Brown Bags aren't just transcontinental - they're transhemispherical!

Brown Bag 26th October 2010
Attic Review
“Community Engagement: Making Promises to Keep”
Allison Russell – National Motor Museum of Australia

I always find it fascinating to hear about museology and museum practice in different parts of the world. Last week we had Europe – but this week we went right out of the hemisphere! Allison Russell, of the National Motor Museum of Australia, is currently undertaking research in the UK as a Churchill Fellow. Focusing upon the ways in which community links are fostered in the UK, Allison is speculating upon which strategies might be taken back to Australia – and how. And we were lucky enough to hear some of her thoughts so far – and to help her reflect upon those possibilities.

Australia, clearly, is a huge country. South Australia, where Allison and the Motor Museum are located, has an incredibly low population density of less than 4.3 per square mile. This, of course, has considerable implications for any museum sited in such an environment, and particularly the National Motor Museum, located in the Adelaide Hills at some distance from Adelaide itself. Remote locations for museums – and for various communities – mean that developing links between the museum and the public which it serves is a difficult task. Indeed, as Allison points out, community engagement has not in the past been widely practiced. But perhaps things are about to change.
The ICOM definition for museums implies the importance of community engagement though it does not explicitly state it. But in recent years, museums in the UK have increasingly promoted this aspect of their work. And it is this which Allison hopes to discover more about whilst she’s here. Inspired by a past Museums and Histories course here at our own department, she seeks to answer some complex questions, and interrogate how the resulting themes might be applied in an Australian context. Why is community engagement happening? How do you gauge community needs? How are the projects funded and evaluated and who is running them? Indeed it seems that she’s learned a lot being here, and discovered that in British museums alone there is a wide gamut of possibilities. She’s certainly been to a number of places which are heavily involved with community work, and cites Time and Tide, Norwich, IWM Duxford, the National Football Museum, Urbis, Liverpool, Edinburgh, UCL and, happily, Leicester as being among her sources. The diversity of practice and information which she has received from each of them is astonishing, ranging from experimental methods of recording oral histories, supporting bodies, evaluative methods and targets, to accessibility, exclusion, social politics, and social media technologies. Not a lot of information there then!
How will it be possible for her to take this back to Australia, and apply it there? Well, it isn’t as if there is no precedent for community work at all, and Allison showcases some of the astonishing work that History SA, the government body who runs the National Motor Museum has done, and will do in the future. Annual events such as the Bay to Birdwood Run and the Rock and Roll Rondezvous bring in much of their annual audience, and are thus vital to the museum’s existence. But they also run events at more of a... distance, shall we say? Not the least spectacular of these is ‘Off the Beaten Track,’a 2008 touring exhibition which celebrated the centenary of the first motorised drive across the Australian outback in 1908. Taking the same length of time – 52 days – to travel from Adelaide to Darwin as the original expedition, a large orange trailer transported the original 1908 Talbot along the same route, stopping at 23 venues along the way. Strangely, for such an event as this, it is not a story that is widely known in Australia, and the aims of the museum were both to celebrate its centenary, and to interrogate why the expedition was important, and what legacy it left on Australian life. Employing public buildings and sites, museums and schools, the orange trailer took the historic story, and its’ present relevance, to a huge variety of people. They built a comprehensive education pack, personalised the arrival of the trailer for particular community needs, and even reached out beyond geography to the world wide web – you can read the blog of their adventures here. Perhaps one of the most moving stories that Allison tells is that of Newcastle Waters, a school of 11 indigenous pupils and one teacher. How do you make the story of two white European, moneyed men in a car appealing to such children? Certainly the progress of western culture through Australia, and the adoption of many of the technologies which it brings, has had a significant impact upon indigenous life. But it seems that it was less the resulting politics, and more the materiality of the experience which brought history to life for these children. Previously struggling, with nothing on which to hang history, the chance to see an object, to engage materially with it, and to build their own models of the Talbot was an incredibly rewarding experience. It seems that it is not too much to suggest that such apparently small impacts have as much, if not more, importance, than the fact that when it arrived in Darwin, the Talbot made headline news. It’s the little things, the personal things, which matter the most.
How, then, can Allison develop this model, how can she take it further in Australia, and what, in the UK, can we learn from her work? Reinterrogating such a naturalised idea as community engagement in the UK opens up a huge variety of questions and possibilities. The discussion after Allison’s paper turned very much towards considering the individual, rather than the umbrella ‘community’ – communities are, after all, not singular, homogeneous entities, but are multiple, polyvalent, and diverse. Individuals make up communities, and perhaps the next step for both British and Australian museums is to consider not just how they might engage that thing called ‘the community,’but how they might relate longer term with individuals, and make a significant qualitative impact on their lives, rather than be chasing statistics and quantities all the time. They need, too, to reconsider their role – as Richard phrased it, what are the unique elements of museums which allow them to engage with current issues whilst also retaining their own role, and at what point should they recognise and deal with whether they are the appropriate body to pursue a particular task.
It’s certainly worth a thought. I think Australia is lucky to have Allison and her colleagues. Their presentations involve quizzes and prizes, after all! Put it this way, whoever thought that keyrings could become such a sign of status.
Thank you Allison. We hope we gave you some things to think about – you certainly gave us a new perspective on ourselves.


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