You don’t own me

Wellcome Collection RawMinds Ambassadors programme

Taking place from May to September 2018, You Don’t Own Me was a partnership/co-production project from Wellcome Collection’s RawMinds Ambassadors and the Poet in the City Producers. Together, they were interested in how poetry and the perspectives of young people could be used to explore and question museum collections, focusing on Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man gallery, which contains Henry Wellcome’s collected objects. The process led to the development of an evening event at Wellcome Collection: ‘You Don’t Own Me’. Featuring youth-led tours and live poetry performances and aimed at young people aged 14–25, it set out to be playfully disruptive – inviting the audience to ‘question what museums are, and to reimagine what they might be.’

Background

Wellcome Collection’s RawMinds Ambassadors are a group of 14–19-year-olds who advise us on programming, plan events for their peers and are the voice of young people at our organisation. Meeting twice a month, they also help deliver our events, promote our programming, and receive training and work experience opportunities. This year they partnered with the Poet in the City Producers to put on our summer event for young people, which emerged from a shared desire to programme events created for young people, by young people. The Producers are aged 16–25, and in their programme they focus on developing their event-production skills and delivering poetry events for young audiences.

The aim of the collaboration was to engage our audience with the untold or ‘quieter’ stories behind some of our museum’s collections, and to provoke discussions around interpretation and ownership that reflected the young people’s developing ideas and questions.

The Ambassadors group met fortnightly between May and September 2018 to research our collections, collaborate with the Poet in the City Producers, develop gallery tours, and map out the logistics of the event and how it would be marketed. The group was supported by our Youth team, external museum specialist Peju Oshin, and our Visitor Experience, Marketing and Events teams.

Working in partnership

The project was launched in May 2018 with a roundtable workshop, facilitated by Peju Oshin. The Ambassadors and Producers met, had tours of Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man gallery, brainstormed their response to our collections, and made pledges about what they all wanted to achieve from the partnership event.

Poet Momtaza Mehri then summarised the roundtable in poetic minutes. The result can be found here.

The decision to work towards one final event, but with each of the two groups focusing on a different outcome, was made in order to cater to the intentions and strengths of each group and ensure the outcomes were meaningful to them. Taking responsibility for tours and event logistics allowed the RawMinds Ambassadors to explore their position as ambassadors for Wellcome Collection, while focusing on the live performance allowed the Poet in the City Producers to develop their event-production experience in a different venue.

The groups’ resulting projects, which together formed the event ‘You Don’t Own Me’, are described below.

Tours: Truth be told

The RawMinds Ambassadors’ tours focused on our Medicine Man collection, whose items were acquired by philanthropist Henry Wellcome (1853–1936) during his lifetime and demonstrate his interest in medicine from around the world and across time. The project immersed the group in the stories around collecting these objects, leading them to question the authority of the museum label and the right museums have to display and interpret such items. The tours were designed to be provocative and discussion-based rather than authoritative, and provided a fantastic, engaging experience for the audience.

Event: BC/AD: Before collection, after disappearance

Poetry and feedback activities featured in the second part of the event following the tours. The Poet in the City Producers curated an hour-long show that threw into question museum spaces and the authority of institutional voices, and which intended to encourage people to disrupt the museum space – with their questions, laughter and participation. Poet and host Madi Maxwell-Libby, poets Rachel Long and Dean Atta, and performance group Pecs Collective challenged the audience to think about our identities, gender and ethnicity in terms of ownership.

Outcomes

The project achieved its aims of creating a quality youth-led event for a peer youth audience. 72 people attended; each tour was well-booked, with between 10 and 20 people; and the feedback was very positive:

The best youth event I’ve ever attended.

RawMinds Ambassador

I loved having the opportunity to produce something in a space that I normally wouldn’t have had access to and the chance to think more carefully about how I would use that opportunity.

Poet in the City producer

The 15-minute tour of the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition was very interesting, adding context to a few exhibits and revealing some of the more hidden aspects of each. And it’s always interesting to hear the thoughts of teens and young adults. Elsewhere, the poetry readings were very good. Lots of different voices on stage in an intimate setting. The whole evening felt lovingly curated.

Attendee
Medicine Man exhibition tour

Challenges

Our partners, the Poet in the City Producers, were aged 16–25, and had more experience grappling with some of the questions around museum collections and ownership. This meant one of the challenges was making the content suitable for all levels. Part of the strategy on the tours was to ask the audience questions, to enable the RawMinds Ambassadors and visitors to explore the content at their own level.

For the live performance, the Poet in the City Producers focused on ‘playful disruption of the museum space’ – which made the tone of the performance accessible for everyone. We employed a host, with the intention of accessibly uniting the theme. This was partially successful, in future we would brief this position more.

Another challenge was uniting the two groups and enabling them to get to know each other when there was lots to get done in quite a short space of time. This will be something to bear in mind for future collaborations. Finally, organising an event in the summer made it harder to get hold of poets and performers, which delayed some of the planning conversations.

What we learned

Give the group enough time to understand the project and make decisions – the project kicked off about four months before delivery, and all of this time was needed!

Some areas of event production needed more structure than others, to give the Ambassadors the most effective decision-making control. Content for tours was entirely developed by the Ambassadors, whereas communications, for example, needed structured tasks, e.g. composing tweets. Collaborating with another youth panel was a great way to explore what we do in comparison to what they do. Working with an external group, hearing their updates and working towards a large public event also drove enthusiasm, inspiring and motivating the group.

Getting the content together for the tours was challenging and initially daunting to some of the group, but ultimately it developed their presenting skills and also demonstrated the value to them and us of engaging with the collections as part of the programme.

The new cohort of Ambassadors will start in mid-October. We plan to run another co-produced event in March 2019 and will feed in these learnings to help plan and pace it.

Anna Firbank
Youth Programme Officer, Wellcome Collection
Partner organisation: Poet in the City.
Funder: Wellcome Trust