In order to bring about increased access it is necessary to engage in a dialogue with the community, particularly with those who do not traditionally see museums as relevant to their lives. Currently, most museums have audiences that reflect only a relatively narrow band of society and though they are collectively making major advances there is still some way to go to establish more inclusive environments and services.
It is, however, vital for a museum to establish its relevance to the wider community, both in terms of volume and diversity. This is particularly important in order to retain the confidence and support of its funding bodies, All local authorities have to make tough decisions over budgets and priorities and it is understandable, and to be expected, that a museum service that fails to show its relevance, has declining public use and little evidence of being valued by the wider community will be subject to budgetary cuts.
There are many methods to engage with the wider community, but one of the most effective ways is through outreach work. It is especially important when trying to engage with communities who do not traditionally use museums or who do not see them as having any relevance in their lives. Consequently outreach will be a major area of focus for the service. It is also through outreach work that the service demonstrates a commitment to building relationships with new audiences that are lasting and strengthened over time. Planned programmes of outreach work with a range of different partners will provide ways of encouraging people 'over the threshold’. Having once engaged with a community group, it is important to ensure that involvement and enthusiasm are maintained. This need not involve continuing direct action, but rather a shift to support and encouragement as confidence is built up within the community. It is also important to maintain contact with and sustain the interest of older and/or longer established audiences who may experience access difficulties. This can embrace a variety of pro-active work around, for example, reminiscence, in which museum resources are used to take elements of the collections to these groups.
As part of the process of attracting new audiences it is necessary to have more inclusive and accessible services, and ones that reflect the diverse histories and stories of the whole community. A way to produce more inclusive services is to directly involve the community in helping to develop and deliver a particular project or service, display or exhibition. This helps bring about a feeling of ownership, break down initial perceptual barriers as well as creating a better end result. Empowering the community to play a part, to continue to be involved and to have an influence on service development can only be of benefit to a publicly funded organisation.
Over the next two years a particular area of attention will be to develop some projects that engage with and explore the lives and experiences of homeless people in the area. Currently this exists as a kind of ‘hidden history’ and it is part of the museum service’s role to try and record such parts of society. There is also a real opportunity, by working in partnership with experienced organisations already operating in this field, to help bring about some positive outcomes for some of the people involved.