The New Curators Project - forward thinking outreach work at UCL Special Collections
6 July 2021
Vicky Price, Head of Outreach in UCL Special Collections writes about how she led The New Curators Project, part of Newham Heritage Month.
2021 saw a promising community partnership between UCL Special Collections and Newham Heritage Month blossom, laying the foundations for an ongoing project intended to make real impact in the local community.
The beginnings of something beautiful?
Back in 2020’s gloomy transition into winter, I was asked by Newham Heritage Month’s Programme Manager, Rosie Murdoch, if we had capacity to consider a new project that would help the local heritage festival reach a specific age range of 18 to 24 year olds. She could see that the usual audience for Newham Heritage Month seldom represented this age range, and we both had an inkling that this is because, at this age, many were focussing their efforts on studying and finding work, rather than participating in activities purely for fun or interest’s sake.
Little did she know that she had come to us at a perfect time. We had previously delivered community workshops and videos for Newham Heritage Month, but we were looking for an even more meaningful way of creating relevant content that that would have greater impact, make best use of our expertise and resources and that would help build our relationship with this valuable East London partner.
Video: In Newham Heritage Month 2020 we produced a training video, ‘What is Heritage’, to assist the programme’s contributors who were creating content for the festival.
A tough nut to crack
We have also become starkly aware that the cultural heritage sector is a tricky field for young people who do not have a great deal of qualifications or voluntary experience to access. From our conversation sprung the idea for The New Curators Project – a three month programme that would provide relevant training for those wishing to work in the cultural heritage sector. It would also offer real-life opportunities to deliver work to public audiences, providing real work experience. We hoped that the project could act as a metaphorical ‘foot in the door’ for young people who hadn’t been to university or had the financial support required to complete considerable amounts of voluntary work.
Success came with considerable help from our friends
We knew that we were on to something promising, but there was a hitch; Newham Heritage Month 2021 had already been scheduled for May, and our initial conversation with Rosie took place in October 2020. With only 7 months to plan, fundraise, recruit participants, recruit freelance facilitators, deliver workshops, help the cohort create an exhibition, public talk and Instagram content we had work cut out for us!
Despite this, at each hurdle we found people ready and willing to help us reach our goal. Foundation for Future London came to the rescue to provide us enough funds to ensure participants would be supported by a £200 bursary and to bring in several freelance curators, public historians, digital communicators and public speaking specialists. UCL Culture’s Community Engagement Seed Fund awarded us money to bring in an independent evaluator. We reached out to over 40 community organisations and to Newham Council’s youth team to recruit our participants and, eventually, we had 11 wonderful young people keen to participate and seven professionals from the wider field, ready to impart advice and wisdom.
It was clear to us that there was an enthusiasm among professionals and organisations to support a project like this and, spurred on, we delivered two months of online workshops that explored how to carry out historical research, how to use archives, what public history means, how to create an exhibition, how to speak to the public about your research and how to communicate your ideas digitally.
The cohort produced a fascinating exhibition that explored food and food production in East London. It was printed on pop-up banners and toured nine of Newham’s public libraries. They wrote and delivered an online talk and they produced Instagram posts for Newham Heritage Month’s account to publish during May. We were extremely proud to see the quality of their work and the enthusiasm with which they delivered it. We also knew that this project would make an excellent recurring annual fixture in UCL Special Collections’ outreach programme.
Our evaluation will be completed this summer, and plans for next year are already taking form.
We are so excited to see what 2021’s cohort of New Curators go on to do, and we intend to create an informal ‘alumni’ community so that they can continue to encourage and support each other as begin to make their mark in the working world. Each year, this alumni community will grow, and we hope to create a burgeoning recurring annual programme of training and coaching that will assist many more young people in getting into working in museums, libraries, arts organisations and galleries.