Let’s start from the end when the Museum of Footwear and Industry in Inca (Spain) won the Silletto Prize as part of the European Museum of the Year Award 2022. It was a huge unexpected success, almost a wonder: an unknown small local museum with minimal financial and human resources received international recognition.
The Museum celebrated this milestone by throwing a big party for the Inca residents. Music, dancing, food and laughter accompanied the event, but also tears of joy. The party brought together a community that was proud of its museum, a community that wasn’t even aware of its existence not so many years ago.
What happened? How was it possible that a museum ignored by its people only a few years before had now won a prize precisely because of its radical community engagement?
My name is Aina Ferrero Horrach, and I have been the director of this Museum since 2017. The story I would like to share with you is a story of change, the story of a museum that, in just a few years, has managed to turn around a traditional concept to become a people-centred institution.
In 2017, Michael Atwood Mason, former director of the Smithsonian Institute, said something that stuck with me: “Examine traditions in their contemporary global context, in close collaboration with the communities themselves.”
At that time, I was still trying to understand why a museum that had been inaugurated just seven years earlier did not have the people’s support despite its huge social potential, with machines, tools, shoes, documents, magazines, photographs and other footwear-related items donated by local residents and companies, each one with its own story, a story linked to the identity of this town.
Mason’s quote helped me realise that the institution had been conceived without the community's support. It was inaugurated at a very critical moment when many shoe factories were being shut down, and people resented the Museum because they saw it as the graveyard of a struggling industry.
After a diagnostic process and a first attempt to build closer ties with the community, it became obvious what the first step would be: to build bridges between the Museum and the people to relaunch the institution, this time by listening to external voices.
The Museum started an extensive local survey, which was intended to engage the citizens of Inca (who had the right to decide how they wanted their story to be told) in all phases of the museum’s redefinition, from conceptualisation and exhibition design to prototype testing and summative evaluation. The process included telephone surveys, surveys on the street, focus groups, actual visitor inquiries, etc.
Locals were invited to submit pictures of past and present-day shoemakers to include them in a new exhibition. The aim was to reach out to them and bring them closer to the museography, so they would see it as a tribute rather than a mausoleum. Volunteer groups of former shoemaking workers were also set up to act as “footwear advisers” for the development of didactic materials (room guides, panels and videos), as guides, co-curators and cataloguers.
The future museum had almost everything it needed: a concept, motivation, a closer relationship with the community, yet one big problem remained: it did not have enough money to put all our ideas into practice. But that didn’t stop us, and we never gave up. The lack of funds meant alternative solutions, so creativity became our greatest asset from that moment on. The Museum partnered with the local carpentry school for the apprentices to make the exhibition furniture, material from previous exhibitions was reused and collected, and cheap yet effective museographic resources were implemented, such as a shoebox wall to compartmentalise spaces.
Many people in the town found out about what we were doing, which resulted in the Museum receiving new donations, and plenty of partnership proposals. Another major symbolic achievement was the partnership with the main footwear manufacturers association in Inca, something unthinkable just a few years ago. They donated its historical shoe collection as well as funds for the re-display.
This was precisely one of the aspects that the jury valued the most: the Museum’s ability to engage the community, which until then had shown no particular interest, and to help them realise that the institution was not their enemy but an ally in the search for solutions to their uncertain socio-economic future.
The new Museum was finally presented on 30 November 2018, less than a year after it started the entire redefinition process. It was a great success, and the institution welcomed more than 500 guests to the reopening, most of them from Inca.
That day did not mark the end of a project but the beginning of a new era, an era where people take an active role in the day-to-day activity of the institution. One example was the initiative “One Item, Three Visions: Virtual Museum of Integration”, an intergenerational and intercultural project (conducted through the new media due to the pandemic situation) that sought to pass the knowledge and skills on to younger generations and the immigrant community to inspire, teach and promote the resurgence of artisanal shoemaking. The participants themselves (in collaboration with museum staff) developed a temporary exhibition to share their experiences during the project. The initiative received the 11th Ibermuseos Education Award in 2020.
Today’s Museum of Footwear and Industry is proud of the social change it has seen throughout the past years. It is still working to become a more accessible institution and to attract a broader spectrum of visitors, notwithstanding the already upward trend in visitor numbers, most of them Inca residents. With a clear social responsibility, the Museum mainly thinks “glocal”, seeking to become relevant both in the local and global scene.
The professional excellence of the project is closely related to having been able to put into practice the international postulates of social and participatory museologies, according to which the social survival of museums depends on their willingness to become relevant institutions in their respective communities. As we have seen in the case of Inca, a museum that, in the 21st century, does not engage society and fails to build a horizontal and co-creative relationship with it at all levels is sentenced to disappear.
As a piece of advice for those who face a lack of resources in their institutions, I strongly believe that not acting with the excuse that “there is no money” is not the right way. Decent budgets are necessary, but until we have them, we cannot avoid our responsibility to take action. We can alleviate the lack of funds with intelligence, collective effort and tenacity, and by refusing to take a No as a final answer.
Resilience, creativity, and the power of group work are the best tools to turn our museums into relevant institutions, particularly in a society that lives in a world of uncertainty, a society that needs reliable actors to look after its legacy, to share the present moment with, and to shape the future jointly.
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