All shook up - creating a museum exhibition that rocks

Karin Molson, Rheolydd Dysgu yn Amgueddfa Sir Fynwy
Karin Molson, Rheolydd Dysgu yn Amgueddfa Sir Fynwy
Karin Molson, Learning Manager at Monmouth Museum, recalls how involving teenagers led to one of the museum’s most engaging exhibitions yet – while student Wulf reveals why he loved being a volunteer.

This month we have extended one of our exhibitions until April 2017, making it available to visitors for a full year instead of the originally planned four months.

Why? It has proved to be one of the most successful exhibitions we’ve ever put on at Monmouth Museum. How come? Because we didn’t just follow the rules for this one – in fact, we positively set out to break them.

[quote]“Rockfield has seen the likes of Queen, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers and Coldplay make music history, but until now has never been centre stage of the story.”[/quote]

Using a £16,000 grant from HLF, we wanted to tell the story of nearby Rockfield recording studio, which while internationally renowned amongst the music industry is not so well known by the general public.

Rockfield has seen the likes of Queen, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers and Coldplay make music history, but until now has never been centre stage of the story.

Engaging students

Volunteering after school and on weekends as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate qualification, we recruited 13 A-level students from Monmouth Comprehensive School to work with the studios and help us dig down into the legend surrounding Rockfield to unearth how a small family-run studio played – and still plays – such an important role in one of the world’s most lucrative industries. 

From Stables to Studios: The Story of Rockfield, Monmouth and Music launched in April after two months spent by the young people contacting bands and local residents to hear their stories from the studio, collecting objects to display and getting the exhibition ready. 

[quote]“It has been the young people’s imagination and creative approach to the project that has made the exhibition what it is today.”[/quote]

This was the first time the museum had worked with a group of young people on an extended project like this, and to tell you the truth, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. Most of them hadn’t even visited the museum since childhood, so we were both excited about the opportunity for us to reconnect them with their local history, and also apprehensive about their expectations of the project’s scope – big ideas and big budgets normally go hand in hand. 

Once the project got underway, it is safe to say that our fears of being bombarded with nothing but ‘big ideas’ were certainly justified…

…but what wasn’t justified was our worry that big ideas translate into big issues. 

In fact, it has been the young people’s imagination and creative approach to the project that has made the exhibition what it is today, and has given the museum one of its most popular displays to date. Traditional approaches to exhibiting artefacts have been thrown out the window, and replaced with a truly interactive, multi-sensory experience that doesn’t play by the rules. 

Turning expectations upside down

Visitors are greeted by music recorded at the studios, anything from Brazillian death thrash metal to Tom O’Dell. Objects hang from the balcony and ceiling. Lengthy descriptions have been replaced with short, punchy information. Video footage, interviews with Rockfield family and staff and digitised interactive exhibits tell the story of the studio and people’s feelings about Rockfield. Previously white walls are now vivid purple, and exhibition space has changed from formal to informal – the chill-out zone with beanbag seating being a personal favourite. 

What would my advice be to someone thinking of applying for funding to work with young people on a heritage project? Get ready to be rocked. 

Be prepared to have your expectations turned upside down. Realise that just because an idea seems ambitious or a departure from the norm, you can still try it! Don’t just say no to new ways of thinking or working – explore your options, and involve the young people at every stage. Listen to them: it’s liberating. 

Working with young people created a buzz throughout the museum team, unleashing an infectious energy and “can do” attitude, where no obstacle seemed too big to tackle. It taught us that no matter how ‘big’ that idea is, if it’s a great idea then that’s all that matters. Don’t shy away from it – find a way to make it work. That’s what takes projects from good, to rocking. 

Two-way street – a view from Wulf, one of the young volunteers 

We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for with this project. But thank goodness we made the cut. There have been few experiences in my life which can, or will, match the one that I and the rest of the team had at the museum. 

[quote]“There have been few experiences in my life which can, or will, match the one that I and the rest of the team had at the museum.”[/quote]

Our expectations were possibly low at the start. Who would be willing to fund a bunch of Year 12s as they try and do something they’ve never done before? These expectations quickly melted away as we realised just how much support we had from the Museum team, HLF and of course the Rockfield Studios family.

I suppose the moment when we realised “Oh wow we’re actually doing this” was the night when it was confirmed that we had been given £16,000 in funding from HLF.

Exciting, no doubt, but daunting. How earth would we spend £16,000? We quickly found out that that would be no issue!

Responsibility and respect

With every member of the team churning out fantastic ideas every day, discussions about how we were going to tackle this exhibition were never quiet. Having been inspired by the Bristol M Shed and having seen the studios themselves, our brains were full of odd and wacky ways to tell the Rockfield story. Of course some were too wacky, but many were adaptable to our circumstances and became highlights of the exhibition. As well as letting our creativity flow, we also had an opportunity to get hands on with Project Management, being given levels of responsibility, autonomy and independence often not found in school. The level of respect which we had gained by the end for the story of the Studios, the job of the museum staff and each other is hard to overestimate. 

[quote]“Beyond looking good on a CV, the deeper understanding of local history has changed many perspectives on our small Welsh town.”[/quote]

Involvement in this project has affected each and every one of the students involved in an immensely positive way. Engagement with the project has made its way into many personal statements and open testimonials, the skills we gained from it being valuable ones in the highly competitive world of higher education and careers. The opportunities afforded to us through being part of this project are impossible to number.

Beyond looking good on a CV, the deeper understanding of local history has changed many perspectives on our small Welsh town. We will be sad to leave it and jealous of those who get to stay. The invaluable personal and teamworking abilities which the project nurtured in each of us will have a profound effect on the way we conduct ourselves in our futures. 

It makes us incredibly proud to have been part of such a groundbreaking project and we owe the greatest amount of gratitude to the Ward family and all those who live and breathe Rockfield; the fantastic support we received from HLF, without whom this project would have been impossible; and of course the staff of Monmouth Museum and the Museum service. Without their dedication, expertise and amazing ability to cope with and guide a rag tag group of Year 12s, we would have truly been lost. 

Get involved

The exhibition is open to the public until 22 April at Monmouth Museum (entry is free). If you feel inspired by the project and want to work with young people to explore heritage, grants of between £10,000 and £50,000 are available from our Young Roots programme.

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