The Black Box Project

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The Black Box Project

The Black Box project, run by South East Museum, Library and Archive Council (SEMLAC), has established links with prison inmates, ex-offenders and vulnerable groups through a creative scheme involving a number of museums and galleries in West Sussex and Brighton and Hove. The project offered informal and creative learning opportunities through workshops, building in personal development work and addressing some of the skills needed for resettlement, including basic skills. It also aimed to give a voice to those seldom heard, to enable partner museums to establish productive, sustainable links with a non-traditional user group and to demonstrate that museums have a role to play in the lives of everyone. The Black Box project involved:


These included storytelling, poetry and creative writing. They were held in museums and galleries and on site at Ford Prison. Each participant was encouraged to produce a 'personal museum' in the form of a large book. These books are based on the participants' experiences with a variety of museum and gallery collections and practices.

Specific skills addressed during the project included researching a topic, using artefact and photographic collections, literacy skills, ICT, interpretation, conservation techniques, and organisational skills. Personal skills included motivation, trust, self-worth, the ability to interact effectively with other people, and successfully to articulate thoughts and feelings.

For example, in one workshop participants were given a sheet of paper on which they were asked to draw six boxes (rooms). They were then given ten minutes to put a name of somebody important to them (negative or positive) in each room. Next they drew or wrote the name of one object in each room that was somehow linked to the person they put there, and finally discussed as a group the people and objects in the rooms and why they were put there.


The finished books were displayed at Brighton and Hove and Horsham District Museums. An online gallery of the works is hosted on the SEMLAC website.


A skills-sharing approach was taken with the participating museum and gallery staff and other project partners. A seminar was held with the aim of encouraging other museums and galleries to develop work with these client groups.

Signposting kit

A signposting document with key contacts, information and resources has been produced to support museums and galleries planning work with offenders, ex-offenders and vulnerable groups. The hardcopy folder is available and you can find a digital version on the SEMLAC website.


The project was evaluated using telephone interviews with key workers and partner organisations, and focus groups with participants.

Some of the key workers felt that it would have been beneficial to have had more time at the beginning of the project to establish stronger partnerships between organisations who did not know each other at first, and also to consult with the participants to establish what they wanted and to give them a sense of ownership, rather than having them feel that the project was being "done to" them. The majority of museum staff would also have liked more training in how to deal with the client group.

Feedback indicated that participants' skills had improved and their attitudes had changed: they were more willing to engage with others and the community. However, it was felt that since this was a relatively short project, it tended to introduce new skills rather than allow time to really develop them. The majority of key workers felt that the fact that most of the participants persisted and finished their personal museums was the major success of the project.

Another success was that a participant with low literacy skills completed his personal museum, and another finished his in rehabilitation. One key worker said that their organisation was "very surprised how much has come out of the creative writing side of it - how revealing and how it addresses many more issues than just creative writing - literacy, self-esteem, their past - such a great vehicle for all sorts of things, helps people take a much more objective view. They listened to each other, at the beginning there was some reticence about this but eventually they gelled more as a group." Some participants already had adequate literacy skills but were able to concentrate on their research skills.


Participants enjoyed the project: "At first we thought that it was something we could imagine doing at school, a couple of us felt a bit silly. Now I'm looking forward to it going on display."

A key worker at HMP Ford commented,

"I got the impression that they (the inmates) felt valued in a different way as somebody was willing to take the objects to them."

Some of the participants found drawing and the creation of visual images difficult, and one worker felt that not enough time was allowed for participants to develop their "visual literacy". However, the involvement of artists, particularly the poets who led the workshops, was still felt to be a key ingredient of the project's success - along with the exhibitions and launch of participants' work, and the dedication and enthusiasm of the project coordinator and the partners. These included HMP Ford, The Foundation and local museums.


Black Box was funded by the DfES through a scheme called the Museums and Galleries Lifelong Learning Initiative (MGLI), which funds innovative projects with hard to reach audiences. Funding for Black Box has come to an end, but new, linked projects are in development with Reading Young Offender Institution and Reading Library Service and Museum, and also HMP Ford and West Sussex Libraries and Museums.


For more information and to view the personal museums visit

The MGLI project programme is coordinated by the Campaign for Learning through Museums and Galleries. For more information visit

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