We hear from Weston Museum about their community exhibition in partnership with North Somerset Council, Citizens Advice North Somerset and the Traveller Community of North Somerset
To create an exhibition telling the stories of Gypsy and Traveller life in North Somerset, past and present. The main challenge was how to encourage people from the Traveller community to become involved in the project. How would we contact the community? How would we gain its trust and confidence? How could we dispel the negative stereotypes presented in the media?
Why was this activity important for your organisation?
Weston-super-Mare Town Council, which manages the museum, works with local people to make the town a great place to live, work and visit. The town thrives as a vibrant place for arts and culture that celebrates diversity and builds inclusivity. The community gallery at Weston Museum is a showcase for community groups to tell their stories.
Our partners, Citizens Advice North Somerset and the North Somerset Gypsy and Traveller Corporate Group, wanted the voice of Travellers to be heard following some high profile negative stories in the press and on social media about unauthorised Traveller encampments. They hoped the project would increase understanding and reduce prejudice and discrimination by the settled community towards the Travelling community.
It was a fantastic idea to do the exhibition because not many people know about Travellers and our history and culture. Chris was brilliant to talk to and it helped that I knew Rachel already. I trusted them so I felt OK to loan them all sorts, including some of my ornaments and a Romany flag. I’m looking forward to seeing more of it online.
– Shauna, North Somerset Traveller
What were you trying to change?
By showcasing the Travellers stories in our respected community gallery we hoped to build bridges, foster understanding, increase knowledge and strengthen partnerships.
Build bridges and foster understanding: between the local community and the Traveller Community; between the Museum and the Traveller Community. It was important to the Traveller Community to have a voice in a public space where they are often unheard. They needed to be represented with respect, fairness and accuracy.
Museum Community Liaison Officer Jane Hill and Museum Community Volunteer Chris Fisher, had not had contact with the Traveller community before. The idea for the exhibition was first pitched by Bridie Collier at Citizens Advice North Somerset and Rachel Ballin, Traveller Advisory teacher at North Somerset Council.
Increase knowledge: of the Museum team about Traveller culture and how to work with their community. The training and insights provided by the Traveller Advisory teacher Rachel Ballin and the South West Heritage Trust gave confidence and direction to staff and volunteers at the museum.
How did this happen? Rachel had numerous contacts within the Gypsy and Traveller community and gave Jane and Chris invaluable advice about reaching out to them. At the outset, Chris and Jane wanted to have a deeper understanding of Traveller heritage and customs, so Rachel provided them with training, which was rolled out to the wider museum team and volunteers. This gave the museum team an insight into Traveller life and culture, helped to dispel a few myths and ensured that everyone was on board with the project. A follow up briefing sheet was provided at the museum reception desk, to assist with public enquiries. In addition, John French, Learning Officer at the South West Heritage Trust, Taunton, shared the Trust’s experience of a previous project with the Traveller community in Somerset. It was extremely useful to learn from their experience.
Strengthen partnerships: between Citizens Advice North Somerset and North Somerset Gypsy and Traveller Corporate Group (NSG&TCG) and Weston Museum. The Museum had worked with Citizens Advice before but not NSG&TCG.
What specific objectives did you set out to achieve?
Our objectives were to:
- Work collaboratively with Citizens Advice North Somerset, the Traveller Advisory Teacher at North Somerset Council and the Traveller community, to celebrate Traveller culture.
- Reach out to the Traveller community, building trust in the museum and to represent them in a positive manner.
- To involve the South West Heritage Trust by asking advice about a former project with Travellers in Somerset and to borrow items from their learning collection.
- To educate museum staff and volunteers about Traveller culture, ensuring that everyone was on-board.
- To collect Traveller oral histories, to be allowed access to photographs and to encourge items to be lent for display.
- To work with the Traveller Advisory Teacher to involve Traveller children in the project by encouraging creative work.
- To create a community exhibition that would represent Traveller life in North Somerset, past and present.
- To arrange that oral histories would be transcribed and deposited at the South West Heritage Trust, Taunton, to ensure a legacy.
- To share content digitally and maximise publicity.
This has been one of my favourite exhibition projects to work on. Weston Museum is very honoured that the Traveller community trusted us enough to share their stories and artefacts. We’ve all learnt so much from them.
– Jane Hill, Community Liaison Officer, Weston Museum
What barriers did you encounter and how did you address these?
Jane and Chris did not have prior experience of working with the Traveller community. We addressed this barrier by working collaboratively with Rachel Ballin, Traveller Advisory Teacher at North Somerset Council. Another barrier was that the Traveller community did not necessarily know the museum. The team worked hard to build up trust and confidence, to reassure the Traveller community that their culture would be represented in a positive way. Lack of knowledge about the Traveller community was overcome by the excellent training provided by Rachel, to the museum staff and volunteers.
A major challenge occurred when Covid-19 closed the Museum just before the exhibition was due to be installed. The planned opening by The Mayor and Mayoress was cancelled. The team overcame this by re-scheduling the exhibition programme and finally installing the exhibition in August 2020. The planned touch screen interactive was removed and the digital content was turned into a film, projected onto the gallery wall. The film and the oral history recordings are currently being added to the museum YouTube channel by volunteer Chris.
Were any collaborations part of the activity?
The Traveller community, Citizens Advice North Somerset, North Somerset Council, two local schools and the South West Heritage Trust.
Having become involved with some of the Gypsy and Traveller families in and around Weston and North Somerset, I felt it was a great privilege to be given the insight into their lives and culture that I was given. I have been involved with many other projects for the Museum’s Community Gallery and this was by far one of the interesting and informative that I have had the good fortune to be involved with.
– Chris Fisher, Museum volunteer
High points / successes – what did you achieve and what was the short and long term impact:
The exhibition was the first high profile event about Traveller culture to be held in a public space in North Somerset and showed the Museum’s willingness to tackle controversial areas of local community life. It confirmed that Travellers are an important part of local history and an integral part of the local community today. It promoted awareness of and pride in this among all residents.
It broke down barriers and built trust between the Museum and the Traveller community and added to our record of local life. The Traveller community were enthusiastic about working with the museum. By welcoming museum volunteer Chris into their homes to make oral history recordings, Travellers shared their lives and their unique culture. The pictures and objects lent for the show enriched local knowledge and understanding. They showcased creativity and craftsmanship including dress making, peg making and blacksmithing, as well as important events like funerals and fairs. The loan of personal artefacts and sharing of photographs and stories showed the trust that was built between Traveller families and the museum.
The project enabled Traveller children attending two local primary schools to share and express pride in their heritage with their peers and the wider community, using traditional painted horse shoes as the inspiration for an art activity. Horses are a huge part of Traveller life and horse-shoes painted with Romany designs are a traditional sign of luck for Traveller people. The children loved designing and painting their horse-shoes, some went for a more traditional style and others went for something new. Each is unique and individual! As they worked the children chatted about their horses, Appleby Fair and the lives of their grandparents and shared family stories.
The project was an opportunity to bring the Traveller collections held by the South West Heritage Trust out of store: the Trust lent items including publications, baby boxing gloves, paper flowers and pegs. Their learning officer also shared experience he had gained when working with Travellers on a Somerset-wide project. The exhibition strengthened partnerships between the Museum and the Traveller Advisory Teacher Service at North Somerset Council. As well as her invaluable guidance throughout the project, advisory teacher Rachel Ballin lent the museum a magnificent wagon wheel painted in the Traveller style and wrote a wonderful poem which was displayed on the exhibition wall.
At Citizens Advice North Somerset, we want to ensure that everyone living, working or travelling through North Somerset feels able to access our service if they need to. Helping to create the exhibition was a marvellous opportunity to demonstrate to the Traveller community that Citizens Advice North Somerset is an organisation which respects their culture and can be trusted.
– Bridie Collier, Citizens Advice North Somerset
We maximised opportunities for publicity. Rachel and Jane were interviewed on BBC Radio Bristol. The interview provided a platform to promote the exhibition and to dispel myths about Gypsies and Travellers to a wider audience. Rachel wrote a blog for the museum website which was reprinted in the museum volunteer newsletter to reach a wider audience. The project was promoted via Facebook, North Somerset Life and Travellers Times. Content was promoted in Gypsy and Traveller History Month 2020.
In conclusion despite Covid-19 and a challenging topic, the exhibition achieved its objectives and even, because of the digital material now available on You-tube, generated a legacy with a longer term impact which will be promoted during Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month in 2021.
We chose the wagon-wheel as a symbol for the exhibition. It is a symbol of the traditional nomadic lifestyle of Travellers moving in harmony with the seasons and also of the ongoing and ever-changing history of these groups of people. Below is a short poem that I wrote to try and capture this. A group of children from one of the schools created a display of modern and traditional vehicles to accompany the poem and this will form part of the exhibition.
Like the wheels of the wagon,
Shifting, stopping, moving on,
Like the turning of the seasons,
Travellers lives keep moving on,
You know where you’re going
When you know where you’ve come from,
Whether settled, housed or on the road,
The Traveller life goes on.
– Rachel Ballin
Where can I find out more?
- Exhibition presentation film on Weston Museum Youtube
- Exhibition oral history interviews on film on Weston Museum Youtube