Connecting people to their neighbourhoods through photography: Creating fair employment for all
Involving Bristol's increasingly diverse communities in local decision making is a priority for Bristol City Council. Bristol Museums Galleries and Archives (BMGA) also wanted residents to participate in creating content for a new museum and increase the diversity of museum users.
Ten neighbourhoods worked with a photographer to create 30 postcards that represent their local area in the style of ‘Greetings from...' postcards. The neighbourhood postcards form a major display in a new museum for Bristol that tells the story of the city and its people. The project developed participants' skills and helped strengthen community identify and cohesion.
The health and wellbeing of individuals is influenced by the communities they live in. The links that connect people within communities can bring a range of benefits. The extent of people's participation in their communities and the added control over their lives this brings has the potential to contribute to their psychosocial wellbeing and other health outcomes.
A quality of life survey across Bristol in 2009 showed the proportion of residents who felt they could influence decisions in their locality had fallen. The result was seen as an indicator of community cohesion and did not compare well with other core cities.
The same survey showed a drop in numbers taking part in creative activities. Analysis of museum visitor data showed residents in parts of the city and some socio-economic groups made little use of the service.
An audit of museum collections in 2008 highlighted the need for more material representing Bristol's social and physical diversity. The ‘Greetings from...' neighbourhood postcards project set out to involve non-traditional museum users in creating content for a new museum – M Shed, which opened in 2011.
Who was involved?
The BMGA community partnerships officer and a local professional photographer-facilitator delivered the project.
Several council services helped contact individuals to take part, including:
- children and young people
- adult social care
- neighbourhood arts.
The primary care trust (PCT) promoted the project to the 'Arts on prescription' group.
Grants totalling £23,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Renaissance funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) covered direct project costs.
Biffa contributed £50,000 towards the museum fit out.
The problem and how it was tackled
There were three main issues to tackle to make this project a success:
- reaching people not known to the service
- creating suitable and exciting content for a new museum
- evaluating the success of the project.
Reaching people not known to the service
Rather than work with established groups, the project set out to target individuals from across the city's neighbourhoods who were not traditional museum users.
Various council services helped. They identified the organisations that best understood their own neighbourhood. These organisations then contacted local people and passed on information, encouraging them to get involved.
Council services also promoted the project and recruited participants from among their own service users. For example, youth workers got young people involved and the social care team recruited Asian elders from a day-care centre. Further suggestions came through the local ‘Arts on Prescription' group.
Once people became aware of the project they were keen to take part. They saw it as an opportunity to use photography to present their neighbourhood in a positive light.
In total 65 residents in 10 neighbourhoods across Bristol took part in the photography project. They came from neighbourhoods with some of the highest levels of deprivation to some with the least. They ranged in age from nine to 80 years old. Hundreds more people gave their opinions on what scenes should be captured.
The vision for M Shed is of a democratic museum created jointly with Bristol people that tells people's diverse stories.
Local residents taking part in the project were asked to represent their neighbourhood through photography. They walked miles in search of the perfect shots, often visiting places for the first time. They captured hidden corners, community spirits and gems of local history along the way.
In 14 hours of activity in each neighbourhood over an 18 month period they:
- took over 5,000 photographs
- created 30 annotated ‘Greetings from…' postcards
- suggested 95 objects to collect to represent the diverse characters of their neighbourhoods.
Outcomes and impact
Participants developed practical skills such as photography and computing. They also learned about how a museum works and why our history and culture are important to preserve.
The project helped strengthen community identity. Participants used photography to look differently at where they live, and were encouraged to talk about what they are proud of. This helped them feel more connected and positive about their own neighbourhood. Participants said:
"The pictures really help show how the neighbourhood is for people that live here."
"It's about dispelling myths about our area."
The project also helped strengthen community cohesion. It brought people together from different neighbourhoods, who then:
- discussed the history of their own neighbourhood, what they were proud of and the pictures they liked most
- were inspired by what they learned about other neighbourhoods
- came together with friends and family at a citywide event to agree the final selection of images for display
- made decisions about the images, objects and stories they wanted to represent their neighbourhoods
- co-created a unique contemporary record of Bristol for public display in the museum
- are now talking to the neighbourhood partnerships about what they would like to see changed and how funding should be spent in their local area.
This was a particularly important aspect of the project for participants, who said:
"It's very interesting to see the other neighbourhoods of Bristol, some of which I haven't visited."
"I have learnt a lot about different places around Bristol and I have met some interesting people."
Most participants reported that:
- their health and wellbeing benefitted from taking part in the project
- they learned something new about Bristol's neighbourhoods
- they felt they belonged more to their neighbourhood
- their decision-making influence about their neighbourhood had increased
- they had learned new skills and would like to carry on to do more learning and volunteering.
Encouraging people to look differently at where they live was key to the project's success. Cameras framed and focused the experience of looking and gave participants a way to consciously notice their neighbourhoods. It got people talking to their families and friends about their neighbourhood, fostering pride and sense of community.
The combination of museum and community assets was crucial. Learning about the history of the city and their own neighbourhood gave participants a stronger connection to their community and local heritage. Placing people's lives in context brought a new level of understanding, and created a sense of belonging and place.
Bringing together people from a wide range of backgrounds around a common interest in where they live proved effective.
What could have been done better?
Identifying people to take part in the project and setting up new groups in ten neighbourhoods was time consuming.
The council has since established 14 neighbourhood partnerships as part of its drive to devolve power. This new structure has made it easier to engage with communities at a local level as the neighbourhoods are better equipped to drive things forward themselves.
‘Greetings from...' is being rolled out through the four partnerships in neighbourhoods that have emerged since the project started in 2009. A programme of changing neighbourhood displays at M Shed will enable it to feature further neighbourhoods.
M Shed will archive many of the 5,000 images created for use in future displays. It will also make them available digitally through its website.
Many of the participants continue to volunteer with the museum, some as ‘community ambassadors'.
BMGA will link its annual events programme with neighbourhood groups and activities to bring together diverse residents from across Bristol. It will also increase community-led programming to further explore sense of place, by aligning neighbourhood working with collections development.
Discussions are taking place with the PCT about extending the art on prescription scheme to include history.
Ben Meller, Community Partnerships Officer Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives Bristol City Council Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Five ways to wellbeing – on the website of the New Economics Foundation