Dance and Museums

September 2015

This month I took part in a fascinating event ‘Dance and Museums: A Conversation.’ I was accompanied by Charlotte Slinger, Youth Arts Officer from Hampshire Cultural Trust, who had secured a South East Museum Development Programme-funded place and travel grant that we offered through our newsletter.

Hosted by MShed, Bristol, it was designed as an opportunity for dance and museum workers to meet each other, hear about a variety of dance/museum projects and their outcomes and explore ideas for work that we could make happen in the future.

The event was organised by Pavilion Dance South West, the National Dance Development Organisation for the South West of England. In keeping with the cross-cultural spirit of the day, our MCs for the day were PDSW’s  Zannah Doan and Bristol Museums’ Ruth Hecht.

In setting the scene, three sector leaders talked about the relevance now of museum/dance partnerships.

Bristol City Council’s Head of Culture, Laura Pye highlighted that recent  reorganisations have created new opportunities for closer working where, as has happened in Bristol, arts and museums have been brought together. This certainly rang a bell with Charlotte and I, as these opportunities are very much being opened up in Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Pavilion Dance South West’s Artistic Director Deryck Newland spoke about the diversity of ways that dance and museums can work together – from presenting the moving body as a project in its own right, to employing dance as a methodology to reinterpret collections or sites kinaesthetically. He pointed to the leap of faith needed for museum/dance partnerships to flourish. Whilst some museum people still instinctively reacted to the idea of dance in museums with ‘but it might break something’ many more were willing to trust, explore and gain from the fast track that dance can offer to enhancing visitors’ understanding of museum collections. The dance community, in return, can learn from museums how to make things relevant, connect and give people something to take away. Deryck encouraged us to explore a recent symposium report from Trinity Laban and the Horniman that discusses the challenges and opportunities in detail.

Arts Council England’s Director of Museums John Orna-Ornstein discussed the potential of dance to enable people to experience museums in new ways, to have fun and find museums more interesting. Museums’ place is to help people to understand who they are – and to explore identity, conversations in museums are as important as the objects. Dance in museums is a highly effective way to trigger those conversations.

We then heard an illuminating range of diverse practitioner presentations, highlighting the variety of practice that Deryck had commented on.

Katie Green shared valuable learning about building relationships between museums and the dance community, drawn from her experience of projects like ‘Dancing in Museums.’  She highlighted the need to be conscious, when presenting dance, that museum users see it as ‘their’ space, their needs and sensitivities need to be taken into account. Katie also showed research figures demonstrating how both museums and dance can gain new audiences from collaboration. Going deeper, Katie shared her fascination with storytelling, its role in understanding what it means to be human and the way that objects can be used, through dance, as a portal on the past.

Kate Coyne from Siobhan Davies Dance spoke about the EU-funded Dancing Museums research project and advocated for the importance of artist-led dance work in museums. Kate discussed the rich potential for dance to inspire museum curation, giving the example of works of art displayed at the Whitworth Art Gallery selected from the collections in response to new dance work.

Veronica Jobbins from Trinity Laban talked about their longstanding partnership with the Horniman. She explored the basis of the partnership in shared values and aspirations, in a common focus in local community engagement. Veronica showcased a variety of projects that have grown from this collaboration, encompassing both professional and participatory work and reflecting the museum’s eclecticism. A frequent feature was the creation of new music, craft and visual art as part of the projects. Veronica highlighted the benefits of building on both organisations’s existing participation groups as a starting point to wider engagement. She then commented on the potential for future collaborations to go much further to bring artists and curators together.

In the afternoon we undertook group work to plan how the benefits of dance-museum collaboration can be spread more widely. It was an energising conversation and I look forward to being involved in the next steps. All in all it was an energising day, illuminating the vast potential of museum/dance collaboration adn providing me with really valuable contacts for the future.

Most powerfully, it demonstrated how museums working with dance can act as a vehicle for much wider cross-cultural collaboration, incorporating many other art forms and cross-fertilising audiences for all.

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