Like everyone who is in lockdown at the moment, I’m writing this whilst doing several other things. These include observing/refereeing a game of back garden football; helping a 9 year old understand fractions; and keeping up with obligatory banter in the Preservative Party’s WhatsApp group.
(The Preservative Party is Leeds City Museum’s young volunteers aged 14-24).
Them: Here’s a tweet of a boss who accidentally turned themselves into a potato on a work Zoom. Bet Esther does that.
Me: Haha, yeah I probably will.
Me: Anyway, I’m writing a blog – why should museums even do youth engagement?
Them: Why not?
And that in a nutshell is it. Instead of justifying what I do, let’s look at why not.
For centuries, history itself has been elitist, and ‘ordinary’ voices have been ignored. This means not only have we not collected the stories of ‘everyday people’, but also the choice about whose story we tell and how we tell it has been made by a small number of people. As a museum of Leeds, it seems wrong to only be relevant to a small selection of people.
I often describe youth engagement as curation by democracy. Everyone gets a say. So, naturally, everything takes about thirty times longer than if I was to do it on my own, and is at least thirty times better.
The Preservative Party is first and foremost a sociable and supportive group. It is through meeting every week at the museum and talking through our week that we get a taste about what is happening in our lives and what stories we should tell. It might look like we’re just eating Pringles and charging phones and messing about on Snapchat, but then, suddenly there’s a deadline, and an exhibition which really says something about migration, or protest, or teenage culture is pulled together. OK, so all the text arriving last minute by WhatsApp is perhaps not my chosen method of curation, but I’m coming to realise we don’t work well in spite of that, we work well BECAUSE of it. The Preservative Party is literally living curation. People under 24, observing, reflecting, questioning and narrating the world and their lives.
Obviously, my question about the importance of youth engagement got loads of worthy responses (‘it makes history accessible’, ‘we offer a different perspective’) but actually I preferred the first response: ‘Why not?’. Why shouldn’t young people expect us to ask them what they think about our collections and the world? Why shouldn’t community groups expect us to involve them in actively documenting Leeds lives? Surely, we are Leeds City Museum? Collected, preserved and curated for, and by, Leeds.
By Esther Amis-Hughes, Youth Engagement Officer