A FEW OF OUR FAVOURITE THINGS: PROJECT AND EXHIBITION

An exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland records the experiences of a group of adults with disabilities. It is also about what objects and things mean to us all explains Audrey Carroll, Supervisor, Choices Department, St. John of God Carmona Services, Dún Laoghaire & Helen Beaumont, Education and Outreach Officer, National Museum of Ireland

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‘A Few of Our Favourite Things…’ is an exhibition organised in collaboration with the Choices Department, St John of God Carmona Services, Sunbeam House Services and Work Options, St. Michael’s House. On display in The National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, is work by a group of adult service users of the three agencies, who visited the Museum on a weekly basis from May 2001 to February 2002. Over this time, the group explored the Museum and its collections, and worked with arts facilitators, education staff, curators and with each other.

The exhibition is about this group’s experience of the Museum, but it is also about objects and things, and what they mean to us.

Background to Project

In January 2001, Audrey Carroll of the Choices Department, St John of God Carmona Services, approached Helen Beaumont of the National Museum of Ireland’s Education and Outreach Department about a possible project between the two institutions. Participants of the Choices programme had identified community integration and learning about arts and heritage as priorities in their training and education. Carmona Service’s mission is to enable its clients to experience a quality of life as close as possible to the rest of society.

The Museum’s response was immediately positive—the project addressed a number of their key aims and objectives regarding access and inclusion. The Education and Outreach Officer welcomed the opportunity to develop these objectives into policies and programmes informed by the experience of a long-term collaborative project. The project was funded from the Museum’s Education and Outreach Department’s budget, with nominal financial assistance and staffing resources from the disability agencies.

Project outline

The common aim of the project was to provide an initiative to increase representation of people with intellectual disabilities in a form of cultural expression and learning that engaged their interest in the arts, and broadened their experiences of their heritage. The first practical application of this aim was to introduce fifteen adults with intellectual disabilities to the museum, its collections, its staff and to each other. They were given guided tours of the exhibits, access to the education and outreach facilities and resources, and an opportunity to handle some of the artefacts under the guidance of the museum curators.

As the project progressed, the participants became very much at ease in the museum and consistently showed their insight into its role and function. The group’s exhibition evolved from their experience of participating in the ‘Curators’ Choice’ workshop, part of which involves participants bringing into the Museum objects that they think could be in a museum collection. The group brought in a variety of objects, including photographs, jewellery, batteries and a stamp collection. It was agreed that their chosen objects would be the starting point for an exhibition, charting the group’s progress and development over nine months.

Work towards their exhibition began in September 2001. Two arts facilitators worked with the group with the added assistance of museum staff and the agencies’ staff. They selected items for display, some of which had to be replicated, i.e., jewellery. They undertook research, made objects and drawings and wrote labels for them. One participant’s exhibit documented the project from the start through her photographs.

It was also agreed by the group to use sound in the exhibition, and radio programme maker Madeleine O’Rourke interviewed the group individually. A core aim of the project was to encourage the participants to direct their own creative and decision-making processes. The group met and worked with the exhibition architect and designer on the ways in which their work could be displayed. They also came up with the title, ‘A Few of Our Favourite Things…’

The launch of the exhibition on 10 April 2002 brought all the participants with their families and friends to the Museum. There was a great atmosphere, the participants were clearly confident, meeting Brian Keenan, who officially opened the exhibition, and introducing their peers and their families to their work. The project was featured in the Irish Times and on the RTÉ Nationwide programme; the media coverage further raised the participants’ confidence, their self-esteem and sense of pride in the project.

Key Outcomes

The Museum’s education and outreach staff found the project a valuable learning experience. As the project progressed, they learned to impart information in an accessible way, to listen effectively and to encourage the participants to come to their own decisions without directing or influencing them. This last skill was a real challenge for all the staff and the participants involved, as it meant overcoming previously learned behaviour. The process also highlighted issues to do with accessibility, e.g. ensuring that instructions and labels were designed with large print for easy legibility. The staff all felt that they would be more confident about working with and relating to people with intellectual disabilities in the future.

This project has proved to be an excellent vehicle both for the participants and the Museum to explore and learn more about each other’s worlds. The inter-agency approach was very popular with the service users and maximised the learning and creative experience for everyone involved. As well as the fine work produced for the exhibition, there was a wealth of dynamic cooperation, innovative communication, enhancing of friendships and fostering of better understanding of the diversity of people. The exhibition is an important precursor to the European International Year of Disability in 2003, enhancing the profile and perceived value of people with intellectual disability in society. The project participants showed that initiatives such as this can facilitate them to explore topics like art and heritage, which are important and fascinating to everyone.

The future of the project

The Museum and the project participants have decided to extend the exhibition until the end of 2002 year; it is hoped that the participants will have the opportunity to introduce and interpret their work to as many groups and individuals as possible. The participants have taken up casual employment as tour guides for pre-booked groups, giving a positive profile of them and of the Museum, and bringing the collections of the Museum to a greater audience. All of the major disability services have received brochures and invitations to attend the exhibition. Introductory tours of the exhibition may be booked through the Museum’s Education and Outreach Department (tel: 01-6777444).

An evaluation of the project is underway and all of the partners wish to further explore collaborative possibilities for improved access and representation for diverse groups. The evaluation will be published and possible opportunities to bring the exhibition to other parts of Ireland are being explored.

Conclusion

In his speech at the launch of the exhibition, Brian Keenan captured the essence of what this project was about and what the participants had achieved. The following is an extract from his speech.

‘Museums are traditionally mausoleum-like receptories of the past…their displays are inadvertently delivered to a specific mindset; they cater for the able, the literate and the interested. But questions of who we are, or what we are, are not solely defined by the classified clutter of the past. History is what we do now. If history has this dynamic, it is not only about the great moments or the great persons—it is more importantly about the small magical moments and things that engage us with life and make it so important, so insightful. We all have favourite things— they are favoured for a reason. They confirm to us that no-one is without a past and that we are all in some way engaged with life—and the degree to which I can see your engagement with life enriches my own.

Exhibitions, museums, art galleries, anywhere where humans put themselves on show, are about promoting integration and understanding. What we are witnessing here is a real hands-on approach to a two-way learning experience for the contributors and for us the viewers, and between the National Museum of Ireland, the St John of God Carmona Services and its partners in Dublin and North Wicklow. With projects such as this no-one need be marginalised, differentiated or invisible. Everyone has a way of seeing and a way of revealing. We only need to know ourselves that we are all part of a whole, as it is often in the little things that the big issues are revealed…There is a real sense of pleasure, enjoyment and enthusiasm in these displays.’

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