Age Friendly culture: perspectives from the Hague and beyond

So I’m a month back in the day job(s) in Manchester, re-energised by Clore and with big plans ahead.  Some of the most collaborative work I do is as Strategic Culture Lead for the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub, and Age Friendly Manchester, leading the development of and shaping the role of culture in making this city-region a great place to grow older. Theres more about our work here

Its a citizen and place-based approach to ageing; championing agency, active participation and work led by older people themselves, in their communities. The ethos is to work “with and for, not to” local people.  Manchester was the UK’s first age friendly city and is widely known as an innovator and leader in this field.  Arts and culture has always been part of its vision of positive, active ageing. The more locally rooted and relevant our work, the greater international interest and recognition it receives.

Last week, I attended the World Health Organisation’s International Age Friendly Cities conference in the Hague, to present what we do, exchange learning and work towards joint action with five of the world’s other leading age friendly cities; New York, Suzhou, Bangalore, Frankfurt and the Hague.  The key themes, relevant to all the cities, in spite of our differences, were; Diversity, Vitality, Participation and Accessibility.

It was fascinating to hear experiences of urban ageing from across the globe; concerns in Suzhou on the long term impact of the one-child policy and urbanisation on caring for an ageing population; the role and growing importance of apps and tech for connectedness in Bangalore; New York’s steadfast commitment to becoming the most accessible city in the world; Frankfurt’s approach to participatory decision making and policy development and the Hague’s focus on innovation and independent living in a super-diverse city.  The conversations were full of generosity, new thinking and all too short – indeed, this is intended to be the start of an international movement committed to future collaboration, exchanges and collective endeavour.

Day two shifted focus to projects and work at a local level.  Time for a site visit – we walked through an old slaughterhouse, skilfully transformed into a shared public space/precinct with school, nursery and shops, past recently redeveloped social housing towards one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the Hague. We passed the “Father Centre” set up a  few years ago by a group of Muslim elders concerned about their young people.  Today, it is open to and welcomes all.  Just up the road, on a fairly busy street, we stopped outside number 154.  The two mobility scooters parked outside were the only clue to what was inside.

We were here to see the Living Room project, “Laakse Lente”.  Back in 2012, the local community centre closed.  Many of the local older residents were disappointed and increasingly worried about creeping loneliness.  Where would they go now? Nettie and Leo, the couple who live at No.154 were so frustrated by the inaction and lack of solutions, they decided they would organise something themselves.

So they opened their living room, and continue to open it every weekday morning (10-12) for any local older residents who want to come and meet others.  Around 95 people visit each week.  “All seniors are welcome.  The house is open to all”.  They also organise activities each week, but especially in the summer, ” the loneliest time of year, when the city is either on holiday or at the beach.”

Surrounded by the stuff of family life; photos, trinkets and ornaments, they drink coffee, eat cake, chat, argue and laugh.   Earlier in the day, we’d heard about how, like the UK, the decline of civic infrastructure was resulting in an increasingly DIY approach to supporting independent living and care in later life across Holland.  Leo and Nettie receive donations from local businesses – food, coffee and cash – to support their work.

For many, its a lifeline.  Leo spoke movingly of one older man, who had been having dark suicidal thoughts before he found the Living Room.  Recently, he handed Leo a card of thanks.  It read “Attention is the most beautiful gift you can give anyone else”.  Another woman I spoke with proudly showed me the artwork she had given, now hanging pride of place on the living room wall.  She said it expressed how “if we are honest, we speak and make each other a little crazy.  But that’s home.  I’ve found home”


I asked those sat around on sofas and chairs “where would you be if you weren’t here today?”  Almost unanimously, they responded, “At home alone, behind the geraniums”      I now know this is a Dutch phrase to describe those who, in later life, sit alone at home, staring out of the window at the rest of the world. Its a heartbreaking image and so at odds with the warmth, humour and community in this living room.  No geraniums here…

So what can be learnt from projects like Living Room?  What relevance might this have to museums and arts organisations?

I would suggest plenty – not least the warmth of welcome, generosity of spirit, grit and DIY determination to get something done.   Museums know alot about care – for collections of course, but also I believe, for people and ideas.   We live in an age where social connectedness makes the greatest difference to quality of life as we age (above any medical intervention).  But museums are more than social spaces, more than living rooms full of interesting stuff.  We’re just coming to the end of a large-scale HLF-funded cultural volunteering programme with socially isolated people (including older people) that sheds light on this ; connectedness to others, the past and place, offers new perspectives and purpose.

Evaluation confirms that positive outcomes were underpinned by a strong sense of connectedness to people, local stories and events.  The connectedness to human experience over time enhanced the level of self-awareness, belonging, imagination and the ability to narrate and relate better to others and thus improve social relationships.

Inspiring Futures: Volunteering for Wellbeing SROI Summary 2016

An age friendly world, as conceived by the World Health Organisation, enables people of all ages to actively participate in community activities and treats everyone with respect, regardless of their age.  My trip to the Hague reminded me how critical it is to show we care, to pay more attention and to connect.  The international conversations were fascinating and I hope will lead to collective action, but its the living room at no.154 that made the greatest impression and will stay with me for some time.


What I learnt from my placement at HLF

I’ve learnt a lot – not least that folk in the heritage sector are amongst the finest there are, that large national organisations move slowly (and I’m impatient) and that there’s just not enough money to go round….

As part of the Clore Fellowship, you undertake a placement in a cultural organisation very different from your usual working environment. So, what might I learn from the Heritage Lottery Fund; a UK-wide organisation and funder, committed to supporting, advocating and driving forwards the heritage sector? With a new-ish CEO and based within a strategic team considering its priorities for a new framework for the coming years (and in the midst of a Tailored Review), it seemed a fascinating time to find out. Time to seek a larger perspective, above and beyond the museum sector I call home.

There is no doubt that HLF has changed the cultural and heritage landscape in my generation, for the better. I have only ever met committed, engaged and knowledgeable staff and as an organisation, it promotes values I share and hold dear;

“from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks we love, from precious memories to rare wildlife….we use money raised by National Lottery players to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about”

It is the largest dedicated funder of heritage in the UK, with over £7.7billion awarded to over 42,000 projects since 1994.   But, like many other cultural organisations and funders, HLF does not engage with and reach as widely as it could or should. Widening access, entitlement and equity within the cultural and heritage sectors has been a motivating factor in my placement, research and throughout my Clore Fellowship.

So, for four months, I led an inquiry to explore how HLF might change their funding approach to support communities to catalyse new heritage activity. (Some of my study visits are covered in previous blogposts). I split my time between the strategic team (London) and HLF North West team (Manchester), but mostly I’ve been on the road meeting people and seeing stuff.   I’ve not done an exhaustive study and I’m no consultant. As a Clore Fellow on placemement, rather than a member of staff, I’ve had a licence to do things differently. I’ve been listening to those leading change, unearthing and distilling new insights, ideas and perspectives from within communities and beyond the heritage sector.

I shared headline findings as a provocation to HLF’s Board (aboard SS Great Britain!) and I’ve just completed a final report. In September, I’ll share this and the propositions for change that have emerged more widely.  In the meantime, I’d like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund and particularly Karen Brookfield, Judy Cligman, Nathan Lee, Ros Kerlake and Sir Peter Luff for their welcome, support and encouragement (to stir things up).

Here’s my top 10 learning points;

1  The power of resisting definition

2 Heritage is about the future 

3 Spend more time outdoors

4 Keep it local

5 Lets talk more about love and care (and less about saving stuff)

6  Keeping it simple isn’t easy

7  Find and support “powerhouse people”

8   The challenge of ‘projects’

9  There’s just not enough money

10  And its not easy giving away the money there is..


1  The power of resisting definition

When the Heritage Lottery Fund was conceived, there was no definition of the word ‘heritage’. The first Trustees discussed the question of how the national heritage could be defined,

“We decided that [the question] was unanswerable; we could no more define the national heritage than we could define, say, beauty or art… So we let the national heritage define itself. We awaited requests for assistance from those who believed they had a part of the national heritage worth saving” (NHMF Annual Report 1980-81.2)

This became a founding principle (and a politically astute one at that) that still holds true today,

“Over the years we have resisted offering a definition of heritage, and will continue to challenge others to tell us what is important to them” (Liz Forgan, HLF SP2.19)

2 Heritage is about the future

During my placement, I’ve met lots of new people and visited new places. My opening question is usually ‘what do you really care about, here and now?’ It’s a question that gets to the heart of the matter and, if like me, you believe heritage is the story of us and as much about the future as past, it seems the right place to start.

In Hackney, heritage was described to me as “the glue”, “the mortar between the blocks” that “reminds communities of who they are, the values they share and the future they might collectively build”.

As someone who has, throughout my professional life, worked hard to engage communities with ‘art’ and ‘culture’, it strikes me that in comparison, the word ‘heritage’ is much more readily accepted, understood and liked (helped, in part, by HLF’s definition of heritage as what is meaningful to you). Time to talk about heritage more, not less. People spoke to me about the possibilities and opportunities for their communities and how a more complex understanding of their past and place informs and encourages their vision.

As Matthew Taylor from RSA once put it, “the question is whether the heritage sector can raise its sights from the day to day grind of protecting old stuff” How we, as a sector, engage in conversations about the future and might play a critical role in broadening the civic and cultural imagination will increasingly be my focus moving forwards.


3 Spend more time outdoors

As someone who has spent most of my working life in museums (though spends most of my private life outdoors), I’ve made the most of the opportunity to visit parks, landscapes and natural heritage. Some of the most valued and inspiring work I’ve seen has been in landscapes; coastlines, moors, forests, parks and yet more parks.

I think we have much to learn from the environmental sector and natural world. It’s led me to start working with the Forestry Commission as Project Advisor helping shape the future of Grizedale Forest, plan a forthcoming trip to Yosemite, co-produce a publication on museums and parks (2018) and reminded me of the value and joy of spending more time in the great outdoors. How an organisation like HLF, responsible for supporting and nurturing natural heritage, enables its staff to step away from the desk and get out and see more of the great outdoors, is an ongoing but important challenge. It’s good to get out, never time wasted.

4 Keep it local

‘Focus on the local’, interviewees said, time and again.

“The focus should be hyper-local, at block or street level.  Start small, build belief and capacity”.

One size does not fit all. Good. Be adaptable, respond to place. Be involved in decision making, creating relevance and building confidence.”

Local is a tricky concept for a national organisation. How regional teams respond to their regions and what constitutes ‘local’ in the Highlands as opposed to our inner cities varies wildly. And devolution shows little sign of slowing down. (In addition to varying forms of long-standing devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there has recently been a spate of devolution agreements with cities and regions across the UK, including Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands). Amongst other national funders, there is an increased commitment to and interest in place-based investment and localised decision making. Great Places has started to address this but now is the time for new and ambitious thinking at HLF about ‘localism’ and place-based funding.

5 Lets talk more about love and care (and less about saving stuff)

The value of heritage in supporting wellbeing came up time and again, though framed in a narrative of empathy and care rather than health determinants or provision.   One of the participants at Womens Community Matters at Barrow in Furness, expressed it beautifully,

“We build on love, on faith, on meeting of minds, A bundle of hope, creativity and rhymes”.

Many of the community-based organisations I met spoke about how important a sense of heritage and identity was for their clients and town and how heritage could encourage care, kindness, compassion and love.

“People want emotional connections, not civic commemorations”

Its time to make room for real words and feelings.

6 Keeping it simple isn’t easy

HLF is a highly process-driven organisation. Energy goes into managing the risk and processes and there is real expertise in this area within the organisation. However, there was consensus among interviewees and staff that it had all grown too complicated. Simplification should be (and is) a priority. Its not easy. Italian artist, designer and inventor Bruno Minari has it right I think – “to complicate is simple, to simplify is complicated”.

I know, from my conversations and working with development teams, there is real commitment to building relationships and a sense that this is what is needed to be more inclusive and reach new people. However the more systems and processes, the more divided you become from the people applying. This speaks to a wider concern, regularly expressed to me, that HLF should become more relational (and less transactional) in its approach. The current review of processes and plans for the future will, I am hopeful, create space for this shift and thinking.

7 Find and support “powerhouse people”

Mavericks, champions, visionaries, activists, “powerhouse people”, the ones who drive things forwards – we all know them in our organisations, communities, lives.  How HLF might seek and support them formed a cornerstone of my placement. I was encouraged to think about reaching ‘beyond the usual suspects’ and consider how HLF could engage and work with them. This ranged from exploring how they might fund individuals and their ideas (even if not fully formed) to exploring different forms of public knowledge and wisdom,

How to take account of the expertise of those like elderly botanist Margaret Bradshaw, with her long-held knowledge of plantlife in upper Teesdale? We need to broaden our notion of what expertise is.” (Ewan Allinson, Heart of Tessdale Landscape Partnership).

Beyond HLF, in the wider sector, there’s an opportunity to create new forms of debate, to bridge the authority gap. ‘Community expertise’ could and should be mobilised and given authority. Maddi Nicholson from Artgene and Coastal Communities in Cumbria, explained why this matters so much.

These folk are the stuff of change. But pride of place has been knocked out of people. Essentially, we’re in a civil war. Let heritage be the flagbearer for how communities like ours are empowered.

 8   The challenge of ‘projects’

“The work is never done but the project funding is over”

HLF is accountable to Parliament via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It’s what’s called an “arms-length public body” (though the length of that arm varies). It is constituted as a project funder by Policy Directions from UK Government. At present, HLF chooses to interpret ‘projects’ as work within time-limited frame (maximum 5 years) and at a range of different levels and scales.

The ongoing debate about investment in parks highlights the challenge of this approach. HLF has invested in parks for over 20 years. In recent years, in light of the absence of a leading voice for parks, it has stepped up to convene and lead debate about the future and state of UK parks. But it is not able to fund revenue and instead supports a wide range of transformational projects and supports new thinking about operating and business models for parks. As Dave Morris, Chair of National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces summarises;

“Those seeking alternatives to a statutory duty have recognised there’s no silver bullet available, in fact there’s not even a wooden bullet.  Recent governments have been causing the current under-funding crisis and park lovers need to put a rocket under the government.  They big up the Lottery funding but this is just taxation in reverse, with the poor punters being used to subsidise the government and its tax cuts for the rich.  The recommendations in the recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report do not go far enough.  Yes, the report set out the situation and challenges well, but, for me, its recommendations ran pitifully short of what is needed. Parks should simply be recognised as a statutory service and be backed by adequate public funding.  There are ways to find the money.  Its about political will.”

Dave Morris does not doubt HLF’s commitment to parks, nor its ability to convene and mobilise a disparate sector. He values HLF staff and support. But, rightly, he highlights the limitations of their remit and the complexity and challenges of public funding and political decision-making. For many projects, there are limited or no other options. HLF is the only game in town.

And of course, this sits within the broader context of austerity and the decline of community infrastructure. For over a decade, there have been ongoing cuts to public services. The impact of this was raised by every single community leader and organisation I interviewed.

“There are no longer housing offices, the role of the church in public life is diminishing, the closure of post offices, collapse of the high street, growth of online services, all of this is about community infrastructure being stripped back. Heritage is about people’s connections to places and each other and this is needed now more than ever”

My conversations have often focused on generational change and impact and, not for the first time, I’ve been conscious of the gap between funding (usually aligned to electoral cycles) and practice.   So, how much flex is there to reinterpret “projects” in a time of austerity?

9 There’s just not enough money

HLF’s CEO Ros Kerslake recently spelt it out,

“Demand for our funding has never been higher. For this year’s “major batch” Board meeting, we received grant requests totalling £224m for an available budget of £40m.”

The focus of my enquiry has been on small amounts of money that make a big difference within communities. These are also oversubscribed but their impact and ‘value’ is significant and I hope that, moving forwards, there will be further opportunities for lower-level community-based investment. I’ve observed how the need to balance bigger flagship projects and smaller-scale work forms an ongoing and important debate about what HLF is for. There’s just not enough money to go round. Lottery takings are variable and with increased competition from other forms of Lottery, there is real nervousness that funds will decrease.

10 And its not easy giving away the money there is..

Making the right decisions and being transparent about that decision-making takes time, energy and a lot of debate. I’ve been so used to working my socks off to build a compelling case for investment (as grantee), I’d not fully considered the challenges and demands from a funders’ perspective. I’ve been impressed by the commitment and skill of HLF staff and the Board to invest Lottery money with a balance of care and ambition but as demand increasingly outstrips supply, austerity deepens and the civic infrastructure declines, the concept of need and what is ‘at risk’ is also changing. Its not going to get easier any time soon.



Equity and progress: Museums and arts in San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco, CA, USA

I head over the glorious Golden Gate bridge northwards to Fairfax, self-styled birthplace of mountain-biking.  I’m there to meet Margaret Kadoyama.   For thirty years Margaret has worked in museums (within organisations and as consultant), taught the J.F.Kennedy Museum Studies program and in recent years, been deeply involved in the US Museums and Race initiative.   When I catch up with her, she’s putting the finishing touches to a forthcoming book on Museums and Communities (to be published by Routledge later this year).  I’m there to talk to her about the role and future of museums, civic engagement and leadership.  I want to know more about the issues facing US museums.

“One of the biggest is equity. What does it really look like?  What do we need to do differently?  Museums have got to acknowledge and understand their own histories, as places based on colonialism.  They have to recognise when they exhibit institutional bias and racism.  A challenge is coming from the younger generation and museums are going to have to figure out where the leadership is.”

Margaret tells me how activism is increasing in the field and points to collectives like Museum Workers Speak   as change-makers who show the way for the wider sector. #MuseumWorkersSpeak is an action-oriented platform for social change at the intersection of labor, access, and inclusion.  Formed as a collective of activist museum workers, they interrogate the relationship between museums’ stated commitments to social value and their internal labor practices.

We talk about similar initiatives in the UK and how, amongst some museums, there is a discernible shift towards becoming more pro-social and activist.  I’ve taught on a post-graduate Museology course in Manchester for nearly a decade now, Margaret for double that time and we’ve both noticed a shift in the motivations and interests of students towards wider social impact.

When I ask how she views her role, she laughs.  “San Francisco is not exactly short of activists.  It’s in our DNA.  So I am an activist, but I also think about myself more in terms used by author Debra Myers, as a ‘tempered radical‘”.  She believes in quietly pushing things forward.  Since Trump, however, even she has become more vocal.  I sense a reluctance and even slight fatigue that she’s felt compelled to do this.  But, we both discuss, its no longer enough to be the platform or fora for debate in today’s world. Now is the time for museums to step beyond this, play a more active role.

So, why hasn’t it happened more?  Some of the museums I’m visiting on this trip (like Oakland Museum and MAH Santa Cruz) are doing this but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Margaret puts it simply, describing the qualities and attributes needed to work in this way.  “Its hard.  You need to be open, agile and often, just say yes.  Make things happen. Be at the table.  Listen.  Be part of your community.”  In addition, she tells me how, for some museums, IRS rules are used to limit the scope of socially engaged work you can do.  “If you get government funding however, there is still more you can say and do than you can’t.  It shouldn’t be the excuse to hold back or not step up.  We need to explore the limits.”

Which leads me back across town to the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts (YBCA), a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts centre with a truly compelling mission; to generate culture that moves people.  It describes itself as the Center for the Art of Doing Something About It.  I love this.  I meet with CEO Deborah Cullinan and Jonathan Moscone, Chief of Civic Engagement and what is clear, from the outset, is their fundamental belief in the power of people and art to create more hopeful, equitable solutions.  Since joining in 2013, Deborah has fostered a “culture of invitation”, supporting staff and partners to coalesce around the vision of YBCA as community centre and civic asset.

“Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is the Bay Area’s creative home for civic action. We believe that culture precedes change, and it is the responsibility of arts organizations to spur and support societal movement.

Our community’s biggest challenges require collaborative solutions. We work across sectors to advance the insights, ideas, and projects that can create real change.”

Their YBCA Fellows program brings together creative citizens from across the Bay Area – artists and everyday people alike – to engage in a yearlong process of inquiry, dialogue, and project generation. Each Fellowship cohort explores and responds to a question and together they use art and culture to inspire community transformation.  This year, they’re asking “Where is our public imagination?”

YBCA have a commitment to supporting the arts ecosystem and believe one of the most effective ways to do this is to be part of the broader civic conversation.  This is something Ive been thinking about alot in the last couple of years.  For several months, on secondment to the public health team’s Greater Manchester Ageing Hub and now, as Strategic Lead (Culture) I regularly participate in those civic conversations and culture plays a significant role in shaping the city-region’s wider ambitions for ageing.  I know  colleagues from other sectors value the perspective, solutions and ideas culture and the arts bring.  Exploring how museums and arts organisations can be part of that wider civic conversation, has in large part, driven my thinking and research during my Clore fellowship.  Not surprising then that my interests and values align so strongly with YBCA. Their vision and programme is impressive, consistent and I’m so pleased to have found them. I’m glad they are doing this work.  I hope others follow.


The only disappointment is how the building and spaces don’t yet reflect their purpose. Although the staff are warm, friendly and soon put you at ease, the building feels cool and exclusive.  Also, there are real constraints on activities in the urban park outside and entrance area so their threshold is not as inviting as it should be.  Both Deborah and Jon are upfront about this and as you would expect, are doing something about it.  “We’re going to overhaul our spaces, experiment with them a bit.  There is so much reverence for architects. So we’re looking to a design studio skilled at working in public realm like shopping malls, to help us turn YBCA into a community centre, a voting place.”  Increasingly they’re not just interested in hosting others but in making and leading their own activism.   I’m curious and excited to see what and how this develops.

After leaving YBCA, purely by chance, I come across one of their projects; a People’s Garden in the Tenderloin District, one of the only neighborhoods in the city of San Francisco without a full-service grocery store, making access to fresh, affordable food a daily struggle for the many low-income residents of the Tenderloin. Over 30,000 residents, including families and children, live there.

In 2010 a vacant lot near San Francisco’s City Hall transformed into what is now a  thriving community garden. In partnership with YBCA, it was created as part of the Neighbourhood Development Corporation’s work for food justice and brings together hundreds of volunteers to grow food and build community.  That’s what you call the Art of Doing Something About It.

My final museum visit in the Bay Area is in Oakland, the Oakland Museum of California, neatly summarised as “the Museum of Us”.  I’ll confess, I fell slightly in love with this place.

From outside, it may look like a car park or bunker, but once inside, its a stylish modernist concrete building with terraces for sculpture, planting, views galore and large oak and glass doors leading you into and out of galleries of natural science, history and American art. There’s a sunken park, even a fishpond.  It felt so relaxed and informal (the sunshine does help) and the collection displays are both conversational in tone and thought-provoking. For me, all this makes for a great museum visit.

I spend a day there and meet up with Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of Oakland Museum and several of her colleagues. Oakland is the third largest city in the Bay area and the most ethnically diverse in the US.  The Museum sits next to Lake Merritt, which Kelly tells me a decade ago, was little more than a muddy puddle.  Today, its a locus for the city.  She tells me more about what matters to the museum.

 “How do we tell stories connected to this place?  What does equity mean here, today?  Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panthers movement and we have a duty to tell that story and if necessary, revisit the trauma.  We can’t do that alone. From consultation to contribution to co-creation, communities inform what we do and show.  If we’re really committed to equity, we’re committed to lifting up stories that haven’t had a stage”

Again, a real focus on equity, that I encounter time and again as a visitor.  Not least in the  Dorothea Lange retrospective commemorating her personal archive, gifted to the museum 50 years ago.  I’m excited about this and have been looking forward to it. I’m not disappointed.  Its a deeply moving exhibition, with striking (and many unfamiliar) images and a clear narrative focusing on her activism and the emotional and political impact of her work.

From documenting the plight of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression to magnifying the grim conditions of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, Lange’s photographs demonstrate how empathy and compassion—focused through art—can trigger political action.

Kelly tells me how they’ve shifted in recent years, from trying to be a Museum for the whole of California to primarily “being fabulous and beloved at home” for the people of Oakland.  This means building the confidence and courage of the staff, cracking out of the curatorial-driven model and the “paralysis of perfection” so prevalent, especially in art museums.  One of their programmes – Friday Nights at OMCA  has led this shift. Its  “Oakland’s most talked about food truck party” and every Friday, hundreds of local people go to this family-friendly event with music, art, dancing and of course food.  I meet its organiser-in chief Cynthia Taylor, Associate Director Public Programs, and for  two hours, beside the Koi carp pond, we chat about the role of museums as social spaces, advocating for social change, Trump, artists, developing exhibitions about the subjects people really care about (most recently at OMCA these have included the story of the Black Panthers and marijuana legalisation) and of course, equity and care.

What I admire about Oakland Museum is both their commitment to change and their recognition of the time and energy it requires.  Evolution, not revolution.  They may experiment (often with radical intent) but their public is engaged with and part of the process. I wish more museums did their thinking in public.  The big issues of equity,  creativity and social change underpin all I’ve seen on my visit and so they should.  Kelly reminds me of Michael Spock’s warning that ‘your museum will close if it can’t be for people rather than about stuff’.  But of course, the very best museums (like Oakland) are those that do both.


Getting lost and finding myself in San Francisco


For the next week or so I have a packed timetable of study visits, interviews and tours. I’m going to be meeting with academics, artists, practitioners and community leaders to find out more about how they do things at Oakland Museum, Yerba Buena Arts Centre, Exploratorium’s Office for Public Spaces and MAH Santa Cruz.

Since arriving in the City by the Bay, I’ve explored some of the wonders of Golden Gate Park and flagship arts organisations like SFMOMA.

I’ve been impressed with the commitment to sustainability and research throughout the building and work of California Academy of Sciences (above) and immersed myself in the nostalgia of the Summer of Love Experience at the beautiful de Young Museum. Here was the San Francisco of yesteryear; counter-cultural, with artists and activists at the forefront of political and social change. 50 years on, I wandered through an exhibition devoted to the art, fashion and rock and roll of 1967,  surrounded by the baby-boomers who had been there, done that.

But now, after a weekend of sightseeing and exhibitions, a day of doing things differently. Channelling my inner Walt Whitman and inspired by John Muir,  I decided to wander, get lost, see where I ended up.

“I only went for a walk….for going out I found was really going in” (John Muir)

I set off, with no destination in particular, heading west. Eventually I came across Mountain Lake, one of the last natural lakes in San Francisco. 200 years ago, San Francisco was full of freshwater habitats, creeks and ponds.  After many years of neglect, Mountain Lake is now being revived as a valued part of the city’s natural heritage.


It’s a long term project, still in its early days, that brings together park staff, scientific partners and hundreds of community volunteers.  Mountain Lake sits within the Presidio of San Francisco, a park and former U.S Army military fort on the northern tip of the peninsula, part of the Golden Gate Park Recreational Area.   After a hard-fought battle, the Presidio averted being sold at auction and came under the management of the Presidio Trust.  The Trust now manages most of the park in partnership with the National Park Service. The Presidio Trust Act called for “preservation of the cultural and historic integrity of the Presidio for public use.” This includes the restoration, care and lease of over 800 buildings.  The Act also required that the Presidio Trust be financially self-sufficient by 2013. How to balance the needs of preserving the integrity of the National Historic Landmark District in the face of new construction, competing pressures for natural habitat restoration, and requirements for commercial purposes is an ongoing concern.  But this afternoon, with tule reeds blowing in the breeze and red-winged blackbird (in the photo) within arms length, the gains and potential for both nature and people are clear.

Aside from Golden Gate park , the Presidio and a small number of neighbourhood and pocket parks, it strikes me that the predominant public space in San Francisco is the sidewalk. As I walk around the city, I keep spotting planted trees with large green bags and Friends of the Urban Forest signs, on the pavements and beside roads.


Friends of the Urban Forest ( was set up after the City and County of San Francisco cut funding to urban forestry in the late 1970’s.  With some leftover funding from city grant money, George Williams hired Michelle Anderson and they decided to take matters into their own hands by organizing neighborhoods to plant and care for their own trees.

Today, FUF is a thriving nonprofit organization committed to revitalizing San Francisco’s urban forest, building community, and taking a local leadership role in mitigating global environmental problems through the simple act of planting trees. FUF has planted more than 50,000 trees, has a strong partnership with the City and County of San Francisco, is well loved among San Franciscans, and has an outstanding reputation among urban-forestry organizations nationwide.

It has a Youth Tree Care program (now called Green Teens), one of the nation’s few paid urban forestry vocational skills training programs. It has just launched The Urban Forest Map, an online database and map of San Francisco’s trees. Anyone can look up — or add — information about trees, such as their location, health, species and more. And there is even an additional call to action;

if you have a lemon tree, be sure to add it to the Urban Forest Map so it can be counted in the Just One Tree campaign, which aims to make San Francisco self-sufficient in its lemon needs and serve as a model for how a city can grow more food locally.

The street tree is an often overlooked but significant public asset (please take note Sheffield). So what would a scaled-up call to action look like in UK?  The timing is critical.  Tree planting is at an all-time low.  It makes me think of Manchester’s City of Trees, which sets to re-invigorate Greater Manchester’s landscape by restoring underused, unloved woodland and planting a tree for every man, woman and child that lives in the City Region, within a generation.  The stories of their planting is the heritage of the future, as much as the trees themselves.

Onwards, past yet more trees, until I reach a destination of sorts and the end of my day’s wanderings, the Legion of Honour (art museum).  Outside, a plaque catches my eye. The joy of happenstance again.


Frances E Willard, it turns out, was an American educator, temperance reformer and womens suffragist.  She developed the slogan “Do Everything” for the Womens Christian Temperance Union, encouraging its membership to engage in a broad array of social reforms through lobbying, petitioning, preaching, publishing, and education.  Her vision encompassed  labor reforms and the global expansion of women’s rights. She was instrumental in the passage of the Nineteenth (Womens Suffrage) Amendment to the US Constitution. Its yet another reminder how interconnected we are.  I’m not so far from Manchester (home of the suffragettes) after all.

Run. Climb. Fall. Repeat. Making spaces for work and play in the Outdoor City

I drive up steep suburban Sheffield streets in the south of the city to Ash Tree Yard, the slightly dishevelled but friendly-looking home to Heeley Development Trust.  For more than 20 years, Heeley Development Trust has been creating spaces (indoors and out) that enable people to play and create.  For me, its a simple beautiful ethos that embraces everyday creativity and heritage.  The Trust was established “in response to state failure” and is rooted in the simple belief that small, locally owned and led organisations and projects achieve the greatest impact.

So we wander – from Ash Tree Yard, its recycling bike workshops and space for work with young people through a series of pocket parks (including small community orchard) towards the largest green space, Heeley Park, and finally to SUM studios (part of a large site of what was one of the finest Victorian schools in Sheffield, by pioneering architect E R Robson).

J.M.W Turner, Sheffield, from Derbyshire Lane, 1797.

My guide is Andy Jackson, who has devoted much of his life to this work since the early 2000s.  He tells me that originally, as in Turner’s painting, Heeley was a series of small semi-rural villages.  With industrialisation came significant change, a huge influx of people and infrastructure (the boom years) until eventually industrial decline left this suburb with pockets of derelict land, unloved and without a plan. “The heart of the community was ripped out”.  The housing and population is mixed and over half local residents are over 55.  It’s not one of the priority areas for the city and Andy is candid about the challenges of sustaining community development and securing investment for an area that is noone’s priority (other than those that live and work there).

When he started at the Trust, it was 100% grant dependent.  Today, it earns 98% of its income (though he is keen to point out a large portion of this is still through publicly funded contracts and commissioning).  Still, that is some turnaround.  In large part, this is because of the Trust’s holistic, neighbourhood-wide approach which encompasses public spaces like parks, heritage buildings and businesses.

There is power in land, bricks and ownership and its vital we own and care for these spaces.  They’re the heart of our community.

This mixed-model is what makes running the park, with 125 year lease but no dedicated income or negotiated maintenance agreement or dowry, even feasible.  It is  the largest community run park in the country.  And it’s a great park.

Climb. Jump. Ride. Relax. Dig Deep.  Your Park Needs You.  Heeley Peoples Park website.

We asked ‘how do we build a landscape like the Peak District (some 20 minutes away by car) here, for our kids?’ 80 tons of stone was locally sourced for walls, footpaths and rockeries.  Local species and native trees abound. Wildflower banks and woodland areas are left wild to explore.  Training-scale mountain bike single-track weaves through the trees.  Two large climbing boulders sit ready and waiting.  The park has drawn upon local talent, expertise and suppliers.

Andy talks about the desire and commitment to encourage risk taking at the heart of play.   I agree, this is just what we and our children need in our cities; “To run.  Climb.  Fall.  Repeat”

Sheffield brands itself as the Outdoor city and whilst I love the idea, I’ve struggled to see it as much more than a branding exercise.  Until now.   By sensitively responding to local landscapes and creativity (whether climbers, gardeners, makers or local kids), Heeley Park shows how the Outdoor City might encourage distinctive, playful and only-in-Sheffield spaces and opportunities.  Show, don’t tell.

It strikes me that Heeley Development Trust brilliantly brings together the “outdoor city” and “maker city” (Sheffield’s other big brand) as we head over to SUM Studios, part of the former Victorian Anns Grove School, next to the park.

Great care has been taken to retain the character of the historic building; windows, roofs and walls have been carefully repaired rather than replaced. Original brick and stone has been revealed, new interiors are open and light, with glimpses into each of the units.  It feels contemporary and friendly and I’m not at all surprised theres a waiting list for future spaces.  Originally conceived as a ‘castle of learning’, the ambition is to convert all three listed school buildings into the modern-day castle equivalent for Sheffield’s creative sector; a hub for business, arts and community use.

In the cultural sector, we’re increasingly (and rightly) encouraged to be more entrepreneurial with our assets but hearing Andy’s story of funding shortfalls, ownership issues, lack of political leadership and planning delays is a sobering reminder of the patience and tenacity you need to realise big and new ideas (and anyone who has worked on a capital project knows the blood, sweat and tears that underpin the process). What really interests me about Heeley Development Trust though is how interconnected everything is. Andy describes it as a mixed economy; people-land-buildings (in that order).  Income from SUMstudios helps pay for park maintenance (including two park keepers).  Bike repair contracts across the North support investment in Ash Tree Yard and allow them to commercialise their existing services.   On paper, it might look messy. But it works. Everything starts small and local.  Employ local.  Live here.  Work here.  Think in 15-20 year cycles – generational, not electoral or funding cycles.

So, how does a funder like HLF, keen to identify outcomes and timescales for investment, deal with an asset-based, localised, iterative development process like that in Heeley?   Reflecting on the much-needed and welcomed Lottery funding for the park in recent years, Andy summarises how difficult this was, “We want to build community, not break it and the processes of the bigger funders nearly broke us”.    When I ask Andy how funders might support communities more, he points to simplifying processes and learning from those who support community businesses like Locality and BIG Lottery funded Power to Change.

He admits too, that perhaps if they had been given too many large grants along the way, they wouldn’t be as imaginative, locally rooted and sustainable as they are now. But its come at a cost.  They’ve had to fight for recognition and new opportunities each step of the way.  Perhaps now is a time for change (for all). They’ve proved they can make it work, often in spite of (not because of) political support.  Their ambitions have grown.  They understand their value (to their community and city) and are now seeking greater investment than ever before.  After two decades, they are ready to seriously consider the future of a neighbourhood park and associated hall (Meersbrook Hall), with the aim of bringing it into community management. It’s within walking distance (part of their criteria for what constitutes local), on the other side of Heeley. It’s an enticing and many would say foolhardy prospect. They are just the start of a long journey that’s going to take time and yet more energy.  But I, for one, really hope they make it happen.  They could create something extraordinary.

“The Estate of the Future?” Woodberry Down, Hackney and why heritage matters

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Hackney and what was once deemed “the estate of the future”, now termed a “regeneration estate”, Woodberry Down.

Woodberry Down’s 20-year regeneration programme is one of London’s biggest, delivered in partnership with the Woodberry Down Community Organisation (WDCO) resident steering group, Berkeley Homes, and Genesis Housing Association. Critics highlight the cost of flats in Woodberry Park (3 beds for £800,000!) and high levels of foreign investment, describing the project as “state-sponsored gentrification”.  Some residents find themselves between a rock and a hard place – regeneration they don’t want or deterioration of their existing buildings.

I meet with Simon Slater, part community-activist, part capacity-builder. Simon is based in Woodberry Down and  has lived or worked in the housing sector in Hackney for over 30 years. He tells me how, in its early years, the Estate was a showpiece. Proclaimed as the ‘Estate of the Future’ by one newspaper and much visited by dignitaries and housing professionals, it was heralded as a model of community development. A strong community infrastructure was always at the heart of the plans, including a park, health centre (a model for the new NHS) opened by Nye Bevan in 1952 and Woodberry Down School, the first purpose-built comprehensive in the country,  opened in 1955.

The HLF-funded The People’s Story of Woodberry Down Project tells the multitude of stories that trace the estate from its post-war beginning to the present through the voices of its residents.

Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney, currently one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in England is undergoing the largest housing regeneration in the UK.  All existing 2000 flats will be demolished; some have already been replaced by a mixture of social and private housing. The upcoming years will bear witness to a dramatic change in the physical and social composition of the area. Using oral history methodology and archives research, our project will record the history of our community before it becomes unrecognisable.

Simon tells me about the power and importance of intangible heritage for community building.  Its not all positive stories.  It highlights the struggle, protests and determination of local residents at the sharp-end of low investment, social change and mixed development (not least the story of how residents fought over decades to save the reservoirs).

Woodberry Down Community Organisation and Eastside Community Heritage

The events, memory shop and exhibitions excavated and celebrated the memories and actions of local people.  They are collated into a book which is gifted to each new resident.  I love the idea of a memory shop and how it speaks to people’s everyday concerns.  Stories like these should be heard, shared, even form part of everyday conversation.  Alongside work like Tom Hunter’s film A Palace for Us, they look beyond headlines and add complexity to our understanding.  It’s what heritage does. One thing is certain, this area has started to and will continue to change beyond all recognition over the coming years

Simon and I wander around the estate (old and emerging) and then to nearby Woodberry Wetlands, the London Wildlife Trust (and HLF-supported) nature reserve of 11 hectares of reed-fringed ponds and dykes.  It’s a striking contrast – with nature and city cheek-by-jowl, as too stark inequalities in wealth and housing.  It’s quiet today (Tuesday afternoon), with mostly young families and joggers. The Wetlands feels otherworldly, a retreat and escape from the everyday.  Its an invaluable local resource but I can’t help wonder, how many people from the old estate visit, from across the other side of Seven Sisters Road?

At the edge of the reeds, with birds nesting and warbling, Simon and I walk and talk  about how funders might support communities to catalyse new activity and the changes they want to see.  He tells me how, in his work, it has been critical to support people’s ideas and develop relationships locally.  “The focus should be hyper-local, at block or street level.  Start small, build belief and capacity”.  Agreed, this is exactly how our most impactful work in Manchester has developed and it can’t be rushed.

We talk about whether investment should be in places or people and quickly decide this is the wrong question.  Simon believes there has to be greater investment in community activism and activists and we chat about how funding that directly supports heritage activism might work in practice.  He reflects on past examples; from the Settlement movement to the now defunct Scarman Trust and present-day Resident Association levy system. We ponder what a 21st century Settlement movement might look like?  And does the growing shift towards place and asset-based funding have real potential to support and galvanise those at the forefront, leading change?  To do this, funders will have to work very differently;  with greater local knowledge, collaboration and shared commitment. But are they ready to make this change?

As we walk back to Seven Sisters Road, he leaves me with the story of Robin Redmond, a much-loved local policeman who left the force to focus more on community development and whose energy and resolve instigated the centre that bears his name.  We pass what was once an old 1950’s disused and dilapidated branch library, now transformed into a Community Resource Centre and Library, home to Manor House Development Trust.   Social events, meetings, creche, exhibitions and performance events, computer training, homework club and much more besides coexist here. Robin sadly died before the project was completed but his work lives on.

My visit here has been enlightening, not least to hear Simon articulate why heritage matters. For him, it is, simply, the “mortar between the blocks”.  The memories,  histories, rituals and sites are what bring people together.  They remind communities of who they are, the values they share and the future they might collectively build, or as the book Woodberry Down:The People’s Story summarises;

The people of Woodberry Down have a history they can be proud of, the present and future generations could do a lot worse than follow in their predecessor’s footsteps.






Lessons from the European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk


On a cold bright morning I wander through the handsome city streets of Gdansk towards the former shipyard now home to the European Solidarity Centre.  This has been top of my must-visit museums since hearing about it at the European Museum of the Year awards last year. At that event (my own museum, the Whitworth, was specially commended) we met with and heard from 49 other European museums who shared their extraordinary collections, buildings and work. Two of the winners stood out for their commitment to social justice and impact. The first, POLIN (Museum of the History of the Jews, Warsaw) won the overall prize. I have yet to visit but look forward to going. The second, the European Solidarity Centre, won the Council of Europe prize;

It’s a fascinating example of a cultural institution working to promote freedom and solidarity. The events it recounts and its programme make it a forum for modern Europe. It succeeds in making the history of the trade union Solidarnösc a powerful and moving source of inspiration for civic engagement and action.

One of the judges Jette Sandahl, suggested that with my interest in museums, civic purpose and the growing trend for activism in the sector, I really should visit Gdansk. So, here I am (a day after Teresa May announced her intention to hold a general election in expectation of securing her Conservative vision for Brexit) at the heart of an institution created for and devoted to solidarity across Europe. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Its not like any other cultural institution I know. A mix of museum, archive, library and Trade Union HQ (Lech Walesa still has an office on one of the floors).  The Centre was established in 2007 and its new building opened in 2014 on the anniversary of the August Accords signed in Gdansk between the workers union “Solidarnosc” and communist authorities in 1980. The Centre promotes itself as an agora – a space for people and ideas that build and develop a civic society, a meeting place for people who hold the world’s future dear.

Its mission is to commemorate, maintain and popularise the heritage and message of the Solidarity movement and the anti-democratic opposition in Poland and throughout the world. It seeks to inspire new cultural, civic, trade union, local government, national and European initiatives with a universal dimension.

The exhibitions, archives, media library, research and national heritage department (social historians) focus on telling the story of this site and the solidarity movement. Its a compelling story that unfolds across a series of seven distinct spaces or exhibitions. Design and artist-led installations are carefully and sparingly integrated, not least the first room your enter with its ceiling full of shipyard worker’s helmets, a visual reminder of the people power behind this story.

It’s all about the narrative, which is both fascinating and complex. Visual propaganda is at the heart of the story and, throughout, photography and film is used to powerful effect.

Space is also made for more intimate encounters with objects and one of the real successes of the displays is in striking this balance between the personal and universal. This approach also underpins one of the most effective and moving “feedback mechanisms” I’ve ever seen in a museum, with thousands of small comments cards completed by visitors, together spelling out ‘solidarnosc’. As Adam, one of the archivists reminds me, the majority of Gdansk citizens participated in this movement, this is their common and recent heritage (at the height of its powers, Solidarnosc had over 9 million members).

Alongside the permanent displays, there are spaces for “the adventure of ideas” aka temporary exhibitions and events. A Play Department works with young children, exploring solidarity in play; developing co-operation, building confidence and small communities. I love this and I’d suggest a Play Department with these aspirations is relevant to more than just the very young.

Another space on one of the floors is dedicated to ‘everyday solidarity’, a free space for local NGOs to work on developing this idea with the Centre. This openness to new ideas and organisations shapes how the Centre work with others (offering rent-free space, profiling their activities and seed-funding their projects) over the longer term. Unlike some accelerator or incubator models, this seems a more collaborative approach supporting the development of grassroots activity and activism as part of their wider work to build civic society.

It prompts me to think about how, in spite of strong and long-term partnerships, we rarely witness this level of civic integration in UK museums. Is it always lack of space, capacity or funding that stops us from doing this more often; inviting others to join us, be based within our walls (and for more than a few days or weeks)? Can and should we be more than a platform for others ideas and work? If museums were to open up more and we dedicated time and space to working with other organisations which share our vision and mission, how might it change and shape our work and impact? What might we learn? Would we be more relevant? What would we have to stop doing to enable this and would it be worth it?

I meet up with Magdalena Fryze-Seroka and Anna Fedas, both from the Civic Department (a team that combines the energy and grassroots activity of solidarity with cultural programmes) to find out more about their other work. They tell me about the Solidarity Academy (now in its 12th Edition), a programme for young journalists across Europe. 16 participants attend a week-long intensive training and leadership camp with professional development and support over the following months. Last year, one group combined forces to organise a campaign #Make facts great again.16422423_1771492876505543_6003281757586229280_o

They aimed to tackle fact-free public debates, fake news and media illiteracy. Supported by the European Solidarity Centre, they have produced take-away coffee cups and sleeves throughout the Baltic States, displaying absurd “facts”. It’s intended as a wake up call to critical thinking. The accompanying Facebook page sharing articles and tips that help people evaluate the contents of their social media feeds is well worth a look. Older journalists participate in a parallel Europe with a View to the Future programme, the Ambassador for New Europe book prize and contribute to the bi-monthly publication New Eastern Europe (a collaboration between The City of Gdansk, ECS and the College of Eastern Europe). The Civic Department also run several exchange programmes across the Baltic States for volunteers and cultural practitioners.

Locally, the team coordinate the All about Freedom Film Festival (now in its 10th year), a wide range of ‘immigrant support and civic practice programmes’ for all ages, which include language skills, fundraising and volunteering for newly arrived people. Every year, they lead Understanding August, a distributed co-production programme across the city, working with community and civic leaders to remember and celebrate the creation of Solidarnosc, a key historic moment. Picnics, games, oral histories, exhibitions and events will take place across districts. This year they will culminate in an ambitious Arts Festival (developed in partnership with other arts organisation in the city), headlined by the Expat Philharmonic Orchestra.

One of the things that strikes me is how, across their programmes, they seed-fund and financially support the good ideas and activities which emerge from participants. They tell me this isn’t a huge financial commitment but makes a real difference and for the longer term. It forms part of their funding agreement.   In the UK, as arts organisations’ are increasingly committed to and actively involved in building capacity (not just delivering a service), will funders support and develop this way of working more?

The complex governance of the European Solidarity Centre (central government, local government, trade union and NGO) might save them from the fate of the newly opened nearby Museum of the Second World War. Whereas many state-run institutions in Poland have had to change their programmes, activities and displays to align with and meet the demands of the populist government, the range of stakeholders involved in decision-making processes make any shifts of political direction and programme difficult and time-consuming. This, staff hope, will help them maintain their current position and approach.

We talk about the other challenges they face. I ask them what’s not working. They laugh. “We’re very open so we have many failures”. They tell me about how they engage an intellectual elite but still have much work to do to be relevant to the lives of a wider range of Gdansk citizens. (I experience this myself at an evening event exploring art, action and rural communities, attended only by a small number of committed researchers, artists and activitists). We talk about an increasingly divisive future (not least the rise of populism) and what “European solidarity” means today. They and colleagues from the National Heritage Department tell me of their desire to work more collaboratively internally; “People don’t know how to work together. Even in this building, of all places, there could be more cooperation between different departments”. Many of these challenges are familiar and shared by other forward-facing cultural institutions. But I believe there is much to learn from the European Solidarity Centre, not least their clarity of vision and purpose.

I’ve highlighted just some of the work that most inspires me. I think Jette Sandahl and the European Museum of the Year judges were right – if you’re interested in museums, activism and social change, you should really visit Gdansk.