Write-up of Julia Cort: Rehanging the World Gallery at the Horniman

Susannah Darby, Loans Registrar, Birmingham Museums Trust.

The Horniman Museum’s World Gallery showcases the institution’s anthropological collections. The gallery was reopened in 2018 following a major redevelopment project that put accessibility at the heart of the project and worked with a variety of community groups to co-produce the gallery. Having recently joined Birmingham Museums Trust, an organisation similarly committed to accessibility and partnership working, I was keen to hear how co-production had worked in practice at the Horniman and especially any lessons they learned from the process.

Julia outlined the Horniman’s ethos of coproduction:

  • Everyone’s expertise is important,
  • The museum doesn’t know best,
  • Everyone has their own aims,
  • Effective co-production takes time and communication,
  • Requires a pre-existing relationship of trust.

She explained that gallery planning started with a symposium with community partners to discuss how the collection could be useful and how they would like to be involved. This was used to plan four strands of co-production:

  • Access Advisory Group: This panel of 12 people living with disability has worked with the museum since 2007. Panel members met gallery text designers and advised them directly on tactile signs, seating and routing, without the Horniman acting as a go-between: the museum acknowledged that these individuals were the experts on issues such as whether tactile maps are useful and what child-friendly BSL looks like.
  • Family labels: were developed by a group of 6 adults and 10 part of an English as a Second or Additional Language (ESOL) programme. The programme functioned as an exchange of expertise: participants practised English; the Horniman got labels written that were useful and relevant for families with children under five. The gallery explained themes to participants, who would then explain to children, who designed artwork for labels. The adults also formulated questions for discussion with children which featured on labels. The process was challenging as the ESOL course timetable did not line up with gallery development so object lists were not finalised by the time family labels needed to be written. The museum were interested to find that the questions the participants wrote were more moral in tone than they would have proposed.
  • Wall of Voices: Three video screens at gallery entrance show people talking about objects. The participants were all involved in making the gallery more accessible and the films were made by the museum’s Youth Panel members. This demonstrates the commitment to equity at the entrance to the gallery: it belongs to the community as much as to the museum
  • Community Perspectives case: In a first for a permanent display, members of the Access Advisory Group curated a case exploring views on disability and wrote a toolkit for future co-curation projects. The Horniman selected this group because they had a pre-existing relationship of trust. The process flagged issues around how representative collections are and how they are documented.

The Horniman continue to strive to make spaces for and by everyone. The lessons learned from this project have informed gallery development practice since.