Kathy Cremin, Director of Co-operation, Bede’s World
Banners of the North at Bede’s World (19 July – 28 September 2014) is the finale of three exhibitions in our treasures programme. This programme explores our local, national and international place in the world and is inspired by Bede and the monastery in Jarrow where treasure came from all over the world, where the community of monks and others were trying to make sense of the world, and capture the heart of those conversations and thoughts. In this spirit, Banners of the North was to be a celebration of our northernness, and we decided at the beginning to use these wonderful loans from the British Museum to create chatter about what it means to be northern to different people. We believe museums work best when they are a social space where people come together and have conversations.
We were also proud to be working alongside the British Museum as part of their Future Curators programme. Georgina Ascroft, who was placed with us, was able to inspire staff and volunteers about the objects that had been chose for loan, and to start sharing the stories and questions about these objects.
Hungry to learn more, seventeen members of staff, from café to front-of-house to farm, and from apprentices to director, travelled to London to handle the objects and feel their power. The point of that visit was for us to be able to talk about the loans among ourselves and talk about them even more with our visitors. For us it is in conversation that real learning happens about the impact and meaning of objects and the connections between understanding the history of the object in a place and how we feel about that place now.
This was no wine and canapés opening: the food was from a local smokehouse and Northumbrian sausage-maker, the beer a local hand-crafted award winner. Guests marched into the museum behind miner’s banners representing the five historic mines of South Tyneside, accompanied by the Westoe Brass band. After some passionate speeches from the mayor and others, we enjoyed a sing-along by South Shields Folk Club and the Deadly Earnest céilidh band, which opened up a weekend-long Banners of the North Folk Festival, featuring 24 bands and performers – more than 200 musicians volunteering their time. We were really proud of the opening of this exhibition because it set the tone for our summer programme.
Conversations of course are often intimate, and for the rest of the summer we shifted from thinking big to thinking really small, with intimate salons featuring around 40 guests speaking about their northernness, lives and traditions – voices of a diverse group of people from CAFOD activists to the local junior football league, from members of a Sikh temple to local painters, photographers, knitters and crafters, and from craft food-makers to fabric printers.
We didn’t quite know how these salons would work. Would people come to listen? Would they ask each other questions? Would the thing gel and lead to real conversations? We found these salons were a humanizing force, a cup of tea with people sharing their roots and emotions about the north and our place in it. Some but not all referenced the exhibition. Many connected to the objects with fresh eyes and thoughts and gave us more to think about.
Over the last year we’ve piloted using community radio to create a space and place for conversation about heritage, and a way of building connections and relationships. On the train back from London, as people chatted about the object that had most captured their attention, someone asked whether the Percy family in Northumberland might know more about the Percy ring. One of the community radio team wrote to the Duke of Northumberland about their family connection to the Percy Ring, and later interviewed him over a cup of tea in his kitchen.
The salons came out of this learning about reflecting on our feelings about objects, asking questions about what those mean, and looking for answers and stories that create a context for understanding what the objects can tell us. As we piloted the use of community radio we have develop our skills in facilitating conversation and reflection, listening to others, documenting our learning, and focusing on storytelling. You ca listen to our documentary about staff learning from our British Museum partnership.
To make our online broadcasts we use simple technology – a mixing desk, laptop, digital recorders, and free, open-source streaming and editing software. These are the tools of any bedroom DJ, yet rooting community radio in the unique setting of a museum is about making ourselves a social space, and a hub for the creativity and conversation that objects can inspire. Our loans from the British Museum, however, encouraged us to take this learning further. We worked in collaboration with a researcher and volunteer programmer James McNaughton from Durham University, to investigate using multi-touch interactives, both to enable visitors to explore high-quality images of the objects and connected information, and also to invite people to record their responses, thoughts or feelings about particular objects.
We will collate the results of this research later this month, and will be sharing our learning in a short radio documentary with our volunteer programmer, apprentices and intern who manned the interactives, meanwhile you can read James’ blog post about the experiment.
Next year, in the year of the general election and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, our treasures programme will use collections to create a sense of activism, to create space for conversations about democracy, freedom of self, and the right for people to celebrate their own heritage in their own way.
Banners of the North is at Bede’s World until 28 September 2014.
Future Curators is supported by HLF.