Goal of the project:

‘Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive’ came from a conversation with diverse communities of young people spanning several years, relating to a perceived difficulty in accessing arts and cultural institutions both as audiences and arts practitioners. Pivotal Arts Studio and the Chester Beatty Library were allied in their commitment to bringing new audiences into the museum’s gallery space as both visitors and participants. The Library was also interested in finding new workshop teachers and tour guides within this new visitor group.

Description of project:

The Library and Pivotal Arts Studio invited a group of young local Chinese and Irish people to explore photographs from the Wellcome Trust's collection of John Thomson. ‘China through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-72’ inspired this group of Young Curators to create their own multi-media responses to 19th century photographs of Chinese men, women and children and can be viewed online.

Building on the exhibition, participants were encouraged to align the practices of writing, documentary photography and self-portraiture with the opportunities afforded by new digital platforms. As part of a process of developing an existing and/or emergent arts practice, participants had the opportunity to acquire both creative and research skills and methods.

Activities:

The Chester Beatty Library had collaborated with the Pivotal Arts Studio on previous exhibitions, when the Pivotal Arts Studio suggested they continue their collaboration in the field of photography with the community of young Chinese people in Dublin, through a training programme. The training modules would be aimed at people between 18 and 25, a group that was hard-to-reach for the Library. The Library works together with many culturally diverse groups in Dublin, connecting Arabic, European and Asian collections to different communities, but not many youngsters are usually involved.

In the training programme seventeen young people from mainland China were involved. They were all studying in Dublin, but were brought up and educated in China. The Library provided access to its collection and the Pivotal Arts Studio brought in expertise on new media. The programme consisted of workshops by academic media experts from Ireland and England on (street) photography and visual arts, visits to the depot and collaborative discussions about the collection. All the participants were invited to create an e-book to link the collection in an interactive way and add personal stories or interpretations, thus reflecting on the Library’s collection. To help bridge both language and cultural differences a liaison person was involved in the project.

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In the first phase of the Young Curators project, the workshop schedule and activities were laid out in advance. The project coordinator, Jenny Siung, and the cultural liaison, Tiedong Yang, met all the participants in advance to talk them through the project. Even so, after the first session six participants dropped out of the project.

For the second phase six dedicated participants were invited back by the Library and the Pivotal Arts Studio, this time to work collaboratively on one e-book, again with Tiedong as a liaison for intercultural communication. For this phase the organizers had built in a lot more space for participants to think about the contents of the programme. They looked at collection in the depots, had regular meet ups and worked on the publication together.

First hand experiences:

Jenny Siung now sees the Young Curators project as a starting point for the Library’s co-creative practices that has taught the staff a lot about how to involve young and culturally diverse groups with their collection.

Commitment within the group of participants was not ideal, specifically in the first phase of the project. This was partially due to the lack of input and consultation of the participants in the shaping of the programme. Also, within the mix of participants in this project, it was observed that some of the content and sessions were perhaps too difficult linguistically for the young Chinese participants. Unfortunately, the presence of mediator Tiedong Yang was not fully utilised by the tutors to address this.

Unfortunately, the project did not generate the long term, qualitative relationships the Library was hoping for. The staff did however incorporate their findings into the youth programme that has been running since 2013. In the Chester Beatty’s Creative Lab for Teens, fifteen teenagers work with the Library on varying topics and with different artists, designers and people from the Maker movement. They sign-up once-a-month and participate in a wide variety of activities including off-site visits to Maker spaces; Dublin Maker Fair; on-site workshops with artists, crafters, electronic musicians, animators, Makers, etc.

The group prototypes new concepts for the Library and explores new technologies. As such, the Library hopes to build a sustainable relationship with these young people, in which they can become future facilitators or workshop leaders, and be part of the future plan for the Library.

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Key success factors for the Creative Lab for Teens, which are drawn from the Young Curators project, are:

  • Flexibility: the participants sign up for each session and can join anytime they like, but most importantly, they have a say in the development of the programme. As Siung says: there needs to be space for fluidity, for prototyping the project as you go along.
  • Build sustainable relationships: the Library is building a qualitative, long term relationship with the participants. This means they engage in real conversations that relate to whatever matters to the participants, they discuss future plans over hot chocolate breaks and the participants are always taken seriously. The participants are asked to share their skills with other group members, to sometimes lead part of the workshop and to mentor each other.
  • Cultural mediator: Working with new visitor groups in a co-creative project often requires knowledge about how to appeal to this group and sensitivity in terms of language. Involving a mediator can greatly help to avoid miscommunication.

Why is it a best practice:

Young Curators is inspiring as a best practice in co-creation, because:

  • The Chester Beatty Library presents a collection from all over the world, and is actively seeking relationships with different communities in Ireland that could have a meaningful connection to these objects, even when these communities might not find their way to the Library independently. In that sense, reaching out to a young, Chinese community in Dublin reflects this practice and shows the ambition to attract new, young and culturally diverse audiences to the collection.
  • Whether its street photography or prototyping with Arduino, creativity and ‘making’ are used as methods to relate to a historical collection in a way that opens up new conversations about the collection and, in the case of the Young Curators’ e-books, helps create a new narrative around the collection and the participants.
  • Even though not every goal of the Young Curators project was successfully reached, the Library evaluated the project thoroughly and decided to make important changes for the next project. They are now investing more in the quality of their relationships, sharing the control over the program with participants and using creative methods for their work. In doing so, the Library shows the willingness to critically reflect on their work and perseverance to co-create with new and future visitor groups.

Description of organization:

The Chester Beatty Library houses rich collections from countries across Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, which open a window on the artistic treasures of the great cultures and religions of the world. Manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and decorative arts complete this amazing collection - all the result of the collecting activities of one man - Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968). Egyptian papyrus texts, illuminated copies of the Qur'an, the Bible, European medieval and renaissance manuscripts are among the highlights on display. In its diversity, the collection captures much of the richness of human creative expression from about 2700 BC to the present day. Intercultural dialogue and learning plays a key role in the Library’s mission and fosters dialogue with the communities as represented in the collections.

Literature:

Websites:

Interviews:

  • Interview with Jenny Siung of the Chester Beatty Library by Robin van Westen via Skype on October 19th 2015.

Pivotal Arts Studio