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Carpet conversations

The Milli İrsimiz Project, an innovative museum learning initiative from Azerbaijan

by Asli Samadova, external consultant to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Azerbaijan, curator of the Milli İrsimiz (Mİ) Project

Due to the current state of development of the Azerbaijani museum sector, many activities that are inseparable from museum practice in other countries are quite innovative in Azerbaijan.   The Milli İrsimiz (Mİ – National Heritage of Azerbaijan) Project is one such example, focusing on the country’s cultural heritage and arts. In 2015, within the scope of the Mİ Project and with support from UNESCO, I launched an initiative titled Teaching and Learning Carpets and Other Textiles in a Museum

Started as an independent project aimed at developing generic learning materials able to be adapted to any given textile collection or complementary to existing museum learning practices, the project caught the interest of Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. This resulted in the development of museum-specific learning materials covering carpet and textile collections for the country’s two main museums – the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum and the Azerbaijan National Museum of Art. All of the materials are registered under a Creative Commons “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International” licence that allows copying and redistribution of the material in any medium or format as well as remixing, transformation, and building upon the material for non-commercial purposes and with appropriate credit. 

The Mİ Project’s museum learning programme offers in-gallery group and self-guided activities including special trails, mini-excursions, quest and interactive games, a variety of workshops and take-home activities such as colouring leaflets and paper puzzles, all pertaining to Azerbaijan’s rich carpet-weaving traditions, which were included on the 2010 UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.  As an ongoing initiative for the co-development of innovative hands-on approaches to daily museum practice, the programme called for museum staff training to enhance understanding of the material. 

The Ministry proposed that a pilot programme be held in the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum from January to March 2016. The new block of activities was incorporated into the museum’s existing school tours, positively facilitated by the museum’s central location and visitor numbers (the highest in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku), alongside existing facilities and longstanding practice in working with children. After completing the activities, participating children were asked to fill in anonymous surveys to compare their experiences with those of the museum’s standard practice; results revealed their appreciation of discursive embodied and experiential practices  employed in the block developed in the framework of the Mİ Project, with, on average, 75% higher comprehension and memorisation of the content covered in the pilot activities as compared to a standard guided tour. 

A family-friendly focus

Unlike many other countries, Azerbaijan’s museums do not have family-specific public programmes or activities – while, at the same time, children represent the largest museum audience, with school trips, especially in smaller museums, contributing to more than 80% of total visitation. It is worth noting that to date, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum is the country’s only museum with a dedicated department known as the Children’s Museum. It offers a wide range of in-house developed thematic workshops on a regular basis; however, these activities had never been adequately communicated and the museum wished to develop this work in a sustainable fashion. Reflection on how to present the Mİ Project’s learning blocks and promote the Children’s Museum’s existing practices led to the idea of organising an event, ultimately bringing to life the Family Festival at a Museum. Mİ Project materials offer an alternative to guided museum tours, and the nomadic concept of Family Festival at a Museum project is aimed to help museums expand their audiences and become more attractive destinations for families to spend quality leisure time. 

The programme of the Family Festival at the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, held on 25 and 26 June, 2016, consisted of 30 activities focused predominantly on textiles and carpets, combining workshops of the Children’s Museum department, activities led by invited guest participants for children aged three and up, and the newly-launched Mİ Project museum learning materials on carpets. The latter incorporate both materials developed from scratch, as well as existing practices adapted from European and North American museums – for example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Dazzling Details family trail or the V&A’s Six Degrees of Separation game, which has been launched in Azeri, English and Russian. 

Despite late event communication (activities were put together in a record one month’s time) and the summer holiday period, attendance figures surpassed those of any previous given daytime museum event, with some 550 visitors per day. 

The festival ticket allowed for two full days of unlimited access to the museum’s permanent collection and participation in all workshops and activities in the festival programme. As the festival was the first initiative of its kind in Azerbaijan, the organisers had to educate the visitors and manage their expectations. The fact that it was a ticketed event allowed to cap the number of visitors to preserve the quality, and invited the visitors to think in value-for-money terms: the market price of the festival offer exceeded 80 manat (some €45) per person, but the most expensive ticket offer was only 27 manat (some €15) for two adults and two children for the two days of the festival – 10% cheaper than the equivalent in standard one-time museum entry. 

Evaluation and future expectations 

Overall customer satisfaction for the festival was assessed via an anonymous online survey, with 87% of respondents rating the event nine or ten out of ten, while the lowest rating was seven out of ten (the main complaint voiced were the queues for some of the workshops). A number of observations and casual conversations with visitors helped to measure the success of the event. Many families were first-time visitors to the museum and the festival broke a number of stereotypes about visiting museums. It offered a rare occasion to see parents and grandparents actively taking part in hands-on activities in the museum, and was pioneering in its ability to attract parents with toddlers and new-borns: the youngest visitor was just one month old! 

Whether and how the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum will continue to use the Mİ Project’s museum learning materials is an open question: once the museum runs out of the printed supplies produced for the June 2016 Family Festival, additional funds have to be allocated, this time without the Mİ Project’s support. However, the fact that the museum has started to engage family audiences by launching a regular “family days” event every last Saturday of the month is a success story that the Mİ Project is now striving to achieve in other museums. Thanks to an agreement with the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Mİ Project is currently working on launching the innovative museum learning programme at the Azerbaijan National Museum of Art.  The focus is on training museum staff in how to engage audiences with the art in the museum’s collection, and by the end of the year, the second edition of the Family Festival at… initiative will be hosted here.

all photos >>  ©Azerbaijan Carpet Museums/ Mİ Project