Inside out, outside in

I’m fascinated by the encounter between culture and people and how it helps us make sense of and learn about ourselves and the world. I spend the majority of my working life indoors, but more and more, I’m working and exploring learning and engagement outdoors. There’s a good reason for this. The Whitworth is coming to the end of its major capital programme, transforming itself into the gallery in the park and like our architects and my colleagues, I’ve been reconsidering the relationship between inside and out. From running festivals in the park to recruiting a volunteer art gardening team who will look after our new outdoor spaces, we are changing what we do and how we work.

Three years ago I attended a local educators’ environmental network. In spite of over 15 years working in the city, I knew very few people in the room and was the only representative from a ‘cultural’ organisation. Yet, we cared about the same things and shared a sense of purpose and ambition to enrich children’s learning in Manchester. I went to hear Tim Gill ( reflect on the changing nature of childhood and risk, a topic as interesting and relevant to those who care about and work with children in museums as anyone else. Yet, cultural and environmental educators rarely meet like this, share experiences or co-develop work. I believe things are starting to change.

Our work with very young children and their families focuses on children’s capacity for wonder, exploration and discovery and yet there is a very real sense that (urban) children are being given fewer opportunities to experience the natural world. Environmental organisations and educators, particularly the National Trust’s work in this area including Project Wild Thing and the Forest and Eco Schools movements, do much to encourage this but I also wonder if museums and galleries might do more, work differently.

In their recent provocation Turbulent Times: The Prospect for Heritage, commissioned by HLF for Heritage Exchange 2014 John Holden and Robert Hewison challenge us to rethink heritage as nature and culture, exploring cooperation and convergence between these two worlds. This feels a timely provocation and on the ground, organisations are already starting to work in this way. The convergence between nature and culture is perhaps most visible in the various contemporary art projects, commissions and spaces which explore place and landscape. Art outdoors seems to be having a moment. The wonderful Yorkshire Sculpture Park, as loved by regular visitors for its landscape and setting as its art, recently won the Artfund Museum of Year Award. A whole series of national partnerships supported by Arts Council England, encourage contemporary artists to explore and animate the spirit of places, environment and the outdoors; including Jerwood Open Forest, Trust New Art with the National Trust and Arts on the Waterways with the Canal and Rivers Trust. Throughout the UK, there are artists, organisations and collectives exploring how art and culture might bring to life or narrate some of the big issues of our time; Invisible Dust, for example, bring artists and scientists together to encourage awareness of, and responses to, climate change and the environment.

The forthcoming Artists on Climate Change event at the Science Museum (11 September) outlines how artists bring different perspectives to the challenge of engaging audiences with climate and sustainability. Those who work with artists know this is so and across the country, extraordinary commissions, new work and live art events bring new perspectives and people to new places.

I believe there is a series of shared values and ambition to reach new audiences across these two sectors. Many museums and heritage organisations are based in parks or grounds yet rarely engage beyond their building. There is an opportunity here to connect, draw on expertise and secure funding to develop our collective understanding of how to extend our reach and engage people with their heritage and culture. It’s why we are trying something new. Supported by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Whitworth is launching The Cultural Park Keeper, a new post and three year programme dedicated to bringing art, nature and people together. Except maybe its not so new – we’ve looked to our past, to the most prolific park building period our country has ever known, 1890s, a time when park keepers were about community engagement rather than keeping off the grass and Whitworth park (and its gallery) was dedicated to the children and neighbours of Moss Side. We are reimagining the park keeper for the 21st century, employed by a cultural organisation rather than council leisure or parks team, with a remit to work across sectors (including health and education), create new opportunities for people to get involved, bring the outside in and vice versa.

We don’t yet know what impact the Cultural park keeper will have but I do know the interplay between outdoors and in creates a powerful learning context. Landscape is of course both a potential site for art and habitat for the natural world. A local teacher begins every visit to the gallery at the school gate and includes the walk through the park as an integrated element. He believes this gives young children, their educators and parents the opportunity to develop key looking and listening skills, take notice of the (natural) world around them and once they arrive, they are primed and focused, often having followed a theme (eg: shadow) that has emerged on their journey. Bringing these two worlds together develops our sense of place.

I think there is much to learn from environmental organisations, not least their activism, highly developed volunteering and grassroots community engagement programmes. Of course, we in museums have much to offer and share in return. So, how we might converge, bring cultural and environmental educators and organisations together to make plans, share resources and ideas and think big will fill my head and heart over the coming months. Inside out, outside in…