruit participants and preferably search within a variety of networks and recruiters.
  • Transfer of the experiences and lessons learned to the museum organisation and making the relation with the youngsters sustainable is an important next step, which happens largely outside the scope of the sessions. Though the Museum of Ethnology feels there is a growing sensibility with staff to the issues raised in the sessions, there could have been a strategy designed beforehand to ensure dissemination and follow up more securely.

Why it is a best practice:

  • The National Museum of World Cultures aims to work closely with stakeholders - individuals and civil society organizations that share their mission. In this case, rather than focussing on one ethnic background or one upcoming exhibition the museum entered into an open discussion on how to improve relationships with youngsters with a multicultural background in general, which is a bold move.
  • In the organisation of the sessions, project partners strived for diversity and inclusivity, or at least non-exclusivity.
  • The intervention #decolonizethemuseum is a small intervention in terms of size, but responses of other museums indicate it is considered a big step for museums to open up like that.

Description of organization:

The Museum of World Cultures consists of three Dutch, post-colonial ethnographic museums, Tropenmuseum, Afrikamuseum en Museum Volkenkunde and is the recent result of one of the largest museum mergers ever to take place in the Netherlands. The museum houses global ethnographic and archaeological collections of top-level quality. The museum fulfils a unique role in society by facilitating knowledge about these collections and cultures from around the globe and by maintaining its collections, making new acquisitions, doing research on the collections and by preserving them in pristine conditions for the Dutch nation state. Collections include some of the world’s most important collections on 19th and 20th Century Japan, Indonesia, Oceania, Amazonia (Surinam and Brazil), China, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

In this video you can see more about the project activities.

The Museum of World Cultures has written a statement about the project and this video.

Introduction

Within the National Museum of World Cultures we collaborate intensively with stakeholders – people and organizations that share and question our mission. This means we work with local organizations that can enforce the bond we have with the culturally diverse residents of Amsterdam and Leiden, and with teams of individuals that we bring together ourselves. These stakeholders form a community that is structurally involved in our debates about how we as a museum and with our collection engage with the intercultural reality of today. Together we develop programs and events in our museum and outside of it, to make our museum more relevant to people.

Riches project

One of the projects we have developed in this way, involved a few co-creation sessions with young people from Amsterdam and other cities in The Netherlands. These sessions took place within a large project that was funded by the European Research Council: Renewal Innovation and Change: Heritage and European Society (RICHES).

Video-report of the co-creation sessions

Supervised by the people from Waag Society, who are experienced in guiding this type of co-creative trajectories, young people and museum professionals mapped out the museums challenges and developed proposals for possible solutions to program more relevant and appropriately in order to reach more diverse audiences. The film shows the video-report of the three sessions and presents the solutions that where developed in the process.

A few challenges the museum faces now are named explicitly in the video. Addressing a younger audience for example, and the acknowledgement of people with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in the museums collections and presentations.
In both cases it is about involving people in a meaningful way in the creation of collections and the stories we tell about them. How can our museums tell more layered and dynamic stories? How do we talk about the dark pages in our Dutch history, like slavery, colonization, exploitation and genocide? How do we discuss stereotypes about heritage, gender and sexual orientation? Which interactions with the audience can we develop? Which language do you use? Which media and which images can you use? Which objects, and what do they show us? Do we convey a Eurocentric vision, and how can we change that?

Hashtag Decolonizethemuseum

Since July of 2015 we have worked with a group of critical thinkers and activists on one of the proposals that came out of the co-creation sessions. This part of the project is aimed at activating the discussion we mentioned above, about language and images in ethnographic museums. It is specifically focused on active decolonization of what people in Dutch museums read and see. Together we want to make sure that the stories we tell reflect the diversity in Dutch society and that we are more conscious about delicate themes and the wishes of a culturally diverse audience.

This project takes place in the museums and on social media in a Twitter and Instagram campaign, using the #decolonizethemuseum and @decolonizemusea. One of the first publicly visible results is a physical intervention in the permanent exhibition of the Tropenmuseum. Besides that we wish to continue this collaboration in the future.

Literature:

Websites:

Interviews:

  • Interview with Wayne Modest of the Ethnography Museum Leiden by Robin van Westen on June 16th 2015.
  • Interview with Laura van Broekhoven of the Ethnography Museum Leiden by Robin van Westen on June 16th 2015.

Waag Society