I think July and August have been the busiest months to date for the Working Internationally Regional Project (WIRP).  In addition to launching the International Travel Grant Scheme, and opening booking for the WIRP Workshops on International Touring Exhibitions & Loans, Working with China, and Working with India, I also undertook regional visits across the country from Cornwall and Devon to Hull and Carlisle.  These visits, along with the WIRP 2015 survey information and numerous telephone interviews, have informed the WIRP programme and planning.  Across the board, museum colleagues have been extraordinary generous in taking the time to talk to me about their international work and ambitions.  Without such input, we wouldn’t be able to tailor the WIRP to meet the needs of the sector.

So why were these regional research visits so important?  Couldn’t I have saved time and money by speaking to people by phone, or catching them briefly at a regional meeting or conference?  In the same way that it is invaluable for international project partners to meet face-to-face at an early stage of a project to develop a deeper understand and trust for working together, it was important for me to understand in detail the motivations museums have for working internationally, and also the real barriers and challenges they face when trying to achieve their ambitions.

Although I would love to report on every inspiring meeting I went to, I’m going to focus on the meeting I had with the directors and managers of the Cumbria Museum Consortium, which is a partnership of three museums – Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust in Carlisle, Lakeland Arts in Kendal and Bowness, and the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere.

Tullie House and the Wordsworth Trust have been particular active in developing their international work in China and the USA respectively.  Two members of staff from Tullie House travelled to China in June this year to visit the Imperial Decree Museum (IDM) in Xuzhou and the No. 1 Scholar Museum in Suzhou to discuss similarities, differences and learning points in the visitor experience and interpretation styles of Chinese and English museums, and to deliver engagement workshops using objects from Tullie House’s handling collection of Roman objects.  Tullie House has been working with the Zhou family (the owners of both museums) since the museum was sought out by the Zhou family as a museum partner in 2013.  The Roman collection at Tullie House and the objects relating to the Han Dynasty at IDM are a key link between the two museums.  This visit was funded by British Council China’s Connections through Culture programme, and staff from the IDM had previously funded their own visit to Cumbria.

Above: Object handling with officials. Main Image: Xuzhou Primary School Children after a workshop at Imperial Decree Museum. Both photos courtesy of Tullie House

It was hard not to be moved by the description of primary aged students being inspired by handling genuine historical artefacts for the first time, and the fact that these were from a country thousands of miles away from China.  It was the first time that staff at the museums had seen this kind of engagement activity but the pupils’ teachers were so impressed with the session that they will try to persuade the IDM to run sessions like this with their own collection.  The session attracted considerable attention from the Chinese media, with local newspapers and TV crews documenting the whole process, and highlighting the unusual and innovative nature of this type of experience in China.  Such coverage can only help the profile of Tullie House and the Cumbria Museum Consortium, and the reputation of the regional UK museums in China.

As with other regional museums working internationally, the challenge now for Tullie House is how to continue the two-way working and exchange with the IDM after initial reciprocal visits.  What are the expectations if the partnership continues, and how can the partners meet these in a difficult economic climate?  Such work can only be justified if it brings tangible benefits to the partners involved, and supports the strategic aims of the partner museums in the UK and China, and the Cumbria Museum Consortium.

I think Tullie House is well placed to take on these challenges as they have developed mutual trust with the IDM, they have the support of the Cumbria Museum Consortium to develop international work, and they are seeking to develop this work in a sustainable way over the long-term.  That’s not to say it will be easy but I look forward to hearing how this regional UK-China relationship develops.

Andrew Mackay (Head of Collections and Programming at Tullie House) and Sophie Liu (IDM’s representative in the UK) will speak about their partnership work at the WIRP Workshop: Working with China at York Castle Museum, 14 October 2015.

Bookings for the next round of WIRP workshops are now open. For more information click here.

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