The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum redevelopment journey
The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford was previously two organisations, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and Bedford Museum. The organisations were merged and have been undergoing a major redevelopment project, reopening in spring 2013. The changes to the buildings have been dramatic but one of the most interesting parts of the redevelopment journey has been the opportunity to change ourselves as an organisation. We’ve been thinking about what kind of a museum we want to be.
One factor that facilitated this thinking was moving offices. As staff, we were previously stored in various cupboards, squashed into corners all around the site. There were physical boundaries that emphasized old divisions between art gallery staff, museum staff and learning and access staff. We’re currently in an open plan office in Bedford town centre. This has helped to facilitate discussions, break down old boundaries and improve communications. It’s possible that moving away from the museum site has also helped to open our thinking about what our role in the town might be.
For the time being, we’re a museum without a museum. We’re still going out to schools and community groups, we’re still running events and engaging people with Bedford’s heritage, we still have lots of knowledge and resources to draw upon and to share. We just don’t have the things we used to rely on – a venue, easy access to collections, an exhibitions programme. So what have we been doing instead? Well, we keep in touch with people by writing two monthly columns in a local community paper The Bedford Clanger
. We’ve also been building up our social networks on Facebook
. We’ve been attending local Tweetups
which is just a chance to meet your Twitter followers face-to-face. This has given us the chance to update people about the redevelopment and to build support within the local community.
Our events programme has changed too; we’ve held events in a field at Great Denham, at our local Athletics Stadium, on the lawn near the art gallery and museum, in the town square, at the Tourist Information Office, at local nature reserves, parks and many more. Getting out and about has been a real benefit of being closed; we even did a QR Code tour of Bedford High Street
. Some time ago, I blogged about the idea of a museum as a distributed network
, a museum that is an integral part of the town with many hubs working together to create something greater then the sum of its parts. I don’t think we’ve quite created a network greater then the sum of its parts yet, but we have created new advocates for The Higgins in communities and locations that we may not have reached previously.
Deprived of our building as a focus, we have become more outward looking and we’re more involved with the life of the town. We’re part of the Portas Pilot town
team as well as taking part in many local events such as Apple Day
, the River Festival
and the launch of Bedford’s Olympic Live Site
. But the biggest change has been the role we’ve been asking our audiences to play in these events. We’ve been more proactive in our engagement with the town and we’d like to give our audiences the opportunity to be more proactive in their engagement with us.
In her book The Participatory Museum
Nina Simon says ‘When people can actively participate with cultural institutions, those places become central to cultural and community life.’ To launch our new brand and name we wanted to design an event that showed the direction we’re moving in as an organisation – an organisation that is central to cultural and community life. So we held a pop-up museum
. The event gave us the chance to talk to audiences about the kinds of things we’ve been doing; how we assess an artefact, the many stories that might surround one object, how to refine these onto one museum label. But it also gave audiences the chance to talk to us about what’s important to them. We’re trying to build two-way communication into all of our events, exhibitions and even into the spaces of the new museum.
We don’t know how it’s all going to work out yet, and there is a lot of work to do before reopening. We’ll have to work very hard not to fall back onto old ways, but we’ll happily share our experiences once we’re open again.
Marketing and Sales Officer
The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford
On Twitter @gemmaahutton @higginsbedfordhttp://www.thehigginsbedford.org.uk/