British Museum ‘Talking Objects’ project

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In 2008, John Lyon’s Charity granted support to the British Museum’s ‘Talking Objects’ programme, a three-year community engagement programme that placed the interaction between young people and museum objects at its core. The programme was very successful, not only in the way that it engaged with young people, but also in the way that it was embraced by the entire Museum. In 2011, we awarded the British Museum a further £100,000 over three years to continue the initiative.

The Talking Objects programme enabled the British Museum to create innovative methodologies that bring objects and young people together using participatory techniques. The key aims of the project were to:

  • Empower young people to discuss and debate the meanings of museum objects and their relevance today
  • Value the new perspective on the objects and the Museum that this provides
  • Create new links with underrepresented groups from across London, working in partnership with key community and arts organisations
  • Share the methodologies and results of our research with other museums and the wider arts and heritage sector.

The first Talking Objects programme (2008-2011) worked with 15 groups of young people from across London. Many participants lived within 30minutes travel from the Museum but had never visited it before. The programme brought these young people into a shared space with Museum staff, as well as invited experts and creative practitioners, and a key object from the collection.

The Talking Objects programme has made a tangible impact on the British Museum. It has enabled curators to deepen their skills in communicating their knowledge to young people and motivated them to think differently about objects. It created a dedicated team of former participants who became the basis for the Museum’s first youth panel, BMuse.

The success of the project attracted additional support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation in 2010, which continued to fund the programme in six partner museums across the UK.

Wrapped around the initiative was the determination by the Museum to embed the involvement of young people into the work of the Museum and drive home the value of this among staff and audiences. This has been an outstanding success.The Museum is one of the only major arts institutions funded by the Charity who has achieved this success and made real and meaningful progress on achieving objectives around wider participation and broader and younger audiences.

Susan Ferleger Brades

Susan Ferleger Brades

The second grant awarded by John Lyon’s Charity (2011-2014) developed the initiative into the Talking Objects Collective. In the past year (2014), 66 young people from four local organisations in the Charity’s beneficial area (Holts Academy of Jewellery, Street League, Acland Burghley School and Haverstock Business and Enterprise School) took part in the Collective. The young people are provided with accredited training and transferable skills that will support their efforts to engage with further education and employment. The accreditation offered provides tangible added value to existing training and increases the awareness of young people to potential routes into creative and heritage industries whilst broadening the appeal of this kind of career path to those who may not have considered it previously.

The Charity’s Arts advisor, Susan Ferleger Brades, comments “For many years, and rightly still, arts institutions and funders have focused on how the programmes they devise and support can profoundly change the lives of the people they engage. Talking Objects has achieved that superbly, but what it has also made abundantly clear- and what was likely not foreseen at the outset – is the way in which the creativity, opinions and input of young people can make the Museum more relevant, present and alive. Talking Objects has changed an institution and, by extension, all of us.”