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Museum poetry during a pandemic

Festival Blog

6 October 2020

Throughout its 16-year history, South Australia’s History Festival has collaborated with hundreds of organisers throughout SA to connect visitors to the people and stories that have shaped our state. Despite featuring almost 700 events in recent years, our ability to connect with young people has been minimal. Determined to address this gap, our team devised a special project for the 2020 festival designed to encourage connections between community museums and their local schools. Our goal was to initiate a platform for young people to bring fresh perspectives into museum collections and their interpretations and to show young people that their voices and opinions matter.

The History Trust of South Australia’s strategic plan positions us as ‘accessible and open’. We want students and young people to feel at home not only in the Trust’s museums but also in their local galleries and museums. If museums (particularly local, state or national history museums) exist to tell the stories of ‘us’, then surely they have the responsibility to listen and include the voices of the public – including children and young people. Simply opening our doors is not enough to accomplish that. We need to reach out to them in all our activities and the History Festival’s spread throughout the state makes it a great vehicle for that outreach.

Poetry Takeover Challenge

Ultimately we settled on a poetry activity, where students (years 4–11) would ‘take over’ their local museum, asking questions and exploring exhibits from every angle, in dialogue with museum staff and class teachers, before finding an object that they found curious, intriguing or inspiring. Participants would then create a poem in response to their chosen object, relating to the theme ‘change’. It could be whatever form students found most interesting, written or recorded.

The concept of change was the History Festival’s theme for 2020. Using this theme for the takeover linked it directly to the festival and acted as an anchor for the poetry development process. Our aim was to get students to relate their chosen object to the theme, whether the change they discussed was between then and now, here and there or some other progression or pattern they discovered. We also wanted to encourage students to think deeply about museums and collections, and to ask questions such as, what does local history mean to them? Why are objects important and why should they care? Why would a museum have that particular object on display and what is its story?

Inspiration for creating a ‘takeover’ project came, in part, from the Museum Takeover Day concept, which is run by UK organisation Kids in Museums each year. Takeover Day is when ‘museums, galleries, historic homes, archives and heritage sites invite young people in to take over jobs normally done by adults.’ Instead of having their explorations directed by museum staff, young people actually get to take the lead for a day which ‘gives them a sense of ownership over their local museum and heritage’.

It’s important for us to ensure that ‘…visitors of all ages, backgrounds, purposes and abilities know their community is included and their stories valued’ (HTSA Strategic Plan 2018–2022). We are also keenly aware that it is incumbent upon us as an organisation to demonstrate this by soliciting storytelling from different groups and showcasing these stories out loud.

Inspiring curiosity and a sense of discovery are among our many objectives. The Poetry Takeover enabled this by removing the limitations associated with a traditional museum tour and allowing students’ natural curiosity to take over. This kind of self-directed exploration and inquiry is as valid a learning method as any other and shows students that they can take ownership of their learning experiences. Ultimately, this is a key to adopting a mindset that embraces lifelong learning.

Getting students used to visiting and being in their local galleries and museums strengthens community connections, forms cross-generational bridges and allows young people to gain a sense of belonging in their communities. We hope it also helps students to see these local organisations and collections as tools for their ongoing use as they explore history, community and their place in the world. Emphasising museums as continuing resources rather than special places to visit on a day out can encourage students to maintain an ongoing relationship with these sites.

Our initial plan was for students to connect with and visit their local museum in person. However, after the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic struck Australia, we made the decision to cancel the 2020 History Festival, and restrictions meant that all of the History Trust’s planned events and education programs also had to be cancelled. In spite of this, we decided to go ahead with a digital version of Poetry Takeover Challenge, providing participants with access to online collections and a suite of resources to guide the activity from wherever they happened to be.

Why poetry?

While the use of museum objects as inspiration for poetry is not a particularly original idea, we wanted to create a program that was adaptable to all kinds of situations – class sizes, museum sizes, geographical locations, ages etc. – removing barriers to participation from both the student and museum sides as much as possible.

We chose poetry as the form of interpretation as it’s a freer form of expression than, for instance, an essay. It is more likely to engage students’ imagination and sense of play, especially when rhyme and metre are added to the mix. Poetry is also a more compact form where students can concentrate on evoking a feeling or a sentiment rather than a logical argument or a sequential narrative. Additionally, we wanted the project to centre on a portable, flexible activity that didn’t require special equipment or materials. Any student can take part in the project with just a pencil and paper or a keyboard and screen.

Resources

We encouraged museum staff/volunteers and/or teachers to begin their poetry takeover session by asking some of the broader questions posed in the introductory section above, about museums and collections, to get students thinking about what they do and why they exist.

The Poetry Takeover website devotes a page to resources for use by classroom teachers or students on their own. The History Trust’s Education Manager, Madelena Bendo, conceived a set of prompt cards as points of entry into the exploratory process. The cards pose questions such as ‘Which object do you like most? Why?’, narrowing the focus from the bigger questions around museums and collections to individual objects.

Colleagues at the Flinders University Museum of Art (FUMA) also granted us permission to feature their object-based learning wheel on the site as another entry point. By providing these and other resources we hoped to sufficiently scaffold the learning process so teachers and students alike had a jumping-off point to spark conversations and thoughts around the objects they found.

Our education team also put together a resource pack for teachers, outlining the challenge details and criteria, how the program fits within the curriculum and some tips for guiding students through the activity in class (or while learning remotely).

Entries

There are many unknowns involved in creating a program from scratch and running it for the first time. We were pleasantly surprised to receive over 50 entries from students in both regional and metropolitan areas and completely blown away by the diversity and quality of the poetry. Students chose cars, toys, shoes, photographs, paintings – and even a stuffed dodo from Berlin – as their inspiration. Some entries came from whole classes, while others were from young people who chose to complete the challenge independently.

Migration Museum Officer Bec Pannell compiled a judging panel of Poetry Ambassadors comprising four young creatives between the ages of 12 and 16 from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, who worked together to select the winning poems.

What we learned

The COVID-19 pandemic had both positive and negative effects on the Poetry Takeover project. Cancelling the History Festival meant that our team was able to focus on the Poetry Takeover in a way that we couldn’t have if we were rolling it out on top of running a festival. We always planned to make objects available online from the History Trust collection for students who were unable to visit a museum in person, but COVID forced us to make this a priority as it was now the only way students could participate. We encouraged community museums to add photos of collection items to a Flickr group, and/or create their own Flickr account to display objects that we could link to on our website. While we had a reasonable response, and at base level our idea worked in that collection items were accessible online, it didn’t result in any entries, so we will need to rethink how we can support smaller museums in the digital space in future.

Some of the museums we spoke with earlier in the project’s development process thought they might hold poetry readings with their local schools, inviting family and friends, or to create a display of Poetry Takeover entries onsite, or even incorporate the poems into their permanent museum displays. While many of these plans were thwarted by COVID this year, it shows that there is sufficient interest to not only participate but to take the concept further in a way that works for individual museums or communities.

Our participant survey garnered few responses, but those we received were strongly positive, especially in voicing enthusiasm for participating again next year. Other feedback indicates we will need to source a wider variety of objects to inspire our young participants. If we are fortunate, this should be accomplished easily enough through visits to local galleries and museums, as was our original plan. However, we will be planning well ahead for a broader digital collection in the event that COVID restrictions continue to hamper travel and visitation.

Based on entry numbers, we have decided that next year’s takeover will focus on students in years 4–9. This year’s participants included only one student above year 9. This tells us that it is likely that senior school students’ focus on high-level study limits their interest and ability to take part. Other feedback indicated students’ desire to take part in a workshop to kick start their creative process. Our organising team plans to pursue this possibility with one or more local writers. Since COVID restrictions have made it necessary to strengthen our webinar skills, we look forward to delivering this experience digitally to students across the state.

We also aim to continue our relationships with this year’s participants by recruiting next year’s judging panel from this year’s poets. This will enable young people to gain perspective from both the writing and judging viewpoint and will give them a group learning experience outside the usual classroom environment. Most importantly, it will help them learn and strengthen their skills in community collaboration, communication and negotiation. A request for expressions of interest for the judging panel will go out early in 2021.

Conclusion

Despite the pandemic odds being stacked against it, the inaugural History Festival Poetry Takeover was able to realise a few significant wins and to provide our team with a wealth of information for future development. Our festival team looks forward to reaching more students, schools and community museums in 2021 and beyond.

To see all the Poetry Takeover entries, visit the website: https://poetrytakeover.com.au/