A forward-thinking view of history
Cultural organisations today are facing significant challenges as they seek to build relationships with new audiences; present previously suppressed, often contested, histories; and look to engage with wide ranging contemporary issues to foster progressive social change. For more than 20 years, the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) has been at the forefront of this process of transformation, working with museums, galleries and heritage sites to enable them to become more accessible, inclusive and relevant and to radically refocus their aims and ambitions in relation to social needs, concerns and challenges.
Since its inception in 1999, the Centre has carried out collaborative and distinctively values-led research that is recognised across the world and which has had a profound and lasting impact on wide-ranging cultural organisations and their beneficiaries. Today, the Centre works with museums and heritage bodies of all kinds in the UK and internationally, using research to foster experimental, ethical approaches to engaging with and impacting upon pressing contemporary social issues.
In 2017 the Centre joined forces with the Wellcome Collection to explore how this world-renowned institution could develop new exhibition narratives and practices that tackle deeply entrenched negative societal attitudes towards disabled people. Professors Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd and Research Associates Sarah Plumb and Cesare Cuzzola, worked with the Wellcome’s team to shape a bold, new permanent gallery ‘Being Human’ that opened in September 2019 and is attracting international attention for its radical new approaches to access and inclusion.
Over the past five years, the RCMG has been developing a long term, multi-project collaboration with the National Trust, Britain’s largest heritage body, to foster new, socially engaged approaches to public history. In 2017 the collaboration developed ‘Prejudice and Pride’ an ambitious, year-long public programme that joined other major cultural bodies in marking the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. The programme, which included an innovative collaboration with historian and renowned singer-songwriter and performer, David McAlmont, was was recognised for its major contribution to advancing LGBTQ equality and respect, winning a Pink News Award in 2018.
The RCMG team, led by Professor Richard Sandell, worked with the Trust to reveal previously unknown histories of same-sex love and desire and gender diversity across the Trust’s properties in England and Wales and to pioneer new modes of engaging the public around these often contested histories. ‘Prejudice and Pride’ was headlined in the Trust’s magazine sent to over five million readers, produced new exhibitions that reached 353,553 visitors and underpinned the Trust’s first participation in 17 Pride events across England, Wales and Northern Ireland that were attended by 2,022,950 people. In 2020, RCMG became a founding partner – along with the National Trust, Historic Royal Palaces, Historic England and English Heritage – of the Queer/LGBTQ Heritage and Collections Network, supported by The Art Fund.
The Centre has also collaborated with the National Trust to explore and uncover the unique role that cultural and heritage organisations can play help in combating contemporary social isolation and loneliness. Led by Professor Suzanne MacLeod, this groundbreaking project, ‘HumanKind’, centred on Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the death of Henry Harpur, 7th Baronet of Calke Abbey. ‘HumanKind’ is revealing newly uncovered stories to Calke Abbey’s 500,000 visitors annually; purposefully using the stories to challenge the stigma that surrounds loneliness and social isolation; prompting public dialogue and debate about this pressing social issue; fostering more and meaningful human interactions and connections; and encouraging small acts of kindness between visitors, volunteers and staff.
“Most discussion to date has focused around what the public sector and business can do to combat loneliness and social isolation,” says Professor MacLeod. “We wanted to explore what role culture might play as well as support the Calke team in their ambitions to change the way they work. For 30 years Calke has told a story of an isolated and socially detached family at Calke, making it seem as though it was the ideal site to engage with the contemporary issue of loneliness.
“In fact, we found that the stories told were caricatures of a family who loved each other deeply and took great care of one another. We have worked to overwrite this stigmatising narrative and create an environment – for staff, volunteers and visitors and in full awareness that the route out of loneliness is human connection – wholly given over to kindness and the nurturing of human relationships.”
‘HumanKind’ and ‘Prejudice and Pride’ were the foundation stones for a further research collaboration Everyone Welcome, designed to advance the National Trust’s long-term ambition to be inclusive and welcoming for all and to embed leading-edge approaches to diversity and inclusion in all that it does. Led by Professors MacLeod and Sandell, with University colleagues Dr Corinne Fowler, Professor Anne-Marie Greene and Dr Jenna Ward and Research Associates Ceciel Brouwer and Cesare Cuzzola – and working with leading professionals in the field including Rajwinder Pal and Tony Heaton – ‘Everyone Welcome’ is experimenting with new ways to tell inclusive stories, to address social needs and to open up culture and heritage for all.
Most recently, RCMG was approached by the Museum of London to co-produce with museum staff a community engagement strategy to guide its approach to involving 100,000 Londoners in the making of the new museum when it moves to a new site in Smithfield Market. Working with the Museum’s Head of Engagement, Sara Wajid, the RCMG team led by Dr Katy Bunning and Professors Suzanne MacLeod and Richard Sandell brought leading-edge thinking, creativity and research rigour to bear on the ways in which the Museum connects with, talks to and collaborates with Londoners, supporting its ambition to be a museum for everybody.
“Twenty years ago, the idea that cultural organisations could and should be active and purposeful in creating fairer, better societies was championed by only a minority of thinkers and practitioners,” says Professor Sandell. “Today there is growing interest in the social potential of culture and the RCMG team is excited to be part of such a dynamic movement for progressive change”.
As the Centre enters its 21st year, the team is actively exploring ways to extend its reach and positive influence within and beyond the cultural sectors. Working in creative and flexible ways – with cultural organisations, social and community partners, artists and activists – the Centre remains committed to exploring new ways of opening up accessible, engaging and transformational cultural experiences for everyone and championing ethically-informed cultural practice as central to the creation of more equitable, inclusive and cohesive societies.