Q&A: Young Curators, or How to Curate Covid-19
27 September 2021
In the Q&A below, Professor Haidy Geismar, Professor of Anthropology at UCL, discusses the impact of the Young Curators programme, problematic power structures in museum collections and developing new initiatives for UCL East.
The Young Curators Programme is part of the wider outreach and public engagement strategy in schools and the community by the UCL Department of Anthropology.
Now finishing its second year, the programme works with school age students aged from 14-18 to learn more about objects, collections and curating.
Lessons from the programme have fed into academic planning, such as for the new BA Heritage, which is launching at UCL East in 2023.
In this Q&A, Professor Haidy Geismar, Professor of Anthropology at UCL, discusses the impact of the Young Curators programme, problematic power structures in museum collections and developing new initiatives for UCL East.
Read extracts from our interview below.
What is the Young Curators programme and who can be part of it?
Before Covid-19, the Young Curators programme functioned as an afterschool club. The UCL Department of Anthropology and its Ethnography Collections team delivered a programme for students in year 10 and 11 that was centred on practical hands-on training in objects and collections management. Students also workshopped creative responses to our collections, and were invited to bring an object from home to be displayed in the Ethnography Collections.
The course has been run over several years and has been very successful in introducing students to the discipline of anthropology but also to the questions and methods that arise from working with collections. Many of our academic programmes work with the collections to inform research. Similarly, we wanted participants to keep thinking about why objects are important in our lives, and question what they can tell us.
With the pandemic, we had to adapt. During lockdown, when our collection and the school site was closed, we transferred to the digital realm. We co-designed the course with young people from St Pauls Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets who provided critical feedback, and who uploaded the first objects to our newest collection – the Museum of Covid-19.
How have you taught digital skills to the Young Curators?
Young Curators Online wants to provide participants with a portfolio of digital heritage skills, for example, accessing information about collections online, and thinking about practices of digital collection and digital curating and display. We also wanted the participants to consider the particular challenges posed by digital media, such as ownership and issues of consent digital collecting creates.
However, given that historic collections were part of a broader discussion about heritage, history, and inequality that re-emerged during Covid, we also wanted to take the conversation out into the streets, and into students’ own communities.
We added activities that asked students to reimagine how they would like to display a piece of public art in their neighbourhood, and gave them a short oral history training so that they could use their mobile phones to interview someone they know, and think about how their own history and heritage might intersect with those in museums.
Why is it so important to teach young people about objects and collections of objects?
Human beings all around the world use objects to make meaning and create identities and stories: whether it be through our choice of clothes, the importance of objects in religious practice, or the ways in which museums affirm cultural and national identities. Museums have emerged as places to tell these stories, and as places to learn about both ourselves and others.
But the collection and display of objects in museums not only reflects our interest in the material world, it all too often reflects highly complex and often violent histories of encounter: through forces of colonialism and warfare. Whilst not all objects in museums were collected in this way, many were. Recent debates over the Benin Bronzes, or the repatriation of human remains from museums, for example, highlight how painful these issues continue to be for many people.
UCL itself is also starting to examine its own complex history and producing public responses to this. For example, the Making and Mobilising Difference Project is a curated digital tour of the history of eugenics and scientific racism at UCL, as told through objects in its collections.
What are some of the outcomes and responses that young people have had to the course and the projects?
Controversy over statues of slave-owners such as Edward Colston, or the popular reception of the museum heist scene in Black Panther (2018) shows how many young people perceive the display of these collections as an endorsement of past actions and politics. We wanted to get young people thinking beyond the headlines, to participate in debates about what should be commemorated, and how difficult histories should be presented publicly.
Many of the young people that participated in the Young Curators programme were already analysing and questioning objects and museum collections. We wanted to give the participants the confidence, and a platform, to ask those questions actively in museum spaces.
We hope that one major outcome of the programme for the young people is that they know they have a stake and a voice in shaping cultural heritage in the present and the future.
How did the Young Curators programme feed into the development of UCL East?
The outcomes from the Young Curators programme, alongside other outreach activities, feed into the Anthropology Department at UCL East. This department will have a strong presence on the new campus, as part of the School for the Creative and Cultural Industries.
The BA Heritage, launching in 2023, is being developed to train a future generation of curators to be aware of the power of objects to reflect our own histories back to us, and also to be aware of the power of these histories to exclude, and even to perpetuate injustice. In this we join, and hope to support, many heritage and cultural institutions, who are also changing their practices, including our East Bank partner the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as other institutional partners, including the National Trust.
UCL East will be a space where we curate and share narratives through objects, cultivating the storytelling process in an open, public facing format. As we hoped, the work of the Young Curators also helped us develop our plans for new object learning spaces on the UCL East campus. In particular two spaces: the Culture Lab in the Marshgate building and the Urban Room and Memory Workshop in Pool Street West, will allow UCL collections to be co-curated between students, researchers and community partners.
The Culture Lab will aim to foster global collections and connections to create important conversations about our relationships to objects and heritage – it will draw on objects from across UCL collections to explore, through exhibitions and object learning, core themes that underpin our teaching and research, from inequality to the anthropocene.
The Urban Room and Memory Workshop brings together our new programmes in urbanism, public history, and UCL collections, and digitisation facilities to create new digital collections from oral histories, to new audio-visual archives.