9 things I learned from the MA Conference
1. The conference can be a very geeky (and surprisingly fun) birthday party
When I (finally!) completed my Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA) last year, I knew that I would be presented with my certificate at the next annual conference. To my dismay, I discovered that the next conference fell on my 30th birthday and instead of partying with my friends and family, I would be on my own in a soulless Birmingham hotel room. How wrong I was! I was very fortunate to receive funding from Museum Development North West to attend the full conference (sadly the funding didn’t stretch to balloons and a birthday cake!), and I was determined to make the most of an opportunity that I knew I was unlikely to get again. Conference turned out to be a great opportunity to meet inspiring people, learn new things, critically reflect on the sector, and even enjoy a couple of ‘Radical Futures’ cocktails.
2. Birmingham did a great job of showing off their museums and galleries
With a jam-packed conference programme, I would have found it very difficult to go out and explore what Birmingham had to offer. Fortunately, the MA had arranged out of hours access to three great venues – Thinktank, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Icon Gallery – in the form of drinks receptions. It wasn’t just about the free wine (although that was lovely!) – highlights included making a magic wand, light painting and a pop-up planetarium.
3. Ask a wicked question…
Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association opened the conference by encouraging us to ask ‘wicked questions’ in order to turn our thinking on its head and help us to think more critically. Should all museums stay open? Do we need museum directors? Do we need so many national museums? I’ll definitely be taking this away and asking myself and my organisation some wicked questions in order to be more reflective in my practice.
4. Networking doesn’t have to be scary
The thought of standing in a room full of strangers and having to ‘network’ genuinely makes me feel a bit sick. However, the conference was a great opportunity to meet people from across the country (and the globe) in lots of different roles and I found my fear subsiding as I chatted to lots of inspirational people. It was brilliant to learn about different museums, collections and approaches, and to learn from what isn’t working as much as what is. I met a self-styled ‘disruptive curator’, chewed the fat about conference sessions, and even bumped into a few familiar faces.
5. The sector loves a bit of navel-gazing
Some of the sessions I attended focused very much on ‘big-picture’ debates, particularly around workforce diversity. Whilst these sessions were interesting, challenging and tackled important issues, I found that they were lacking in take-away actions that we can use to really make the changes that are needed. I fear that if we’re just talking to ourselves, we’re in danger of working in an echo-chamber and I would have appreciated input from other sectors to give a fresh perspective.
6. You can learn more from smaller museums…
Someone gave me a great piece of advice early in the conference: ‘you’ll see lots of big museums getting up on stage and telling us this great innovative thing they’ve been doing, and you’ll find that smaller museums have been doing it for years’. Hands down, the best session of the whole conference was ‘More Than Reminiscence’ from Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. Dr Paul Camic and Jeremy Kimmel gave a thought-provoking and engaging demonstration of object handling workshops they had developed for people with dementia, that focused on the here and now and not the past. The workshop was practical, innovative and had everyone talking about it afterwards. They’ve developed a toolkit that can be used in any museum on a shoestring, and I’d highly recommend checking it out.
7. …and staff at all levels (not just directors)
Friday’s programme kicked off with an ‘in conversation’ session with four national museum directors. Duncan Dornan, Head of Museums and Collections at Glasgow Life argued that we need to make museums less hierarchical, allow staff to use their skills more fully and speak to front of house staff. I feel that the conference would have benefitted from this approach, with more sessions being led by front of house staff and presenters being more representative of staff and volunteers at all levels.
8. We need more freedom to take risks and think creatively
Unsurprisingly, a lot of discussion during the conference was surrounding cuts, closures and further cuts to come. When inspiring case studies were presented, inevitably people would say ‘well that’s great, but we could never afford to do that’. There was an overall impression of people feeling ground-down and frustrated. However, I want to think more positively. We can take the essence of a great idea and look for ways to apply it to our organisations.
For example, the Museum of Gothenburg encouraged us to ‘unlearn’ and ‘Funk-think’. They argued that ‘knowing nothing’ as a point of departure can be a constructive critical tool for transforming the museum. One of the case studies they presented worked with people with different ‘function variations’ and took the approach that it is the museum that has the disability and not the visitors. They employed ‘Funktek Pilots’, who had different function variations and were paid to test the museum. Through a process of try again, fail again, fail better they test and learn constantly.
Whilst most museums will not have the budget to run a project of the same scale, the philosophy of the idea is something that everyone can embed into our own practice. However we need the support of our organisations (and funders) to be able to try out new ideas, think creatively and test innovative approaches.
9. I want to make sure that this investment doesn’t go to waste
To send someone to conference, organisations invest time and money, however often that investment is limited to just the couple of days out of the office that the conference (or other training) takes. Staff come away feeling inspired, but within a week are back on the treadmill of day to day pressures and don’t have the time to reflect on and implement learning. To really reap the benefits we need to see conference as not just a self-contained jolly, but as part of a wider CPD process. I need to ensure that I put aside time to critically reflect on what I’ve learnt, share big ideas with colleagues, and ask the wicked questions that will help me to put those ideas into practice.
By Catherine O’Donnell, Engagement & Events Officer, People’s History Museum