Conference Report: Museums Association 2016

Suddenly he rose to his feet, perhaps aware that there was little time left and no doubt emboldened by the generously interactive whiskey tutorial our young Glaswegian colleagues had given us. He seemed shy but determined and started ‘there is something I need to share with you my friends, I wanted to talk about it this afternoon at Conference, I really was going to, but then I looked into the large room and I felt too emotional.’ He explained to us the difficult times in Brazil and his fears for the future and he asked us to think of Brazil, the people, the cultural organisations, our colleagues there. He finished by saying how very much he appreciated spending time with colleagues here in Glasgow, at Conference, and how it had made him feel supported.

Only a few hours earlier Luiz Alberto Oliveira had been standing in front of a full tiered conference hall talking us through the deep thinking and practical outreach that had made his Museum of Tomorrow in Rio such a success with all audiences when it opened last year. Sustainability and the concept of conviviality are value base of the museum which looks at how society is changing and how we might live in the future. He had been so positive, future-focussed, so passionate. It was moving to hear him share about the fragility of Brazil and the uncertainty of their future.

I am absolutely sure that those of us lucky enough to have been there on that very wet Tuesday evening will think about Luiz and his colleagues over the next months and years. Both parts of the experience, the sharing and celebrating of the project and the more vulnerable, more intimate sharing of a far more complex picture seem to represent MA Conference 2016 in Glasgow for me.

The Conference had three themes: Being Brave: Courage, Innovation & Risk-Taking, co-ordinated by Adele Patrick from Glasgow Women’s Library (courage, innovation and risk-taking might as well be GWL’s middle names). The strand was particularly apt for People’s History Museum as not only are we a museum about activism, bold risk-taking and radical ideas; we also try to be those things.

The second theme: People & Places, coordinated by Morag McPherson, Head of Cultural Services, Renfrewshire Leisure, was a wonderful chicken and egg exploration of how identity is reflected by museums and how museums can shape it. The theme set out to think ‘about people and places not as fixed entities, but as a set of dynamic relationships to be reimagined and remade through the museum’. A powerful approach.

The third theme; Impact, Evidence & Delivery, coordinated by Mark O’Neill, Director of Policy at Research, Glasgow Life, explored the role museums can play in improving public health. The themes were topped and tailed by keynotes, more general sessions, a busy exhibition, fringe events and a series of workshop sessions in the exhibition space

There were also a number of keynote speeches, Oliveira’s being one of them. Poet Jackie Kay was another and her poetic response to the Conference themes has met with the longest applause of all. She read a number of her poems and contextualised them with stories from her life and musings on identity, heritage and place.

Kelvin Hall, the Riverside Museum and the Huntarian Museum and Art Gallery were all thankfully built into the programme for drinks receptions, giving us a fantastic opportunity to explore the rich offer in Glasgow.

Overall Conference was thought-provoking and affirming, challenging and reassuring in equal measures. The hardest thing was to choose between concurrent sessions and it would have been wonderful were all sessions recorded for later consumption. With such a rich programme I missed more session than I attended. Always a hard thing. All the sessions I did attend had honest and engaging speakers who were as happy to talk about their successes as they were to share about their experiments that didn’t work out. That was inspiring in itself.

In a session on The Museum Activist we explored the powerful concept of change-making and the roles we can play in creating change as individual employees of our organisations, as the organisations themselves and through our work with communities. Sacha Coward from Royal Museums Greenwich recounted how he had co-organised a museum staff participation in London Pride this year, David Gelsthorpe from Manchester Museum explained how the museum works in innovative ways linking their collections to conservation and Melissa Strauss from the Heritage Lottery Fund spoke about the importance of our own awareness in relation to inclusion.

A session on confronting censorship and controversy, Free to Speak, offered an honest exploration of the incredibly complex issues museums face around potentially controversial material they might have in their collections. How do you make the decision to display something or not? How do you contextualise an artist’s work where the work might be stunning, but the artist has been found to have a rather difficult past? It was a valuable session and very relevant to People’s History Museum as deeply complex material and stories run through all our collections.

Social mobility in museums was explored in a session about the cultural profession which appears to be sliding backwards in terms of employing people from diverse backgrounds, including people from a working class background. A few interesting points that were made include: class should be part of the discussions we all hold anyway around inclusion and diversity and apparently there is a retention issue in the sector in relation to people who self-identify as coming from a diverse background. Unconscious bias is such an important one to watch out for here.

I was encouraged that so many of the sessions I attended affirmed the cutting-edge work we do at People’s History Museum in Manchester. One of the suggestions around contemporary relevance was to have a small exhibition space set aside and left empty to be able to respond to more current affairs. Tick! We already do that and our Eurotunnel display prior to the European referendum was a powerful example. And then there was our American Election Breakfast in the museum’s café at 7am the day after the election. This was a space for people to get together and discuss the results more or less as they were announced. Being relevant is such an important goal for People’s History Museum and one we constantly explore.

In a Networking Session Dean Phelus form the American Alliance of Museums made the point that once the actuality of a conflict has faded, museums have an opportunity to capture what gets remembered and how we make meaning of it collectively for all people and for all times.

Getting To Grips with Gender and Using the F-Word in Museums was a powerful session with Kate Dossett from the University of Leeds as Chair and Sue John from Glasgow Women’s Library and Antia Wiersma from Atria Institute on Gender Equality and Women’s History in Amsterdam. It was an inspiring exploration of what still is a huge underrepresentation of women and their place in history in our cultural organisations. Especially powerful in light of Dean Phelus’ comment above about the role of museums in what gets remembered and how we make meaning through collections. It is the strongest call to action on all levels for us to work on unconscious bias to inform the best possible contemporary collecting so we don’t need to have MA Conference in a generation and have another session saying much the same things.

The 2017 MA Conference will take place in Manchester, which is a fantastic opportunity to welcome so many colleagues to this amazing Radical City. If the Manchester Conference is as well attended, vibrant and thought-provoking as the Glasgow one we’ll have done well. I am delighted to be on the Conference Panel for the 2017 Conference and I am well aware we have our work cut out for ourselves in the best possible way.

Janneke Geene, Acting Director, People’s History Museum, Manchester


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