Conference Blog: MuseumNext, Dublin

In April the MDNW team went en masse (three of us!) to the MuseumNext conference in Dublin, leaving the North West in the capable hands of Sam, our Project Support Assistant. The three days were so full of good stuff it’s taken us until now to pool our notes and decide which bits to put in this blog.

Let’s work backwards… What are the key things we took away from our time in Dublin? Probably confirmation, or a reaffirmation, of what we’ve always known – museums are places that support, inspire, serve, provoke and advocate for local and world communities. Or as David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool put it in his keynote speech, “If you don’t think museums change lives you shouldn’t be working in them”. We heard so many inspiring examples of what museums across the world are doing, and the effect they have on people.

We fell in love with Dublin. The people, the place, the vibrancy, even the weather, we got a touch of sunburn in April! “Sense of place” is a phrase that’s recently crept into discussions around art and culture. If you want to know what it really means then go to Dublin. We’ll gloss over the morning session which included tours of local attractions the Jameson Archive and Guinness Storehouse and included a goodie bag of whisky miniatures…

For MDNW, it was the first time the three of us have been away at a conference together. Through our training and programmes, one of our strategic aims is to give museums the space for them away from day to day tasks to reflect and plan. MuseumNext gave us the space to do the same, to take a step back and think about what we’re doing and plan to do. We started questioning ourselves as an entity. As a museum development organisation are we politically neutral? Is it possible to be? Should we be? Or should we be more forthright in putting our views forward? Hearing people talk about a museum’s value and mission, and conveying them to staff, funders and visitors, made it clear to us that we should be stronger at articulating how our own values underpin all of our work.

Key themes from the conference were soft power, innovation, social inclusion and collaboration. The statistics around the power and potential of age groups at opposite ends of the spectrum were striking. Millennials (born 1982-2000) make up a quarter of the population of the USA and by 2017 will spend $200bn annually. As Susan Evans McClure showed in her talk on the Smithsonian Food History Programs, the assumptions a museum might make about how millennials react to social media and marketing can be wrong, don’t assume you know how to reach them. Meanwhile, some of the statistics that Francesca Rosenberg from the Museum of Modern Art in New York used were staggering – 810m people over the age of 60 worldwide and will reach 2bn by 2050. By 2020 the number of older adults will outnumber children under 5 for the first time, and they have more disposable income than any other generation – in 2017 the US population of 50+ will control 70% of disposable income. Food for thought for museums for the future. And the most significant thing to come out of these talks for one of us was the realisation that they’re still young enough to count as a millennial. The other two are too old!

A stand out talk for me was by Scott Billings from the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, talking about the Dodo Roadshow. They undertook a tour from Lands End to John O’Groats with their dodo to promote their inclusion in the shortlist for Museum of the Year in 2015. An eight day trip visiting 24 museums and galleries and introducing the dodo to more than 1,000 people. They organised it in three weeks, going against the grain of everything we’re supposed to do to guarantee a successful project – planning well in advance, evaluating, reviewing. It’s a great example of when the idea and the opportunity come along, just go for it!

Rather unexpectedly, there was a lot of science stuff to the conference. At the evening networking event at the Science Gallery in Dublin we tasted food replacement beverages which could provide us with all our nutritional requirements in the future. They didn’t taste as bad as they sounded (or looked!), and thankfully we didn’t get to taste the human cheese made from bacteria, the subject of a talk by Michael John Gorman from the gallery, or experience virtual reality for chickens. However, the theme of innovation was carried on by Luiz Alberto Oliveira and Alexandre Fernandes from the Museum of Tomorrow in Brazil, a museum of applied contemporary science, or a museum of questions.

It was a great three days of talks and thoughts of what museums might be in the future, although I think I can safely say it will be a while before food replacement beverages replace the current drink of choice in Dublin!

To hear and read more about some of these themes:

Soft power: www.tedxhamburg.de/ngaire-blankenberg-how-you-can-activate-the-soft-power-of-your-museums

Millennials in museums: http://thegbrief.com/articles/are-museums-too-old-school-for-millennials-590

Engaging older adults: www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/community_collaborations/partnerships/age_collective.aspx

Dodo roadshow: www.oum.ox.ac.uk/about/roadshow.htm

Food replacement and more predictions from NESTA: www.nesta.org.uk/news/2016-predictions

Virtual reality for chickens!: https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/fieldtest/exhibits/second-livestock.html

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