BLOG 21st April 2021

Co-Curating Young People’s experiences of Covid-19

This guest blog was written by Niamh Kelly. Niamh is a freelancer working in the arts, cultural and heritage sector, who specialises in creative community and youth engagement. She provides a range of services such as consultancy, project management and facilitation.

This blog series is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Organisations Emergency Fund.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the opinions of the writer. Thrive is providing a platform for people who work in arts and culture to express their dreams for the sector post-Covid and to create constructive debate and discussion. Publication does not mean that thrive endorses the views expressed.

What if we were to innovate a different way of contemporary collecting? What if it could be done creatively and in co-curation with participants? Could that change the relationship of museums to audiences and vice versa? Here’s why I’m trying it, in 2021, with young people and their experiences of the pandemic.

I started my first job (my dream job) working in the museum sector in Feb 2020, so a lot of what I know about my practice has been shaped by the pandemic. But before that, what I know about museums comes from a different perspective; that of participating in the project I currently work on. To explain, I work on Reimagine, Remake, Replay (RRR) – a project which engages young people (aged 16-25) in museums across Northern Ireland, using creative and digital methods. I was one of the young people they were reaching. I stumbled across a programme they were running in the Ulster Museum, offering digital fabrication skills and behind-the-scenes access to collections, back in 2018.

The programme appealed to me as a unique way to get involved with the museum, different from simply volunteering at an event. I had recently graduated with my English literature degree and was missing a dedicated space and time to learn and to explore heritage and culture. It was also completely free and not on during weekdays, which was essential for me as I worked full time. The eight-week course took place every Saturday and each week I was introduced to new fantastic technologies and encouraged to use them to respond to museum objects, with special tours from curators and sessions with objects usually hidden in archives. RRR completely surpassed my expectations – not only did I have an opportunity to learn and explore, I was creative in ways I’d never imagined before, I met interesting people I could collaborate with, I was supported to try and hone skills and I had such a sense of wonder, tangible accomplishment and general craic which helped my mental health so much.

I participated in several RRR programmes after that – creating responses to collections, getting involved in exhibitions and events, and generally finding and using my voice within the museum as a young person. When a role was advertised by RRR for a participant to join the project staff in a paid role, I had to go for it. That was in Feb 2020 and you know what happened next. What you might not anticipate is rather than pausing, the project immediately moved to online delivery to continue to provide its multiple benefits for participants in a difficult time. What first energised me about the project never changed in this move to being online – the way that participants were listened to and heard, able to create within the (now virtual) museum space, showcase responses and input to the overall running of the project. RRR operates in co-creation with its participants, so authentic connections are made and the project is shaped by the young people who have the agency to lead it.

In recent months, I have branched into freelancing in the creative and cultural sector, developing these same services I provide to the project but as my own business in order to create new and further opportunities for young people. I want to take the values I have learned from the fantastic RRR team with me. I have also been supported in this by Dig Deep, a business programme run by Womenfolk, which helps young women in Northern Ireland to develop their own creative businesses.

My first big win as a freelancer was being successful for a round of funding from FutureScreens NI, set up to fund innovative projects that would respond to the pandemic with new thinking. The brief for this funding outlined that traditional concepts and experiences of time have been warped during the pandemic. I felt this phenomenon may be most strongly felt by young people, as they are in the unique position of transitioning into adulthood during the pandemic and are experiencing this formative part of their lives in a global crisis. Unlike the generation prior to them, young people do not have the same memory of ‘normal’ life before the pandemic to compare their current reality with.

Along with this, the under 25s have been identified as a group that are most impacted by the pandemic, for example financially (BBC, BBC) and in terms of mental health (BBC, RSPH). The normal structures that shape their lives and encourage personal growth such as education, work, and socialising have been decimated.

So my project strives to provide a platform for young people’s experiences of the pandemic, a way for them to express how it has impacted them that a statistic alone cannot convey. I’ve put out a call for young creatives, aged 16-25, to participate in the project and contribute to an online exhibition by expressing their experience of the pandemic in a medium of their choice (for example, photography, writing, illustration, video).

In doing this, I seek to catalyse a new kind of contemporary collecting – one that moves from a call for objects and stories to actively co-creating and curating an exhibition with young people. I have seen calls for communities to donate their objects that tell the story of Covid-19 – like masks or NHS posters. I understand the important materiality of these objects, what they represent for us now and how they could frame a narrative for future audiences. However, I also think that there is a value in creative responses (in all mediums) crafted by individuals to represent current experiences. With this creativity, there is an opportunity for contemporary collection to move beyond a curatorial purpose to having strong potential for community engagement.

Traditionally in contemporary collection, curators would put out the call for objects and then they would have the role of framing these artifacts in archives and exhibitions. However, this project will invest agency in young people to shape the narrative about them and looked back on in years to come. They will be collaborators and creative contributors to this online exhibition – participating in interviews, focus groups, responding to a call using their own creative practice, directing exhibition design. The group will therefore have ownership over the exhibition by feeding into its structure as well as its content, using this project to tell their own stories in a way that is conducive and makes sense to them.

However, it is not just in the future that young people’s experience should be understood. Young audiences who see the online exhibition will see their experiences, or at least some of them, represented. Young people’s ‘problems’ may be deemed insignificant considering the wider impact of the pandemic. However, this project will situate these ‘problems’, which can often be trivialised, as important and in need of addressing locally. As well as enabling young people to reflect creatively on their experiences, the exhibition will act as a message to civil servants and decision-makers in our society to act for the young people they serve, raising awareness and understanding of what they face in this critical time and calling for action on it.

I believe this engagement with young people should be happening continuously and not just in times of crisis. With the recent riots in Northern Ireland and the alarmingly young age of those involved, attention has turned to criticizing short-term funding and unsustainable methods and calling for significant investment to enable youth workers to effectively work together with young people for change. We need to listen and respond to young people in our society at all times, not just when there is violence and suffering – it should not have to come to this for action to be taken and support to be provided. Young people should be able to thrive.

Of course, this kind of engagement requires resources. I think it is worth it and so do my funders and the young people who have applied to take part, both groups to who I’m very grateful. Hopefully, together we can convince other funders, public bodies, government, all decision-makers in all spheres of the same. I am embarking on this project independently but hope that it can be an example for museums, archives, heritage sites, of what is possible and that I can work to disseminate my findings and support the sector to adapt.

What I have not even mentioned yet but what those working in the sector will be well aware of is that research has shown the under 25s are a group traditionally excluded from museum spaces and heritage (Kids in Museums, National Lottery Heritage Fund). This project seeks to reconnect young people with practices of collecting and exhibition, albeit in a different, more active way. Therefore, the museum sector will be able to learn new methods of youth engagement and participation from this project, coming at a time when museums are rethinking their entire purpose after the pandemic. This project actually covers many existential questions for museums as it exemplifies a holistic approach and digital methods of collecting – from Zoom calls to digital content to an online website – to realise a new way of exhibiting for the digital museum.

I hope that the outcomes of this project, which I will detail, evaluate and share, prove the potential these innovative methods of community engagement have and, most importantly, their continuous worth for young people, as they deserve to be listened to, invited to create and supported to participate in heritage.

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