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Volunteering with Community Engagement

What is Community Engagement and why is it important for Museums? Our volunteer Holly investigates. 

Community Engagement is an important part of the work the Horniman does to ensure it is an accessible and inclusive place for all. So when there was a space for a volunteer on the Community Engagement training day, I jumped at the chance to attend.

The day is designed to equip community group leaders with the skills required to confidently lead visits to the museum and run projects or activities linked to the collection. It was useful to hear the group leaders explain what they would need to run a successful session, as well as seeing how the Horniman is able to shape its services to accommodate the needs of community groups. This flexibility is essential; each community group has differing requirements, and fixed offerings typically won’t work for every group.

During the training day we had to think on our feet and test our creativity. In the Hands on Base we explored the large collection of objects available for visitors to handle. In the galleries we designed our own themed tour of the museum, including potential activities, for a community group visit. These activities encouraged us to identify questions and opinions about objects, make connections between objects, and create our own journey through the museum.

  • The Stroke Association group explores musical instruments, This community group are exploring talking drums in the Hands on Base.
    This community group are exploring talking drums in the Hands on Base.

As a volunteer, I learnt more about how the museum works and gained an insight into the community groups it partners with. This has increased my confidence as a volunteer, giving me new ideas on how to present the objects in the handling collection and how to engage visitors.

Since completing the training, I’ve volunteered at several Community Engagement sessions and no two sessions are alike. Participating in a costume workshop, making Carnival crowns with the Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation, was a great excuse to explore my own creativity while volunteering. I quickly realised there’s countless ways to make a Carnival crown, and just as many ways to learn from other people’s creative ingenuity.

  • Volunteering with Community Engagement, Colourful Brazilian crowns made during community group activity sessions were then worn at the Horniman Carnival on 4 September.
    Colourful Brazilian crowns made during community group activity sessions were then worn at the Horniman Carnival on 4 September.

At a Redstart Arts artist-led exhibit, I got to help showcase the participating artists’ work which was inspired by the Horniman’s collection. Seeing the artworks side by side with the objects that inspired them encourages visitors to see both in a different way. It connects people with the collection, making the objects more accessible sources of inspiration - something to interact with and not only see on display. It also helps to show the many ways people experience the museum and engage with the collections.

  • Redstart, This Redstart Arts workshop saw community groups making sculptures inspired by the Horniman collection.
    This Redstart Arts workshop saw community groups making sculptures inspired by the Horniman collection.

While each session is different, there have been a few constants from my experiences with Community Engagement. I’ve met a wide range of people including the community groups, museum staff, local artists and volunteers working with the groups. It’s an enjoyable way to improve my confidence and volunteering ability, and a great insight into how museums can help change people’s lives.

Find out more about volunteering at the Horniman. 

Redstart Arts on display

You may have read the blog that one of our community partners, Redstart Arts, wrote during a recent residency at the museum. well you can now see the sculptures displayed in the Forest Hill Sainsbury’s window. It is only up until the start of July – so go and have a look while you can!

Cash Aspeek, the artist who leads the group, tells us more about the exhibition:

'It was very important for us to be able to showcase our Horniman works at a place that would allow a really wide audience and also become part of the Forest Hill art scene. The window at Sainsbury’s in Forest Hill seemed appropriate – it overlooks the main road in Forest Hill and countless people walk past each day.

We spent a lot of time improving the space, to ensure that the work was displayed professionally. The ‘Redstart Arts’ sign is handwritten on the back wall by one of volunteers, Jez.

While we were installing the display, there was a constant stream of people in the shop and on the street, who were actively interested in the work. It was really exciting and satisfying to know that the exhibition was engaging the local people and that the Redstarts’ work would be seen by so many. Sainsbury’s have kindly agreed that we can use the display for 6 weeks and importantly the display will be up during Learning Disability Awareness Week.'

The Redstart Arts Horniman project

Redstart Arts use a room at the Horniman once a month for a creative workshop. Their artist leader, Cash Aspeek, took part in our Community Worker Training Day and used what she had learnt to devise her own project at the museum for the group. Cash tells us what they have been doing.

The Horniman project was inspired by both natural figures and by ancient pieces of artwork found in the Horniman. Over a period of five sessions the Redstart Arts produced a series of figurative sculptures made from found materials that were neither human nor animal but a hybrid of the two.

My approach is to encourage the Redstarts to explore their own creativity rather than create a series of uniformed work. Thus, each of the works produced reflects the personality of its maker.

The structure of the sessions I run is similar each time. The members greet each other at the beginning by standing in a circle and creating a sign for their name, not Makaton but a sign or action of each individual’s choice. The group then copies the sign. This way of starting energises the group and creates a light environment in which the Redstarts are at ease.

The session then involves brief discussion about the journey they are on, looking at previous work and thinking about the next steps. I use a visual time plan to mark out steps and note opinions.

The starting point for the Horniman project began with the Redstarts immersing themselves into the gallery space. The Redstarts produced observational studies of pieces they found of interest in the galleries and then went on to realise their figurative sculptures through plaster bandage.

The Redstarts then set about exploring textures; they discussed how some animals are covered in fur whilst others have feathers or scales and that humans have skin. The Redstarts were very keen to explore the galleries using the collections as inspiration for the ‘skin’ for their figure.

One Redstart was fascinated by the scales of a Pangolin and so covered his figure in small pieces of grey rubber, each piece overlapped to form a scale like texture. 

Another Redstart covered his figure in compost and then carefully hammered nails into it after he was inspired by a Nkondi figure. 

Furthermore one of the Redstarts rather than covering her figure decided to use a black pen to meticulously cover her figure in drawings, she particularly enjoyed drawing from observation within the gallery.

Each Redstart produced a figure that was very representative of their personalities, likes and dislikes. They enjoyed the freedom of exploration and creativity that they were given. This was poignant for each Redstart, as they seemed extremely proud and happy of the work they produced. 

You can find out more about Redstart Arts on their website.

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