Heading across the water to go and see what the dissenters of the museum association had to dissent about in a troubled political climate, I wondered what was to be expected. How was I, a mere front of house assistant going to fit in and understand such big ideas that was going to be discussed this November in Belfast?
As I think about what it takes me to dissent, to participate, to write this for you… some 2 months later I reasoned that it takes privilege and it takes power. It hasn’t been easy however I won’t elaborate as I am certain that you, the reader can think back to your early days clambering up the proverbial ladder and you will empathise.
Putting my situation aside and listening intently to the Balkan Museum Network (BMN) I felt slightly ashamed of my own obstacles and grateful to be living in a democracy which allows some privilege in its protection that enables us to speak up and speak out.
Milena and Aida spoke modestly about the challenges of framing multiple contested histories in a network which boasted just a few individual members who would freely speak out despite fear of discrimination based upon their membership status. With many members forced into anonymity, these women opened up the idea of struggle, cost and privilege to the room in their fight for freedom to dissent.
So there we have a little of their story and a little of mine which can set the scene for ways in which we can think critically about experiences and how these stories much like the ones we endeavour to tell through our collections can resonate and allow for a wider narrative to be constructed.
The BMN dissenters had sacrificed a lot in order to get to us that day in Belfast so I wondered what the UK had to say on its united front? There was surprisingly little scheduled to discuss our looming world post Brexit and besides, as a fledgeling in my museum career I decided to stick to topics which I had more experience in and which might be more relevant to my position at this time.
Trying to make sense of fractured histories was the challenging histories in historic houses session that talked of multiple narratives existing and while there is demand to develop the confronting histories there is also a tradition of the historic house as refuge, as oppressor, as quaint idyll and symbol and signee of our British prescribed identity and Englishness. A lovely past that wants to remain in its lovely untroubled haven. This talk became especially pertinent during a session on values led practice in which John Orna-Ornstein of the NT who sat on both panels, gave a strong sense of the pressure felt to serve both personal and company values in the midst of this transformation which has not gone unnoticed by its members, the media or the public. This trepidatious and tentative tip toe into dissent has been marked with equal measures of criticism and applaud as uncharacteristically challenging exhibitions which just had to be done, have caused more members to leave the membership but has also attracted a new more culturally sensitive audience to join the NT.
By looking at the histories we choose to reveal and those we don’t of course deals with the way in which we handle our collections. How we collect, how we interpret and how to engage the communities as well attract and support the communities we have not yet met. These were just a couple of the questions highlighted in the packed out seminar room discussing the Collections 2030 paper. The room was jostling with ideas, bursting at the seams, dissenters covering every inch of floor space, leaning shoulder to shoulder against the walls of the now tiny seminar room.
Perhaps attracting such an audience was down to the production of the ‘Collections 2030’ paper which undoubtedly helped keep this discussion moving along at a rapid pace. It had been published well in advance with questions set clearly and provocatively which were accessible for all who wished to be involved.
The 2030 discussions revealed the sometimes terse conversations between curators, managers, exhibitions staff and community champions. There was an overwhelming feeling that collection managers are continuing to prioritise the preservation and care of collections and thus maintaining the outdated notion of the museum as mausoleum.
How to balance this struggle between the gatekeepers and organisational agendas to display, educate, inform and inspire the public through exciting programmes and introduce new ways of seeing? It was agreed that collections needed to work more quickly and dynamically in order to meet public expectations and demands that better reflect our pace of life. There was also time for thinking about the items we continue to collect, the realities of caring for growing collections and how disposing of items needs to be pushed further up our agendas as a matter of urgency.
A point which was relevant for everyone managing collections, staffing exhibitions and programming was the issue of budget cuts. I was curious to sit in on the Mendoza review, one year on and try to understand some of the discussions affecting the sector bodies.
Throughout the hour I sat grappling with some of the complex issues which surround and prevent the arts from receiving additional funding whilst continuing to dish out budget cuts.
I had no need to worry about my confidence in these matters as although I couldn’t comprehend the finite details, it seemed as though all questions went around in circles trying to pin down concrete answers and solutions for which there seemed not to be one.
The panel certainly baffled myself and others who listened and reacted out of frustration with the lack of clarity and progress, ideas from the floor suggested that new sources such as a tourist tax needed to be ascertained which could only be used for cultural learning and not diverted into another stream.
The talk which had the most impact on me, both at the time and in the months that have followed was a 30 minute presentation which asked ‘Do we still need front of house’? The answer was a resolute ‘YES we do’. The seminar led by William Tregaskes and Abbi Battis alerted the room to the inequalities felt between front of house and back of house staff within the sector and included a perceived lack of specialism in FOH roles. This half an hour slot was so powerful and relevant to my own career path that I immediately looked towards my own attitude, my lexicon, how I preferred to refer to myself as a ‘museum assistant’ rather than ‘front of house’ and how this terminology suddenly made me feel less apologetic for being here and slightly more qualified. How was I still suffering from imposter syndrome as a FOH staff member?
Looking back and continuing on after the 2018 conference, thinking about the key messages I heard, taking notice of Elaine Heumann Gurian who spoke of Museums as being difficult arenas which harbour opposing views and opinions which could classify museums as buildings of ‘bad news’ and who also talked of how important it was to deliver with tenacity and humour, I thought again back to my own role and how I was going to dissent, how was I going to help rebalance the division between front of house and the back of house in my small place of work?
The key is to find your cause and understand it well, find that fighting spirit and develop an army to help deliver your dissent with tenacity, with passion and of course humour.
Salford Museum & Art Gallery