Hastings Museum & Art Gallery
Hastings Museum & Art Gallery are an award-winning museum that inspires creativity and learning through the innovative use of collections to connect people and communities together. Since 2018, we have been on a journey to become a community museum. We are a socially engaged organisation that works in partnership with people and communities connected to Hastings and our collections.
Cultural strategy ambition(s)
Culture for everyone - Hastings' cultural offer is inclusive and accessible - there are chances for people to take part in culture and creativity in their community.
Proud to live in Hastings - Culture builds connections between communities to improve the quality of life for local people.
Open for tourism - Cultural tourism brings people to Hastings - creating opportunities for local people to gain skills and employment.
What did you do/what happened?
What's in the Box (WitB) was a collections-based community engagement project with home education, LGBTQI+ and people seeking sanctuary community groups to document the collections and produce co-curated exhibitions and events showcasing their work. Conceived before COVID-19 and launched between lockdowns WitB has led to strong and credible relationships between the museum and our communities in a changed world.
Who was involved?
The museum's Collection and Engagement team worked with:
- New Writing South and Home Live Arts to reach the local LGBTQI+ community
- The Refugee Resettlement Programme and The Buddy Refugee Project to reach the migrant and refugee community
- The One Home Education Group to develop our own home education group.
Why did you take this approach? Was there anything novel in your approach?
Collaboration and flexibility were at the heart of WitB. Each strand had a curator and community gatekeeper. Working together they developed activities that supported the needs of their community and resulted in meaningful outputs. Each strand had a budget and leeway to spend it to support their activity. This allowed learning to be shared and applied across strands. This approach helped us adapt to the needs of the people involved in the project.
When did this happen, over what time period?
The project started in October 2020 and came to an end in January 2022.
What was involved in terms of logistics, time or resources? (i.e. how much work did it take?)
Each of the activity strands required the work of a collections & engagement curator and community facilitator. Between them they recruited people in the target communities and developed activities and outputs that were of interest to the people involved. The two main resources were time and facilitator costs.
Our work with the home educating families was extended due COVID-19. The families were recruited with support of the One Home Education Group. They took part in activities including the documentation the Natural History collection, learning about taxidermy and creating animations.
This strand ran online and explored the relationship between LGBTQI+ history and museums. They produced digital-born collections and formed a Queer History Collective. The project partners were Home Live Art, EJ Scott and New Writing South.
People seeking sanctuary
This strand included the British Museum's touring Lampedusa Cross exhibition. It was delivered in-person with participants co-curating the exhibition with support from the Refugee Buddy Project and council.
Is this a first for Hastings, regionally or even nationally?
For us, this was a truly ambitious project. It was planned to challenge us and revolutionise our way of working. Every member of our small, mostly part-time, team were involved in it. The true impact of the project is still to be felt, however, what was achieved over the 15 months of the project has been truly impressive - from online workshops to collections, videos, establishing new groups and putting on a community festival for nearly 1,000 people - it's way in excess of the three co-curated exhibitions that the project was meant to deliver.
The project has brought together collections work and community engagement in a way that's rarely seen and inspired people to learn more about their history, the museum and to become more involved with what we do. The project has led to the museum moving further towards community participation and sharing power and decision making communities.
Where did you get inspiration / the idea from for this activity?
The project grew out of our ambition to become a community museum. We wanted to work in new ways and with people who had not been to the museum before.
What difference has this made to your organisation, the people involved?
In spite of challenges of the pandemic we successfully delivered the project. Working agilely, adapting plans, revising timelines, and pivoting between remote and in-person approaches had delivered positive outputs.
The team have successfully created strong and credible relationships with community groups who have not previously engaged with the museum. As a result, participants created works and add stories that successfully highlighted the diverse communities of Hastings.
In addition, we know have a wide range of skills and approaches to draw upon. Digital is no longer avoided, but embraced and alongside in-person approaches. The museum is now a place that provides visibility and legitimacy to community generated objects and stories.
What are your plans for the future?
We have secured funding from the Museums Association and Arts Council England to continue working with these groups through until 2026.
What advice would you give another arts organisation or creative practitioner looking to do something similar / work in Hastings?
We have found it important to work in partnership with facilitators with links to the groups and communities we are wanting to work with. Talking through your funding idea funders before you apply can also help improve what you want to achieve and also your chance of success.
How can your experience address commonly encountered challenges to help other arts organisation or creative practitioner working or based-in Hastings?
It shows that you can move beyond the audiences and people you normally reach and with time you can build non-audience members into regular visitors and supporters.
"We gained so much from the time spent at the museum. It was such fun. [The staff] were so welcoming. I'm so grateful for the way the experience enriched our lives."