Monday, 18 June 2012

Connecting Through Collections

Connecting Through Collections

I’d like to start with a moment that sums up my passion for museums.

Using objects to create great experiences that change us.

A small stone sculpture, the Lovers’ Figurine (image below), the oldest known representation of lovemaking stood between Louise and Jill.  ‘For the first time in my life, I feel I’ve been listened to, taken seriously’ said Louise. She’s about 15, speaks with an East London accent and began her week at the British Museum surrounded by a palpable air of apathy.  ‘I’ll never be able to look at the Lovers ‘Figurine in the same way again’ said Jill Cook, who is a deeply knowledgeable British Museum curator with a strong passion for people and for equality.

Louise and Jill’s comments are reflections of the community programme Talking Objects, that they both attended earlier on in the year.  The programme brings together a group of disadvantaged teenagers from different parts of London to spend four days at the British Museum exploring a single object. It uses participatory drama, art and debate and at the end of the week you can see in the quotes above that Louise’s self-confidence was transformed and so was Jill’s understanding of the object she curates.  

So, how did I become the Head of National Programmes at the British Museum and where did my passion start?

I wanted to be a field archaeologist but quickly realised as I studied archaeology that it was hard work for little money and there’s no job security (I know it sounds like the museum sector now!)  As part of my studies I had spend a bit of time at the British Museum researching in the students’ room in the Coins and Medals department and I loved the museum environment and being around objects.  I decided a career in a museum was for me and wrote to fifty museums and related organisations across London enquiring about the possibility of a job. I had two responses.  One was from Pollock’s Toy Museum a very pleasant ‘no’ and the other from the British Museum inviting me for an interview.  So, my journey at the British Museum started with a two-month data entry contract followed by an Iron Age and Roman Coins curatorial position.

One of the joys of a national museum like the British Museum is its size. It’s perfectly possible to do a number of different jobs whilst remaining in the same institution.  So I chose to move from the curatorial position to one partly focussed on learning programmes. In this role I had the pleasure of setting up school programmes, community projects and a new programme of object handling in the gallery spaces.  Alongside this I worked on different projects through secondments. One supported the British Museum’s 250th anniversary events.  This was a privilege (the events played a small part in shaping the British Museum’s current approach to the world) but also a huge learning experience for me, teaching me that event management requires a ferocious attention to detail that I don’t possess!

But I found myself questioning how much impact I was really having so I left the British Museum for three years to work for an international development agency (a big wrench!) I learnt a lot from this experience about what’s really important (might be worth noting at this point that people in the international development sector, working with real issues of life and death, take themselves less seriously than most of us in museums) but my passion for museums and connecting through collections brought me back to the British Museum to run its community programmes.

I love the British Museum. The collections are extraordinary and probably the broadest of any museum in the world.  The depth of knowledge of my curatorial colleagues continues to amaze me. But even more wonderful is the fact that it sits at the centre of one of the world’s most diverse cities - a city that acts as an international transport hub and attracts people from every part of the globe. The relationship between the museum’s collection and its audiences is constantly stimulating and there are moments that show me the potential of the British Museum’s collection in London, connecting people and places through time:

  • A group from an Islamic supplementary school exploring the Rosetta Stone [see image below]
  • An Indian boy drawing an Egyptian sculpture in minute detail
  • A volunteer guide of Taiwanese origin giving a tour of the museum’s African galleries

My favourite job at the British Museum is my current one. I combine community partnerships with responsibility for the Museum’s national role working on projects that ask the question ‘how can we truly be a national museum?’ My job is to spot opportunities to partner with other museums and galleries in London and every part of the UK and I travel widely. On my wall is a map of all of the museums I’ve visited through my work and it’s covered with dots that extend from Shetland [see the image below of me paddling in the sea in January] to Truro and from Derry to Lincoln highlighting the dozens and dozens of brilliant collections supported by talented and enthusiastic museum staff.  My privilege over 15 years has been to challenge the British Museum a little in its relationship to its audiences and partners and I’m pretty sure that over the years I’ve played a part in changing it for the better. 

Sharing my journey

It’s been nice to share my working journey with you and if you would like advice on your museum career path or how to connect your collections with audiences in new ways in these difficult times please see my offer on Share London. I feel honoured to do the job I do and as I look at what the museum sector has to offer I am optimistic about the future.  

Author | John Orna-Ornstein, Head of London and National Programmes at the British Museum and LMG Committee Member

Photographs | Courtesy of the British Museum and John Orna-Ornstein.

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