“Grownups aren’t bosses here, they’re equals.” How a museum became a “third place” for at-risk teenagers.

In 2021 the “Urban Investigation” art project won the Stronger with CSS competition. The team from the Polyarny Regional Historical Museum and the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art (PERMM) wanted to make the museum a comfortable, safe and supportive place for at-risk teenagers. Here is how the process unfolded and what results it obtained.

The museum as an empowering and meaningful place

View of the Polyarny Regional Historical Museum. Photo from wikimedia.org.

“I’ve been involved with museums for many years, and I can see that teenagers are avoiding them. They find museums boring and uncomfortable. Young people seldom visit them on their own and go there only for school field trips,” commented Anastasia Knyazeva, who is deputy director of the Polyarny Regional Historical Museum and head of the “Urban Investigation” project,

“But I firmly believe the museums that are in every city can and must become what is called a ‘third place’ for their residents – a place for self-realization and development.”

In Polyarny, a city of 17,000, such an undertaking was long overdue. There was nothing of the kind there before this project began.

Polyarny is located within the Arctic Circle some 60 kilometres from Murmansk. It is a closed city, which means that non-residents require a permit to visit.

“An idea that I had long held – to make the museum an empowering and meaningful place for troubled teenagers – began coming to life. The main impetus came from my acquaintance with the team from PERMM, the Perm Museum of Contermporary Art, an institution which has been praised for its outstanding specialists and long experience in working with youth. I got to know our future collaborators, Leila, Petya and Lyuba, at a conference, and we decided on a project for my city. Of course, the most important factor in realizing the project was our winning the CSS competition,” Anastasia said.

Stop worrying, and get down to business

Presentation of the “Urban Investigaion” project

Even before meeting any of the young participants, the team had decided that the project would be devoted to Polyarny in such a way that young people would look at it anew together with artists and describe the city and their place in it using creative techniques.

It was also agreed that the project would deal with shadows, the reflection of light and shade, which is not only a “friend of youth” but also an inescapable fact of life for the inhabitants of cities in the far north. The main part of the project took place from December through February during the polar night.

Any other work was to be carried out on an equal basis with the ultimate benificiaries.

The team selected the target group immediately: teenagers who were registered with the department for the supervision of minors. Usually, those young people were completely excluded from the city’s social and cultural life.

“It is relatively easy to engage high-achieving children in activities. They are responsive and open to new things. But finding an approach that reaches young people who study poorly and have difficulty communicating was a task that seemed far more important, however hard it might be,” Anastasia explained.

The museum obtained contact information for the project’s future participants from the social welfare service and social workers at local schools. Sixteen teenagers attended the presentation of the project.

Musuem educator Leila Gizatullina recalled that first meeting:

“I was quite apprehensive because I understood that the youngsters would be sceptical, didn’t like museums and would dismiss them as boring. But at a certain point, our artist, Petya Stabrovsky, said, “Stop worrying.” And we got down to business!”

The idea of doing an art project devoted to the city and its inhabitants and presenting it at the regional museum was discussed in the meeting with the teenagers. Seven of them were in favour, and several of them wanted to have their friends join in. So it came about that there were twelve key players on the “Urban Investigation” team.

Walking, looking, talking

First stroll through the city

The project began officially with a three-day stroll through the city.

”We asked the teenagers to say something about how they live, what music they listen to, which bloggers they follow, and what movies they like,” Leila recalled.

At this stage it was vital not only to discern the texture of the city and be inspired by it, but also to explore the idea behind “Urban Investigation”. And the youngsters also had to understand that work on the project would proceed on an equal footing and that what came of it would be an artistic exhibition.

Abandoned buildings in Polyarny. Source: Serg2610

On the strolls through the city during the polar night, the teenagers and curators went to various “less presentable” places in Polyarny: abandoned buildings, a factory, the port, and entranceways where no one would scold you for staying up until all hours with your friends. The participants walked, listened to music and chatted until they were tired and chilled, at which point they went to the museum to warm up.

”We were able to relieve psychological tension, find a path into the creative process, and convince the youngsters that grownups here would not be in charge but be equals. And the museum is a safe, friendly place for everyone,” Leila explained.

After three days of intensive immersion in the city and discussions, the Perm-based team members departed.  The teenagers were given creative home assignments, which were discussed at regular in-person sessions in the museum.

Mixed feelings

The exhibition was to be in a site-specific format and was entitled “Mixed Feelings”.

Site-specific or object-oriented art is an artistic format in which the location of an activity is key. Artists take into account the distinctive features of a place, local characteristics and traditions and so on as they plan and create art objects.

“Mixed Feelings” consisted of twelve (one for each teenager) transparent triangular prisms. The artist employed painting and other artistic techniques on each side to depict their understanding of how they feel:

− In the city with friends;

− In the city with family;

− In the city by themselves.

Photo of the “Mixed Feelings” exhibition

The exhibition was displayed in the dark. Each visitor received a flashlight for casting a beam of light toward one side of the prism in order to reveal a pattern of shadows that said something about the artist’s feelings.

The creators were present during most of the showings. They interacted with the visitors, interpreted the reflections and talked about the idea behind the exhibition.

In addition, the walls of the museum were used to show slides with photographs of the city and texts describing feelings that the young people experienced as they studied the city of Polyarny and their place in it.

“It was amazing! When the project began, the teenagers had no idea how to talk about their feelings. It made them uncomfortable. But three months later they were openly sharing their ideas about relationships with their friends and parents, as well as their inner feelings – quite personal things. It was as if art had transformed anxiety into creative energy. “Urban Investigation” clearly had a very therapeutic effect on all the participants,” Anastasia believes.

Assessment of impact

The exhibition was very well received. It was on display in Polyarny for six weeks. “Mixed Feelings” also went on tour to museums in Murmansk and Apatity. The teenagers got involved in preparing the exhibition for transport, collecting items to display, and taking part in official events. Over 2,500 people in three cities viewed “Mixed Feelings”.

Opening of the exhibition in Apatity

The exhibition was very well received. It was on display in Polyarny for six weeks. “Mixed Feelings” also went on tour to museums in Murmansk and Apatity. The teenagers got involved in preparing the exhibition for transport, collecting items to display, and taking part in official events. Over 2,500 people in three cities viewed “Mixed Feelings”.

The young people who participated had a positive opinion about it. CSS commissioned a questionnaire whose results showed positive changes in relationships with parents and age-peers, as well as ethical development and personal growth among the respondents.

Seven of the twelve teenagers became museum volunteers and are active participants in regional museum activities.

Four of them became each other’s friends and parted company with less beneficial companions.

Two enrolled in college.

All the participants perceive museums differently.

“The young people realized that museum work is not always boring and not only about the history of the region where they were born. And even when it is about history, it can be made interesting and vivid. These youngsters are no longer leery of museums and their employees,” Anastasia summed up with a smile.

The project’s participants have kept in touch with each other.

“Urban Investigation” is an excellent instance of applying principles from the Concept for Positive Youth Development Through the Socialization and Development of Adolescents Living in Difficult Circumstances. This project applied key principles from the Concept: freedom of action and the trust of adults, involving adolescents in decision making, forming a beneficial environment, and broadening horizons.

Entrance to the city of Polyarny. Photo: tripster.ru.