By Cassandra Kist, LL volunteer and post-graduate researcher based at University of Glasgow
Although the January rain and grey winter is very present, I would like to take you back and reminisce if you will, over some summer memories. No, these memories were not on a beach nor in an exotic country but here in Glasgow where there is always an endless green hue, a willing ear and a friendly face.
During the Refugee festival in late June, a group of volunteers from the University of Glasgow and Interns from the Refugee Survival Trust worked together with the Open Museum and an organization called Language Landscape for a few memorable weeks. The Open Museum as implied by its name is a museum without walls, it is the outreach services but also an experimental lab of Glasgow Museums. Their work is unique as it is based on interactive events using collections as a medium, usually within and for community groups around the city – which made it a perfect collaborator with Language Landscape (LL). LL is an online platform that collects and displays audio clips across a geographical map which anyone with a registered user account can upload content and contribute to, and in the language of their choice. The platform was created by six MA students at SOAS, University of London, passionate about linguistics with the intention of capturing the diversity of the language landscape within London initially, then throughout the UK and finally, all over the world.
So, what did we all do together? And what do I think of the collaboration now, reflecting a few months later?
Armed with audio recorders, trained in documentation by the LL group and given training on how to navigate difficult conversations by Refuweegee, we entered Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The volunteers and interns recorded audio clips of very brief encounters with visitors at the museum either in their own language or English, and talked about their experiences of cultural differences and their personal memories in terms of food, childhood stories, lullabies and even family history.
There was some apprehension when approaching visitors, many of us volunteers taking a defensive yet humorous stance by incorporating into our introduction, “We are not selling anything”.
But in a sense, we were. We had to sell the opportunity to participate, and what was or would be the value for the visitors?
This is a larger museum sector question which plagues all interactive activities; asking what can visitors gain through participation? And the subsequent question tends to be, what were their motivations? I can’t answer this, instead, I can only provide self-reflection of my personal experiences based on the encounters and the structure of this particular project. Visitors were friendly in interacting with us, although taken by surprise, many seemed eager to share memories of Glasgow and home which happened to be a multitude of different places.
Others were travelers, with whom we had a friendly exchange – but all seemed to enjoy the socialisation, the opportunity to share a piece of themselves, even with complete strangers. But perhaps more compelling for them was the opportunity for their voices and memories to be collected by the museum, forming part of the city’ s collections and identity – as this was one foreseen outcome of the project and partnership between the Open Museum and Language Landscape.
One can’t help but reflect what would happen if things were altered slightly. What if instead of volunteers recording, recorders could be borrowed during a museum visit – what sort of conversations would occur amongst visitors? And in what languages? But in this case, one thing would be sorely missed, that is the unanticipated social encounters and the camaraderie developed amongst volunteers.
Pushing aside the nagging details of museum and visitor participation, rhetoric on power, expertise and value which deserves a future deeper analysis from this Post-grad researcher, there was one important take-away from this project. Being a newcomer to Glasgow I learned there is a huge amount of diversity within the city and that language is one of these dimensions that make Glasgow so rich and colourful. Truly, people make Glasgow.
Cassandra Kist is a PhD student in the faculty of Information studies at the University of Glasgow and is a Marie Currie Fellow in the Horizon 2020 EU Training Network POEM (Participatory Memory Practices). Her research is investigating how museums do and can use (social) media as an engagement tool, in a way that aligns with their social missions.