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, together with Research Associates Sarah Plumb and Cesare Cuzzola, worked with the Wellcome 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 recognised for its major contribution to advancing LGBTQ equality and respect, winning a Pink News Award in 2018.
The RCMG team, led by Professor 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 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.