Penlee House Gallery and Museum: Connecting with the Local Community

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


Penlee House Gallery and Museum in the leading museum of West Cornwall and has a mission to engage with the local community, which it undertakes through its exhibits, its events programme and its outreach programme of educational activities. PHGM is extremely successful in meeting its mission with the rolling programme of exhibitions in its gallery space but believes that the display of its social history gallery is dated, lacks intellectual coherence and is too inflexible to enable it to connect with the historical and other interest groups of the area. The proposed knowledge transfer project will enable the Museum to improve its social history gallery in several ways.

First, by informing the re-display with material and insights drawn from the recently finished study by the Victoria County History of Cornwall of the communities of Penwith, the museum's main displays in its social history gallery will be brought up to date with the academic study of its immediate region. The VCHC study generated abundant information about the socio-economic structure of the local area and sharpened theoretical approaches to the study of relatively isolated communities with narrow socio-economic bases. Much of the empirical information will be under-utilised in the VCHC's own projects and publications. This project also contains specialist knowledge from Public History on museum practice, especially on the interaction between museums and their audiences. The team also has direct links to other knowledge transfer activity between the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus (UECC) and the museum/heritage sector in Cornwall, and it is clear that lessons can be learned from these parallel initiatives that will be of value to this project.

The creation of a knowledge transfer team with this combination of interests will enable Penlee House to project manage the redisplay with a real awareness of where potential problems are likely to occur, produce the most academically up-to-date displays and be able to select a range of strategies for engaging with their local audiences that are informed by recent thinking in Public History. This is especially important given the Museum's attempt to meet what it justifiably believes to be a highly segmented local audience through the creation of a rolling programme of displays to engage successively with different components of that 'market'. This strategy has worked very effectively with the Gallery side of the Museum's activities but has hitherto produced disappointing responses from those parts of the Museum's target audience that have broadly historical interests. The Knowledge Transfer Team can help to supply the Museum with a very broad range of new materials, notably oral histories, and a much deeper historical background on the development of the unique socio-economic structures of West Cornwall. The Public Historian in the Team can assist with help on research on audiences and visitors to extend that which the Museum already undertakes (and it is possible that UECC Public History students can help in carrying out some of this activity). The Team also has exceptionally close links with other knowledge transfer work between historians (broadly defined) and museums and industrial heritage sites in the county and can bring this experience to bear to ensure that the project is managed successfully. At the end of the project, the Museum will have a redisplay and a programme of changing features for its Social History gallery and marketing and audience research that will enable it to maximise the attractiveness of this redisplay. The Public Historians at UECC will, on the staff side, have enhanced contacts with the Cornish museum sector and a site for ongoing marketing/project work for its undergraduates. The School, of which History forms part, will add to its growing bid to look outwards to the regeneration of the economy and society of Cornwall, an important part of its mission.


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