Shared Stories, Shared Voices at The Foundling Museum

Closed, locked down. Collection, locked in. Two of the toughest problems for the Foundling Museum to overcome, following national closures in March 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In response, Shared Stories, Shared Voices has created an innovative new digital experience that democratises the interpretation of museum collections and enables diverse voices to shape and narrate the Museum’s historic stories.

Launching on 16 April 2021, Shared Stories, Shared Voices has changed the way that the Foundling Museum approaches and uses its Collection online, for the first time putting the voices of former Foundling Hospital pupils, Museum volunteers and care-experienced trainees from its Tracing our Tales programme, at the fore of communicating its Collection online – utilising digital engagement to ensure the greatest possible access during these difficult times.

The challenge was seized on as an opportunity for change by the Foundling Museum team, who wanted to trial new ways for visitors to connect with their Collection online, and include a more diverse range of voices – aged from 18 to 83 – in telling the Museum’s 300-year-old story. At the same time, the project enabled staff to maintain connections with a number of groups who are at the heart of the Museum’s community and who have a special bond with its Collection, but who were especially isolated during lockdown – care-experienced young adults from the Museum’s Tracing our Tales training programme, former pupils of the Foundling Hospital (many now in their 80s), and the Museum’s dedicated team of volunteers, many of whom lived alone.

In June 2020, with vital support from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund – delivered by the Museums Association – the Museum was able to turn its idea into a reality and create a new digital exhibition experience, Shared Stories, Shared Voices – one of the biggest shakeups in the way its Collection is interpreted and shared worldwide. Through a series of workshops led by artists Emma Crouch and Emma Middleton, participants selected an object from the Museum’s Collection that they felt a personal connection to, and developed their own story about it.  The workshops and filming took place online at a time when many were struggling with the effects of prolonged isolation, through video calls (Zoom… other platforms are available). What has been produced is a treasure trove of stories, including a project film by filmmaker Will Jacob, more than 20 emotive individual short films by artist Emma Crouch and filmmaker Wilkie Branson, personal blogs, poems and other unique creative responses, which have been curated into a free to access online exhibition, for audiences around the world to enjoy.

The legacy of the project is greater than just new interpretation of the Museum’s Collections. It’s led to the establishment of a consultation panel of care experienced young adults, whose voices will continue to weave through the organisation’s narrative, while also ensuring that the voices of the former pupils of the Foundling Hospital continue to enrich audiences’ understanding not just of their lived experience growing up there, but also of the impact that the art had on their lives.

Kathleen Palmer, Curator, The Foundling Museum

When the Coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of the Museum in March 2020, we knew that we needed to act fast to move our story online, in a way that we hadn’t previously.

While democratising the ways that we interpret our Collections has been a focus of our on-site work, the funding from Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund – delivered by the Museums Association – gave us the chance to bring a hugely important, diverse and remarkable range of voices and stories, to a global audience.

Shared Stories, Shared Voices is a fantastic online resource for everyone to access, to hear uniquely personal, relevant and resonant interpretations of objects in our 300-year-old Collection. We are immensely proud to have this new resource on our website and tremendously grateful to all the participants, whose generous commitment of time, energy and creativity to the project, has ensured its success.

Project participants
“I enjoyed talking about my experiences of being in care and connecting that to the Museum”

“I found it a very rewarding experience and I am so glad I was part of it”

“My love for the Museum and its history has deepened and I hope I can continue to give and spread the word about it and its place in modern society.”

“I very much enjoyed reading the pieces of research I was sent and being inspired to write a ‘back story’ to the painting I had chosen”

Image credits: Will Jacob.