GEM Conference Report

In the first week of September I received an invitation from Museum Development North West asking if I would like to attend the GEM conference in Swansea – I, of course, immediately said yes! I knew that I would really enjoy the conference as I would be learning a lot about the sector that I want to go into, as well as meeting lots of likeminded professionals. The conference was held in Swansea Waterfront Museum which was a beautiful location. We could not fault the very welcoming staff and the constant supply of refreshments made us all feel very content!

The theme of the conference was ‘Measuring the Magic’ – seeing what museums do beyond their four walls for their local communities and the country as a whole. This was something I had thought about before so it was very interesting to hear professionals talk about this topic and present their findings in depth. The first day kicked off with an opening keynote address from the head of the National Waterfront Museum, Stephanos Mastoris, who presented his thoughts about the increasing importance held by museums within society, and how it is the museum’s duty to give children in deprived areas a flying start. The statistics that Stephanos presented really hit home how much close interaction between members of the local community and the museum itself, be it through a volunteering programme, a series of educational classes, or running family events, is crucial at every level. A second keynote address presented by Dr Carol Scott focused on the value of museums and further cemented the idea that museums are not simply one-dimensional – their value reaches to many different areas of society. Carol spoke of the ‘Happy Museum Project’ and the ‘Cultural Value Project’, both of which have findings that enforce the idea that museums are valued within a community, and are so much more than simply a building that houses artefacts.

My first breakout session (you choose from a selection of talks) on the Monday was run by Dr Jo Reilly and focused on the importance the Heritage Lottery Fund had for projects within cultural venues. I knew next to nothing about how this fund worked so it was very interesting to hear about how much work needed to go into applying for the fund, and the extensive evaluation that then takes place. Jo really proved to us that it is far better to reflect on a funded project as you go along, so that you can improve and alter as is needed, rather than leaving it until the project is complete and you come to evaluate your efforts. The first day was then finished by a series of GEM member presentations about the work they are doing at their individual museums. Among the short presentations was a very touching talk from Stephanie Burge from National Museums Wales about her volunteering project and how this has really altered the personal lives of their volunteers for the better – perhaps even more so than anyone had expected. All presentations were extremely interesting.

The second day began similarly with two keynote addresses. The first was led by Lynn Frogget, professor of psychosocial welfare, in which she emphasised how the museum is the aesthetic third in society – it is a place where education and comfort combine. Lynn told us about multiple projects that have been carried out to emphasise the importance that cultural objects have for people with lives fractured by illness. The second keynote was led by Dr Robin Phillip, public health physician, with the theme of how heritage can improve the overall wellbeing of the public. I found this talk highly interesting as Robin went into great detail about the different aspects of wellbeing in a person’s life, showing that heritage could not only improve their health wellbeing, but their social wellbeing and their economic wellbeing. Robin even went so far as to suggest doctors should give patients ‘prescriptions’ to museums which prompted discussion within the large group of attendees.

This discussion was then followed by a further presentation by Andy Gawin and Andrea Winn about the volunteering programme ‘If: Volunteering for Wellbeing’. This programme sounds amazing! It arranges for people from deprived areas to have 10 weeks training in the heritage sector, followed by a placement. This means they have something valuable to present to employers and many have gone on to get rewarding jobs which they would never have achieved before. The experience increased their confidence and their general wellbeing – employment is not the core to this programme, wellbeing is. From all these presentations, I was beginning to really understand the importance and duty that a museum has for its surrounding community’s happiness.

Wednesday afternoon I attended a workshop led by Kate Pontin, freelancer in evaluation, in techniques of how to complete effective evaluation. Again I felt this was extremely well presented and highly interesting, the shared discussion within the group about the form of evaluations we do at our own establishments was very valuable to me and I felt we all benefitted from knowing what other likeminded institutions do. The day’s talks were then finished by a touching presentation from David Anderson, director general of National Museums Wales, telling us about how working within a museum is more than a profession, it means that we have a duty to the surrounding area and the next generation to inspire them to engage in culture like we ourselves did at a young age. The day finished with an extremely enjoyable Gala dinner held at the Waterfront museum. The food was lovely and the service faultless.

Thursday, for me, was the best day of the conference. I really enjoyed every moment of the talks and found myself enraptured during every speech. The day opened with a keynote address from Nicky Morgan, senior relationship manager from Arts Council England, who led an inspiring speech about the important ways that museums improve life chances for young people by giving them an increased engagement in a broad range of cultural activities that they wouldn’t have necessarily been able to access elsewhere. The second keynote address of the day was led by Ida Lundgaard, senior advisor of Danish museums, who spoke to us about the strong relationship within Denmark between schools and museums, giving us ideas that we could potentially implement in museums within the United Kingdom.

On the Thursday afternoon I really enjoyed the workshops – I found them highly valuable. The first was led by Susie Fisher, Visitor studies group, on how to truly work effectively with qualitative feedback. I work in this area myself so I found this particularly useful. The second, and last, workshop of the day and of the conference as a whole for me, was led by Caroline Marcus, Takeover Day director, who spoke to us about how Takeover Day (a special day in which children work within the museum and effectively take it over) can be relevant to any institution and how it could be any size and can easily be made relevant to our own museums.

I found the whole of the conference to be an extremely valuable experience, it really opened my eyes to the value that museums hold within the community and how they can help citizens of all ages by giving them the tools they need to progress. Thank you again to Museum Development North West for giving me the chance to attend this conference and engage in such valuable talks and to meet such amazing people.

Alexandra Burrows
Family Education Intern
Victoria Gallery & Museum

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