My sincere thanks again to all the people who shared their time, thoughts and ideas while I was on my Fellowship. My report has now been published on the Churchill Trust website

I returned to a very busy time at the National Motor Museum of Australia, and have not had much time to devote to commuity-based projects, but hope to get my teeth into some soon, and will share my expereinces as I go.



November 22, 2010

The Age Exchange in London uses reminiscence as the basis for some wonderful work with older people.

Apologies for the break in transmission – my computer broke last week just before I came back to Australia, so I wasn’t able to post about my visit to the Age Exchange in Blackheath before I left.

Although only a small organisation, the Age Exchange works with many organisations across the UK promoting reminiscence as a beneficial activity, especially for older people.

I met Meg Hamilton, Administrator and Events Coordinator, who explained to me the tremendous scope of the work they do. She spoke about the difference between reminiscence (essentially recalling personal stories) and nostalgia (recalling a generalised past) and explained that the Age Exchange is interested in using reminiscence in creative ways to benefit older people in particular and the community in general. The website gives details – but projects include theatre, writing and artistic outcomes.

Many museums have taken advantage of the Age Exchange’s training opportunities, where people can learn about running effective reminiscence sessions. Research about touch and memory has demonstrated that how important handling objects can be, so museums are a logical place for reminiscence work to take place. And while reminiscence and oral history are two quite separate activities, reminiscence can help identify opportunities for oral history research.

The Centre itself was buzzing with volunteers the day that I was there. The front part of the Centre is filled with bits and pieces to spark memories from older people who will recall shopping, cooking and keeping house in middle decades of last century. This area is the perfect spot for a cup of tea and a piece of cake from the cafe. in the back room is a gallery space where the results of various projects can be displayed.

There is also a small book shop (smaller now that I have been through it!) where visitors can buy books explaining the principles of reminiscence work and also publications relating to particular projects. I’m looking forward to trying out some of the ideas!

Now that I am back in Australia, I won’t be posting as often, but I will still update now and again with interesting projects that I hear about. I will also be producing a report on my Fellowship experience, and will post a link when it is complete.

Thank you to the people who have followed this blog and made comments along the way. It has been an inspirational journey for me, and I am looking forward to applying what I have learned in my own work. Sincere thanks, too, to all the people I have met on my travels who have been so generous with time and ideas.

An exhibition at Royal Cornwall Museum uses its art collection to encourage visitor interactions and reflections.

A wonderful exhibition in the art gallery space of the Royal Cornwall Museum is about story-telling. A variety of evocative paintings are displayed, and the introductory text explores how pictures tell their stories, but also points out that it is difficult in a single picture to sometimes tell the whole story. The idea is that visitors can fill in the gaps.

A number of questions on the walls – what can you hear?, what season is it?, what are they saying?, where are they going?, what colours can you see? – provide some inspiration for visitors; and a table and chairs in the centre of the gallery provide the space to create.

Visitors are invited to offer their own thoughts on the action taking place, and their responses are displayed in Perspex holders where other visitors can see the variety of stories. People of all ages have responded, and people have drawn pictures as well as written texts. Some have commented on the aesthetic nature of the paintings (sometimes quite critically), others on the recognised story (for example, the story of Pandora’s box) while others have shared their thoughts about what might be happening. Looks like a great way of encouraging people to look at the art collection in a different way.

From 1-3 its 2s-4s

November 15, 2010

Royal Cornwall Museum is not nationally funded, but it still provides a great range of community programs.

On Friday afternoon I visited the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro and met Louise McDermott who introduced me to some of the great programs that are happening at the museum. Smaller than a number of museums that I have visited, they still manage to put together some inspiring and diverse programs for people of all ages. Louise talked to me about programs that involve young people (including a family sleep-over in the museum) and she explained to me how the museum’s collection of memory boxes came together and how the program is actively engaged in outreach to older member of the community for whom a visit to the museum would be impossible.

At the end of my meeting, I also met Jo, who had just finished with a group of 2-4 year olds. Once a month on a Friday afternoon there are sessions for pre-schoolers. They handle some of the museum’s collections, visit the galleries and spend some time doing a craft activity. When I was there, Jo had just finished exploring some of Cornwall’s mining history, making some cardboard mining tools and miners’ hats. A small charge is made to cover costs, but the number of return visits (and younger siblings who have joined the program) it looks like a hit!

I also had a bit of time to explore the museum displays, which are put together in a very engaging and family friendly way (My next post will be about the art exhibition I saw while I was there).

As organisations in the service of community, do museums have an obligation to be more sustainable?

Recycling station at the British Museum staff canteen

Museums – with their climate control systems, their computer interactives and lighting – can be very energy hungry. But there are things that we can do to make a difference. For example, when I was at the British Museum last week, their staff canteen has a whole wall of recycling – and the staff take it very seriously. It takes a bit of extra effort, but surely it is worth it.

I caught up with Rachel Maden from Greener Museums today, and we talked a bit about the work that she has done with some museums in the UK. Rachel is an environmental consultant who has been working specifically with museums for about three years. To find out more about Rachel’s business, have a look at her website –

I have been subscribing to Rachel’s newsletter for about a year, and thought that it would be good to meet her while I was on my Fellowship, because I believe that being environmentally responsible and sharing that message with our visitors is one way that museums can serve their communities – no doubt there are opportunities for partnerships. Chatting to Rachel gave me some ideas about how we might share the sustainability message with out communities:

  • obviously we can research the materials we use in our temporary exhibitions – are they recyclable, are they produced in environmentally friendly ways?
  • we can also make sure that we tell visitors about what we are doing – let’s not hide our lights!
  • we can also think about whether we can make changes to the way we run our museums – Rachel gave me an example of a museum that has multiple sites, and staff used to use taxis to travel between sites to meetings – but now they are saving money (about 12,000 pounds a year!) as well as reducing their carbon footprint by making time to walk.

So many people of so many ages were having so much fun and learning all sorts of things at the London Transport Museum today – and I was one of them.

I started the day with a meeting with Sian from the Community Learning team – it is her job to go out and make connections with the local community and find out what they want from the Museum. I’m sure that the great energy inside the Museum is helped by this user-centred approach.

Sian told me about a raft of projects that the team is working on – including a series of youth projects in the lead up to the 2012 London Olympics. You can have a look at the website for all the details – I was particularly taken with the idea of the ‘Young Consultants’ who have been employed by the Museum: 4 people aged 16-17 years who work two days/month to provide advice on exhibitions and programs. There is also a special program for young volunteers.

One of the simple interactives that are dotted through the display - all with quirky and fun information

After talking to Sian, I spent a couple of hours exploring the Museum on my own. There is so much for families to do, and so many opportunities for people to explore in-depth the various historical themes presented in the Museum, with so much attention to detail – even the trip up to the top floor in the lift had a sound-scape, and rather than telling me what floor I was getting out, it told me what year it was!

Did I mention that I loved it??

Filling Friday Nights

November 10, 2010

During business hours people are busy – they are at work or studying, or those who need them can access various community services. But Friday nights can be a bit bleak.

This is the rationale for a program at one of the national museums, which happens monthly on Friday evenings. Members of the group are seeking to work outside the label ‘personality disorder’ and are keen to explore community resources that might be available to them. Museum staff plan the sessions with input from the group, and a variety of themes are explored. Sometimes museum staff deliver the sessions alone, sometimes in collaboration with members of the group. The group is growing in independence (and size) and will probably not require input from museum staff long-term. The organised sessions generally run for about 90 minutes, after which time the participants can explore other areas of the museum until closing time, or they can go out for dinner or for a drink.

When they are at the museum, they don’t look any different to any other group, and they are not being labeled – instead they are learning new information and new skills, while developing friendships and interests.

It’s not short on visitors – certainly not needing to boost its visitation! (couldn’t believe how many school groups were there on Friday!), but it still matters to the British Museum to make connections with its local community.

I was lucky enough to sit in on a session with some of the Community Team on Friday afternoon. Once a month there is a session especially for over 55s, where local community groups can make some special connections with the collection. The sessions are not open to the general public – instead community groups can book in. That way some common themes or interests can be identified and sessions designed around these.

The sessions are facilitated by the Communities team, and begin with a cup of tea and a biscuit – just to make people feel at home. Next there is a chance for people to handle some selected objects from the education collections. Through the

Donna describing some of the objects for handling

discussions that follow, the group decides which parts of the displays in the Museum they would like to see, and then there is a chance for a guided tour to visit particular objects on display.

I sat in with a group from an organisation called Opening Doors, for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people. Although the group was small, we had some lively discussions, led by Donna and Harvi from the Museum. We looked at various textiles, and discussed issues of gender roles and dress, before we set off into the galleries, exploring Greek pottery and the busts of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his lover, Antinous (which the Museum now displays together), and the Warren Cup. These objects were selected from the Museum’s tour which explores same-sex relationships and gender issues.

Despite how busy the British Museum is, it was great to sit on a program which connects with people at an individual level.

Session facilitator Adam explaining to me what I needed to do with the pieces of pottery I was rebagging

In a place where there is such a rich Roman history, this may not seem as exciting to Londoners as it does to an Australian, but everyone at the ‘Hands on Archaeology’ session at Museum of London seemed suitably impressed!

The archaeology collections are extensive, and in need of some rehousing, so the museum has a program where volunteers and members of the public are able to come and learn a little about the history of archaeology in London and get some hands on experience.

A short presentation about archaeological collections was followed by some information about what was required from us, then we got down to it with the artefacts! Adam was on hand to explain what we needed to do and what we were looking at and to answer questions about the task at hand as well as tell us about the material we were handling.

Although it was a small group today (all the better for me, so I could bombard Adam with questions about the program) but during school holidays, they had huge numbers of participants, and managed to get through a considerable amount of work. The volunteers that I was talking to found the process extremely rewarding and endlessly interesting.

I just couldn’t get over the fact that I had Roman pottery in my hands!

an example of the objects offered to patients for handling

Research from University College London is showing that allowing patients in hospitals to handle museum objects can improve their wellbeing

I met with Guy Noble and Linda Thomson today, who told me more about this research project. We have been working on a similar project at Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide, so it was great to talk to people with so much knowledge and experience.

Patients in the study are invited to handle one or more objects from a selection from the UCLH collection, including natural history specimens, prints and Egyptian objects. Before and after the sessions, they are asked to complete two short questionnaires, which are used to measure changes in their sense of wellbeing. 

We all know intuitively that patients in hospital are likely to be experiencing boredom and apprehension – as Linda described it, the box of objects becomes their world for 30 minutes, and they are able to focus on something else. Especially if they are already  museum visitors, interaction with the objects can mentally take them away from the hospital to a different time and place, recalling museum visits. 

Control studies have been done comparing results of actually handling objects vs looking at pictures of the same objects, and it would appear that handling the objects has more significant benefits. There is also evidence that through dementia, people may lose visual capacity and memory, but that sense of touch can remain robust.

This three year study is close to being finished.

Find out more at