Collection stories

A partnership between Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) and four regional partner museums: The Historic Dockyard Chatham, Time and Tide Museum, National Maritime Museum Cornwall, and The Beacon Museum

RMG worked collaboratively with each partner to support and facilitate the loan of a nationally significant object from the collection, and associated dynamic and experimental programming. The core aim of the project was for RMG and partner museums to increase and diversify audiences and to gain new knowledge and understanding about them.

Collections stories took place between July 2015 and January 2018 and was led by the RMG. Conversations with audiences were initiated through the display of objects loaned from the national collection at four partner museums around the UK, and through an associated dynamic and experimental public programme of activities. The aim of the project was to learn about audiences alongside collecting responses to stories relating to new galleries, which looked at themes such as migration, survival in extreme environments and identity and to reach out to national audiences who may not be able to visit the collect based at RMG.

Going beyond the simple object loan, the project addressed barriers that can prevent small museums loaning objects from national collections and supported dynamic interpretation and innovative programming in a context which was meaningful and relevant to the audience.

The partner museums were approached by RMG based on a combination of criteria including geographic spread, proximity to ‘hard to reach’ audiences, alignment of their collections, themes and expertise, and because they hold social history collections.

The model addressed recommendations in the Mendoza Review to find new and strategic national-regional approaches for maximising budgets, resource and expertise for the benefit of collections governance and audience engagement.

It also addressed the skills gap in object loans identified by the recent Touring Exhibitions Group report.

Crucially, the project created the conditions for the smaller partner museums to take risks and develop practice, for the benefit of audiences, without the fear of jeopardising limited budget and resource.

The development of strong partnerships, with sustained trust and commitment on all sides, was essential to the project’s success. To this end, RMG invested heavily in the initial stages, carefully establishing relationships that could work collaboratively and withstand potential setbacks and pitfalls. It continued to invest in these relationships throughout the project.

The object loans acted as a catalyst for partners to present new perspectives on maritime histories, these were mutually agreed, with RMG. The loans inspired new research and creative thinking, enabled partners to focus on new themes, such as tattooing, migration and identity, and to interpret themes in new ways including challenging stereotypes and misconceptions, juxtaposing the historical with the contemporary and through stories of local people.

Building local voices and stories into displays offered new perspectives, challenged perceptions, developed a sense of relevance, pride and ownership, established new relationships and engaged new audiences. These voices created connections between the theme and people’s own lives, providing entry points into unfamiliar topics and information.

The benefits of this holistic, national-regional, partnership-based approach are clear, both in term of direct impact – 203,100 people have visited the partner museums and engaged with RMG’s collections, and in the more nuanced benefits such as strengthening community cohesion and developing workforce skills and confidence. The Collections Stories model represents a robust framework on which to hang opportunities to extend the reach of national collections, increase understanding about audiences nationally and build new, creative relationships between museums and audiences nationwide.

The project impacted significantly on RMG, the regional partners and audiences nationally. Displays explored maritime histories through new perspectives, challenged misconceptions, raised new questions, and made connections with contemporary communities. New and more diverse audiences attended each museum and engaged with RMG’s collections through new perspectives on maritime histories and their impact on contemporary communities. Learning, Interpretation, Curatorial and Collections staff at all museums gained new skills, understanding and confidence in public programming, interpreting invisible and sensitive histories, audience development, national object loans, sector and day-to-day working practices, evaluation, leadership and partnership processes. Audience perceptions of museums were challenged and the profile and status of partner museums raised.

The project demonstrates a successful model for national-regional partnerships to extend the reach of national collections and engage new and diverse audiences with local and national heritage.

Ros Croker
Senior Manager: Partnerships and Outreach
Royal Museums Greenwich