As part of the development of four new galleries, the National Maritime Museum part of Royal Museums Greenwich, embarked on the co-collaboration project Sea People, working with three new community groups and a visual artist to explore the collections of Royal Museums Greenwich and create permanent artworks in the new Sea Things gallery. The project aimed to platform the voices of communities that are underrepresented in the Museum’s collections, galleries and interpretation.
An extensive programme of local, national and international activities was undertaken as part of the Endeavour project at the National Maritime. Sea People formed one of nine co-curation projects across four new galleries which opened in September 2018.
The Sea Things gallery is a massed display of over 600 artefacts from the Museum’s collections. One of the goals for this gallery was to explore and interpret these objects from new perspectives, moving away from a singular museum-owned narrative. One area in the gallery was developed to talk about the people that are connected with the collections through a display of busts and figurines. This ambition, however, proved challenging due to the limitations of representation in the collection. All of the busts in RMG’s collection were white men with the exception of two white women.
To tackle the lack of representation NMM worked with artist Eve Shepherd in partnership with three community groups to create new artworks for this space to sit alongside a selection of existing busts. The newly created Sea People busts embody the identity of the community groups, not only through the creative output of each bust, but also through audio recordings, allowing the busts to speak to each other and tell the stories of the communities who helped devise them.
Over a period of two and half years the NMM worked with 423 young people and their families aged between 3 and 20 from three different UK-based community groups.
The community groups that took part:
- Mermaids UK (Transgender support network for young people and families)
- GirlGuiding (The leading charity for young women and girls in the UK)
- Action For Refugees In Lewisham (A Lewisham-based charity and Saturday school working with refugees and asylum seekers)
Each of the three groups spent time at the museum for an introduction to the organisation and collections. NMM staff visited each group to learn more about group members and develop meaningful relationships as a basis for developing workshops. Creative workshops were later held at NMM with artist Eve Shepherd to begin the development of concepts for each bust and ensure they were truly representative of the groups’ ideas.
The outputs were devised in collaboration between the communities, Eve Shepherd and the NMM. Whilst Eve created the busts in her studio, the groups were consulted with continuously on the design progress and were asked for input at every stage.
Everything from the aesthetics, the personality, identity, name and recorded voice were created collaboratively with the goal of platforming and showcasing participants’’ ideas accurately.
Throughout this process, and specifically due to NMM’s work with a transgender youth group, the museum has had to consider practice around inclusivity and accessibility. The Museum has since reflected on the use of pronouns in tannoy announcements, the need for unisex bathroom facilities and the creation of a crib sheet around understanding terminology on gender and sexuality.
This project is part of a step change in the platforming of under-represented histories at the Museum. For NMM this will be the first example of busts on display which tell the story of young women, people of colour, refugees and people who define as trans and/or gender-fluid.
Collectively the nine co-curation projects across the galleries have led to the development of new registration and co-curation commissioning processes at the Museum making it easier to do this work in the future. The Museum has committed to including co-curation in all new future permanent galleries.