How to Occupy Battersea Arts Centre’s museum store?

Lisa Kennedy, Collections Manager

Homegrown Festival: Occupy swept through Battersea Arts Centre, with hundreds of artists taking over the whole building for four weeks during March and April. During Occupy, the BAC Moving Museum held an inspiration day on 23 March to connect with artists interested in (or currently) using museum collections as part of their artist practice.

Battersea Arts Centre cares for the Wandsworth Museum Collection, which is a diverse social history collection. Objects range from high-heeled shoes from a shop in Tooting, to a copy of the Putney Debates (dating from 1647!) – a series of debates between parliamentary army leaders, soldiers and the Levellers (members of a political movement) during the English Civil War.

In a way the themes of Occupy – ‘internationalist perspectives, where old certainties are overturned and new possibilities imagined’ wrestle with the same questions raised during the Putney Debates held over three centuries ago, the very nature of Britain’s future. Today, Brexit will shape the UK’s future and Battersea Arts Centre wanted to tap into the thoughts and feelings of young people and those who are underrepresented.

Museum collections can be a driving force in sparking the ideas and dialogues that can inform our hopes, worries and dreams about our shared future. So how did we go about this?

Prep for the Inspiration Day
As part of our application process, we asked applicants to answer the following three questions:

Inspired by Occupy’s themes, your own practice, worries, hopes and dreams for our shared future – what questions or points of interest would you set a researcher as a starting point for navigating a historical collection?
• What object of your own would you use to begin a conversation based on a contemporary topic or issue you are passionate about?
• Why do you want to be part of our inspiration day? What would you hope to get out of the day?

I took their answers and drew out some unifying themes, and then scoured the collection for objects that resonated with participants answers.

For instance, I retrieved three history school textbooks, written by a student in the 1950s!

I then conducted some research on the selected objects, to provide context on the day as well as pointers for facilitating discussion during the activity session.

On the day
After an introduction to Battersea Arts Centre’s mission and purpose and an insightful talk from Rachael Minott in the morning, we went to the museum store for the rest of the day. The artists spent some time freely roaming around the store. The artists were then divided across three tables, with a series of objects and a provocation for discussion. These objects were loosely related to themes raised by the artists from their application, which included homelessness, education, nationalism, the ‘London bubble’ and activism. After a set time, each group moved to a different table so they had the opportunity to (mostly) handle and deliberate about all the objects on the tables.

This activity reminded me of the value of listening to different perspectives. During the conversations on my table we discussed:

  1. The fact that women’s history is still not a mandatory subject within the national curriculum for history (in response to history text books in our collection written by a student in the 1950s).
  2. Considering if the exporters of blended tea in our collection from South-East Asia understood the geographic distance between the tea growing regions of Assam (in India) and Kandy (in Sri Lanka), before labelling this particular tea blend?
  3. The questions posed by artists regarding a framed tapestry in our collection, where the maker(s) are unknown such as: what inspired the creation of this tapestry? Were the style and colours used influenced by other cultures?

The conversations and provocations showed that Battersea Arts Centre had as much to lean from the participants, as the participants had to learn from the collection.

As much as we want to share our collection with the widest audience possible, we recognise that we are still learning about our collection. The power of collective knowledge was unleashed by bringing a wide range of people in to explore the collection in a space that encourages dialogue, respect for differing opinions and active listening.

The Inspiration Day hopefully helped spark new ideas and connections for all the artists involved. It inspired me to think hard about how collections engagement can go beyond just tours and exhibitions, and perhaps more importantly, it inspired me to consider all the ways we can continue to work in a co-creative way.

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