On a recent trip south I wandered past the National Justice Museum in Nottingham and noticed that they had an exhibition on called ‘Young People and Protest’. I couldn’t resist going in to check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised. It is a small exhibition, but it does an excellent job of representing the concerns and interests of young people in an engaging and interactive way.
The National Justice Museum contains a Victorian courtroom, a Georgian gaol, and cells that date back to the Saxon era. You have to pay to visit these, but the museum also has some free exhibition spaces. The largest one of these, The Crime Gallery covers a broad range of themes including Protest, Riot and Terrorism. If I’m honest, this gallery was much more even-handed and critical than I thought it would be, encouraging visitors to think about what crime is, and who gets to decide what is (il)legal. This gallery contains a jukebox playing protest songs and a mural by local artist Neequay Dreph depicting local, national, and international protest events.
The Young People and Protest exhibition was co-produced with thousands of young people and is designed to continue to evolve and change as more people interact with it. It doesn’t contain many historic artifacts (exceptions include button badges donated or lent to the Museum, and a bludgeon used by protesters during the 1887 Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square). Instead, it features objects co-produced by young people and artists, including placards, a mural, and an ever-changing wall of images from social media. This has the impact of foregrounding the opinions of young people, which is quite uncommon for a museum exhibition.
The Gallery Guide is also worth checking out; it contains further information about the themes of the exhibition and highlights specific examples of recent protests that have been driven and shaped by young people, such as Black Lives Matter and the School Strike for Climate. It also hints at the huge variation of contexts for protest around the world, detailing the harsh treatment of young protesters in Tunisia, Belarus, Cuba, and Thailand. It may be becoming increasingly difficult to protest in the UK, but there are many other countries where the risks of protesting are even greater. Young people continue to accept those risks every day.
There are opportunities for visitors to interact with and respond to themes and issues raised by the exhibition, including altering newspaper headlines and answering the question ‘who has the privilege to protest?’ Sometimes these kinds of features can feel like an afterthought in museum exhibitions; either they are located right at the end of the exhibition, or the materials to take part have run out. This is not the case here – the activities are located in central spaces, and it feels like encouraging visitors to reflect on their own feelings and perspectives is a central goal.
The Young People and Protest exhibition demonstrates what can be achieved when museums adopt creative approaches and engage with the communities they are attempting to represent. It is vibrant, engaging, and centres the voices and priorities of young people. The exhibition is open until October 2022, and I highly recommend going to check it out if you’re in the East Midlands before then.