In line with its mission statement, Manchester Museum aims to use its collection for “enjoyment and inspiration, working with people from all backgrounds to provoke debate and reflection about the past, present and future of the earth and its inhabitants”. Consequently, there is a drive to strengthen engagement with a diverse audience base and recognise the need to cater for visitors’ specific needs and promote cultural access.
As part of its outreach programme, the Museum has taken collections to a broad range of community settings for many years; connecting with members of the public, whom might not otherwise be able to visit a museum, or may be unfamiliar with such an environment. Presenting objects to people and discussing history within the context of the Museum and wider society provides a platform, which enables audiences to engage with the past in more accessible ways. Objects possess the unique quality of establishing a foundation for dialogue; enabling people to feel, relate and express – to some, they provide a sense of escapism and in doing so, have the potential to promote rehabilitation.
Earlier this year, I took part in the delivery of an outreach session at HMP Buckley Hall prison. Prior to working at Manchester Museum, I taught at a women’s prison and believed that students would benefit from cultural interaction; as such, I was keen to be involved in this particular venture. Many social initiatives steer away from the idea that prison is merely a form of punishment, and instead endeavour to promote the concept that it can be an opportunity for intervention. Indeed, there is an increasingly common perception that creating partnerships with education providers in prisons can work towards facilitating a more holistic approach to learning. According to Joyce Murdoch, learning and access manager at Imperial War Museum Duxford, museum outreach provides “an opportunity … to share personal experiences and discuss emotive subjects, usually in a calm and constructive manner. Sometimes tempers do get frayed, but developing the skills to resolve differences is a key part of the process” (Atkinson: Museums Association, 2013).
For the purpose of the visit to Buckley Hall, a collection relating to the Museum’s Manchester Gallery was taken to the prison’s education department. Based upon themes of journey, environment, the Museum and its collectors, the objects explore connections between Manchester’s past and present, its many communities and relationships with other countries. The collection therefore serves as a valuable means of encouraging conversation, reminiscence and contemplation. Throughout the day, four individual sessions were delivered; providing a history of the objects, an opportunity for handling the collection, and the chance to ask questions. This proved a positive experience that was both engaging and facilitated enquiries about the Museum and the wider context of Manchester’s society. The significant outcome of the session was the students’ express desire to visit the Museum upon release. Voicing the intention to bring their children and connect with the range of activities that take place, they were also very keen to learn more about the Museum’s volunteer programme, which is geared towards providing transferable skills towards future employability, education and further voluntary work.
If the visit to Buckley Hall inspired just one person to consider experiencing an undiscovered environment, develop knowledge, or simply encouraged a desire to explore historical enquiry, then it was most certainly a worthwhile undertaking.