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Creating 'useful museums'


Since 2014, academics at Teesside University’s Centre for Creativity and Culture have undertaken extensive research on the role of museums and galleries. This has developed and refined the concept of a "useful" and constituent (or community) led museum, which is driven by regional understandings of creativity, heritage and place.

Merging theory with practice, the research team (Alistair Hudson, Miguel Amado, Elinor Morgan and Paul Stewart) have tested, embedded and shared their research at Teesside University's Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA).

The Research

A diverse range of exhibitions and events were designed and developed to spark discussion on the role of museums in relation to community and place. In doing so, these have focused on topics of importance to local audiences, including migration, regional industry and the natural world.

Localism, the first in a series of exhibitions, explored the idea of the "useful museum". Hudson and Morgan worked in close partnership with regional people and organisations, enabling Tees Valley communities to reclaim the museum space. A 'family tree' of creativity on Teesside was established by gathering artefacts and artworks, and regularly updating displays based on public feedback.

If All Relationships Were to Reach Equilibrium, Then This Building Would Dissolve explored the subject of migration. It brought together artefacts made by Middlesbrough-based asylum seekers and refugees, as well as British and international artists, and collaborated with local charities. The exhibition went beyond awareness raising and formed part of an ongoing process of relationship building with local communities and organisations within the region.

Furthering this work, This is Water considered the long histories of migration that have shaped the UK. Working with a group of constituent advisers, the exhibition collated art, memorabilia, documents and film to portray the region’s migration histories.

The Impact

AThe research team’s constituent-led approach has had a significant impact across the region and much further afield. The range of exhibitions and events held at MIMA have stimulated sector-wide discussion on the role of museums and galleries, shaping practice and enhancing cultural engagement.

Since 2015, MIMA has held 57 exhibitions, hosted 407 events and attracted over 447,272 visitors, contributing to a positive uplift in Tees Valley's visitor economy. In 2019, visitor expenditure surpassed £1 billion, with over 23 million visitor days spent in the region.

MIMA has been recognised for the importance of its work the world over. In 2016, it was one of 80 organisations to be featured in a profile of the best practices in civic engagement internationally. It has also shaped the way Arts Councils build relationships with Higher Education Institutions in the UK.

Arts Council England has continued to invest in MIMA, ensuring its programmes will impact positively on communities in the region for some time to come. An investment of £2.9million will support the MIMA-led Borderlands programme which aims to build cultural engagement in two areas of Teesside with extremely low levels of participation.

“MIMA’s research-informed approach to curatorial practice has led to a reinvention and challenging of the role of the museum, disrupting approaches within the sector. Seeing itself as a ‘useful museum’, MIMA seeks to influence society positively. For the Arts Council, this approach aligns well to our central mission of valuing the creativity of all, ensuring access to the arts, and is one of the reasons for our continued investment in MIMA.”

Director (North-North East), Arts Council England

Centre for Culture and Creativity

Connecting researchers and practitioners from across the arts and humanities, the Centre for Culture and Creativity seeks to enrich cultural understanding, increase cultural engagement, enhance public debate, further creative and applied practice, and drive positive social change.

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