Museum Studies at Leicester

Encountering the unexpected: Connecting people, museums and nature to encourage successful ageing

Encountering the Unexpected is a two-year project developed by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) that explores the roles museums and natural heritage collections can play in supporting successful ageing through nature connectedness. To age successfully older people need to remain actively engaged with the world, be socially connected and retain a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

Bringing together a diverse group of people including natural heritage curators and engagement staff from museums in the North West, including Manchester Museum, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, World Museum Liverpool, The Whitaker, Gallery Oldham and The Atkinson, as well as a number of strategic partners engaged in the environment and nature connectedness, active ageing, and the arts, Encountering the Unexpected has begun to interrogate the potential of natural heritage collections to enable people to engage with, and have a stake in, the present and the future, and have unexpected encounters through a series of museum experiments. As part of the process RCMG led three exchanges with the museums and strategic partners to ensure that staff working with these collections had the skills and confidence to use them effectively to inspire rich, stimulating and meaningful encounters.

Over the summer the museums have been busy working with a diverse range of older people through their experiments. Each museum approached the experiments in different ways, some as one-off events and workshops promoted in the museums’ public programme material, some as a series of workshops taking place over several months with a newly formed group brought together for the project, and others through working with established groups, such as coffee mornings and church community groups. They have reached participants through working in partnership with local housing associations, working with older people as ambassadors for the museum, and encouraging established groups to take part in something new and unexpected.

Through using their collections in new and imaginative ways, the museums have worked towards supporting successful ageing by re-connecting older people with the natural world through pathways to nature connectedness, stimulating people to look at the unfamiliar and the familiar in new ways, facilitating meaningful encounters, and encouraging people to ‘be in the moment’. RCMG observed a number of experiments, interviewed project participants, key workers, museum engagement staff and curators to capture the impact of the project, and are currently in the process of analysis and interpretation.

Encountering the Unexpected is a very ambitious project and has been fruitful in enabling practitioners to think very differently about their collections and develop their practice. In particular, using the concept of nature connectedness as a different lens through which to engage older people with natural heritage collections and encourage participants to ‘be in the moment’, has begun to challenge conventional thinking and museum practice.

For more information contact:

Jocelyn Dodd
Director, RCMG

Or visit the RCMG website.

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