With a population of 158,000 that grew by 12% in the decade 2004–2014, Oxford is the eleventh fastest growing English city, with over a third of citizens not from white British backgrounds and the third highest ethnic minority population in the southeast. A city of contrasts, 10 of the areas of the south and east of the city are among the 20% most deprived in England. While 43% of Oxford residents have degree level qualifications or above, 22% have no or low qualifications.
One of Oxford City Council’s key priorities to address the needs of the city is through ‘Strong and Active Communities’ and the Museum of Oxford aims to support this by developing collections and co-creating exhibitions with local people, to share the stories of the city’s diverse communities and their cultural heritage. Since 2010, the Museum of Oxford has hosted two community engagement posts funded by Arts Council England through the Oxford University Museums Partnership. The purpose of these posts is to widen engagement with museum collections, and promote community cohesion through the sharing of heritage and cultural stories.
‘Journeys to Oxford’ was an 18 month project building on the best practice experiences of the previous seven years, culminating in an exhibition in the Gallery in Oxford Town Hall. The project aimed to engage with local communities and organisations to celebrate the vibrant contributions make to the cultural life of Oxford by those who have travelled to the city to live, work, visit and study.
During the course of the project the museum team engaged with participants of 45 different nationalities, aged from 3 to 90 years old, through workshops held in the community and at the Museum of Oxford and at drop-in activities at community events such as the Oxford Polish Family Day, Oxford Mela and the Cricket, Culture and Community Arts Festival. Participants worked with the Community Engagement Co-Ordinator and local artists to create outcomes chosen by the participants to reflect their individual journeys. Outcomes created included photography, artwork, digital artwork, sculpture, suitcases, decorated footwear, flags, textiles, creative writing, a printed publication and oral recordings.
Over 10,000 people visited the exhibition in the Gallery, Oxford Town Hall from 10th June to 4 November 2017.
Oral history material and photographs collected have been collected by the Migration Museum Project in London, shared with visitors to the city’s Christmas Light festival through ‘MemoryPhone’ audio posts around the city, and included in the planned ‘Settlers of Great Britain’ exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The project has been used as an example of best practice by museum staff from the Oxford University Museum Service who visited with our Community Engagement Coordinator to research methods of community engagement.
Participating in the project has increased the confidence of members of our adult learning research group, who have shared their work researching migrant journeys from south Wales to Oxford in the 1930s with the public at two events that featured singing, poetry, creative writing and research notes. The group have also shared their research and oral history interview methods with a local secondary school to support a year 8 geography project around migration.
Individuals from the ESOL groups have become museum volunteers and have joined the museum’s adult learning groups who meet in the Town Hall, and project participants have since returned to the museum with their families for drop-in activity days. One participant is a Teaching Assistant at a local school and has visited the exhibition with her class.
Work on the project has resulted in long term partnerships with local organisations including the Oxford Hindu Temple Community Centre Project (OHTCCP), African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative (ACKHI), English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) groups in Blackbird Leys and Barton, the Oxfordshire Hospital School, and Bayard’s Hill Primary School in Barton and Sandhills. These groups have subsequently worked with the museum and wider culture team on other projects, and have become community partners in the museum’s Heritage Lottery Funded major capital development project, developing contemporary collections to better represent the city’s current communities in the new galleries.
The project has also provided us with a template for the Museum of Oxford’s HLF development to enable active community participation in the creation of our new museum, and to embed community stories and the cultural history of Oxford in our galleries.