I’m currently undertaking my AMA and one part of my CPD plan is to expand my knowledge about current trends in exhibition design as my role at the National Waterways Museum now incorporates looking after our temporary exhibition programme. So, when I saw the Museums Association’s MP Seminar Exhibitionists: Designing Great Exhibitions at the V&A I asked MDNW if they could fund a place for me to go.
The seminar showcased the huge range of work that goes into exhibition design, both permanent and temporary. The day began with a multi-sensory talk from Bompas and Parr which started by tasting champagne jelly in the form of St Paul’s Cathedral and ended with an explosion of banana smelling clouds. The point behind this was that sounds, smells, visual stimulation and fun are all essential ingredients for an exciting experience and shouldn’t be overlooked in exhibition design, even if the smells are disgusting.
The focus then moved to permanent gallery design with two V&A examples discussed, the new Europe 1600-1815 gallery and the Scottish Design Galleries at the V&A Dundee (unfortunately no sneak peeks as all the designs were still embargoed). The new Europe galleries gave the V&A the chance to redisplay objects, putting unseen objects on display, and update the interpretation to represent European artwork in a global context. The challenge was how to design a museum space that tells a continuous narrative when there is more than one entrance. The decision was made to put a focus on star objects to lead visitors through the space, but this threw up an interesting curator vs design question – with the focus on star objects, is it ok for visitors to have more of a browsing experience and miss some objects? Do visitors get a cohesive message from this experience? Also, for the first time, the V&A introduced family labels to their exhibitions aimed at provoking young children and adults into discussion. The design approach by ZMMA Architects was to use the architecture of the building and bring objects such as costume to the same level as visitors. At the V&A Dundee it is the River Tay that is the influence on the design of the building and ZMMA are currently working out how this translates into the exhibition spaces. In Dundee, there will be the Scottish Design Galleries and a temporary exhibition gallery. It won’t be an acquiring institution, everything will be on loan, including using some of the 12,000 objects connected to Scotland identified in the V&A’s collection and key loans such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s period room from Glasgow. The V&A Dundee opens on the 15th September so watch this space.
After, Samantha Elliot together with Nichola Ward from Leach Studios shared how Bolton Museum were using design to explore Bolton’s connections with Egypt. They have used a think, feel and do framework behind their design with the emphasis on low tech interaction, linking to the national curriculum as much as possible. The new entry display aims to get visitors to think about Bolton’s collections, what they as visitors collect and why. In the new Egyptology galleries, it was about bringing in the stories of the early curators and their significance in why Bolton has a world-class Egyptology collection and giving the collection the space it deserves. Nichola gave an important piece of advice for exhibition design which was to explore every idea no matter how bonkers – something I’ll definitely be doing.
In the afternoon, highlights included a powerful talk from Marina Willer about the impact design can have on storytelling and getting ‘Under the Skin’ with the design of the Ferrari exhibition at the Design Museum. This was followed by Zoe Partington from the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive who provoked us to think about how we can embed disability equality at the heart of exhibition design. What can we do to eliminate the barriers to our collections and make change happen? How can we use gallery spaces to empower disabled people? We need to identify the gaps in our organisation and identify people who can contribute, using disabled curators and designers. We also need to make sure that accessibility isn’t an add on to exhibition, it should be in the design from the beginning which means you then don’t have to unpick and retrofit later and it costs less! Zoe challenged us all to think of 10 things we could do to make our organisations more accessible using the social model of disability.
Although no one speaking really had my budget as most examples were from larger museums or capital projects I’ll be taking away the ideas that exhibition design should aim to ‘address the senses’ and ‘get under the skin’.
Zofia Kufeldt, Collections Assistant, Canal & River Trust
For those of you that haven’t been, the Museums + Heritage Show (16th and 17th May 2018) is a free annual event hosted at Olympia in London, and offers the delegates the chance to attend a vast array of talks and demonstrations. There is also the opportunity to meet with sector organisations such as AIM, Collections Trust and Kids in Museums and delegates can talk with suppliers about their products. I hadn’t been for a couple of years so a packed my bags and headed down south.
First up was a session entitled “Beauty and the Beast”. Led by Georgina Grubb, Visitor Experience Manager for Kensington Palace and Beverley Law, Founder and Managing Director of ALL Creative Branding, it showcased the rebranding work done at Kensington Palace in light of the huge increase in visitor numbers to the “Diana: Her Fashion Story” exhibition. This session gave some great insights into their process and if there was one thing to take away from it, it was listen to your audience. They know what they want, so if something isn’t working for them you need to address it asap to ensure they have an enjoyable and relaxing visit to your organisation.
Next up I heard from Harry Huskisson, Head of Communications and Marketing from The Postal Museum in “Keeping The Postal Museum’s Mail Rail On Track”. During this workshop delegates heard about the audience segmentation work they did, and how benchmarking themselves against other organisation drove them to be the best they could. They did realise though that trying to be everything for all people would somewhat dilute their offer, so they decided to focus on their USP, which is mainly their Mail Rail experience.
The next session I attended was “All In! Making Museums Accessible To All, One Step At A Time” in which Melody Beavers, Visitor Experience Manager from York Museums Trust gave a case study, and shared the work they did to make the York Castle Museum more accessible.
In response to a number of complaints about the lack of communication about accessibility issues, YMT created an in-house Access Team who oversaw the developments and work needed to become a more accessible museum.
In the session delegates got some great advice about what information to include on websites:
1. A dedicated access page that is easy to find and use
2. Ensure any web searches for a museums’ access information takes people straight to the relevant page
3. Ensure all information about accessibility is clear, concise and easy to navigate
4. Include friendly and positive language – focus on what people CAN do and see, not what they can’t
5. All basic information such as parking, toilets, prices, café, shop, first aim
6. Physical access info such as any restrictions, including location of lifts
7. Information on any extras you offer such as wheelchairs or walking sticks to borrow, hands on activities, extra assistance and whether or nor assistance dogs are allowed
8. Information on any training that staff have had in relation to accessibility
Day two started with a talk about the Mentoring for All programme. Led by Tamsin, Russell, Professional Development Officer from the Museums Association and Isabel Churcher, Senior Manager, Museums at Arts Council England, this session focussed on the project from start to finish and showcased the wonderful impact that mentoring can bring to both mentor and mentee.
Evaluation from this programme showed that:
1. 100% of mentees increased their personal confidence
2. 94% of mentees understand themselves better now
3. 93% of mentees were more willing to challenge themselves
4. 88% of mentees developed their personal qualities
5. 83% of mentees improved their self-efficacy
6. 100% of mentors felt more confident in their mentoring abilities
7. 100% of mentors increased knowledge and understanding of mentoring
Later in the day I attended a session delivered by Amy Adams, Senior Curator at National Museum of the Royal Navy and Christina Leahy, Marketing Director of Axiell called “How To Choose A CMS: Finding The Right Fit”. This engaging session did everything it set out to do and gave some advice on the steps to take:
1. Know your objectives
2. Prioritise needs
3. Research what’s available
4. Evaluate your options
5. Make your decision
Lastly I attended a session called Provocative, Disruptive And Risk-Taking led by Bernard Donoghue from AVLA. This inspiring talk gave some insight into the number of people that visit some of the countries largest visitor attractions with the following facts:
· More people visited the V&A, Natural History Museum and Science Museum combined than visited Venice
· More people visited the British Museum and National Gallery combined than visited Barcelona
· More people visited the Southbank Centre, Tate Modern and Tate Britain combined than visited Hong Kong
· More people visit heritage properties in the UK every weekend than attend football matches – 32x more in fact.
We were told that organisations that performed well between 2012 and 2017 had the following in common – they refreshed their offer and ensured it was enticing, they have an authentic sense of place, they telling people’s stories, they develop their staff and not their stuff.
It was interesting to hear that organisations that were refreshed did well regardless of the weather, and especially with local and domestic audiences. We also heard those that thought outside of the box and developed unusual and creative partnerships did extremely well; for instance the Van Gogh Air BnB
At the end of the session delegates were challenged to shock their visitors and were given some great case studies to inspire us:
All of these projects saw the audience numbers grow dramatically and the average visitor age drop by 20 – 25 years.
After two long days I found the Museums + Heritage Show 2018 to be a wonderful experience. I came away both inspired and enthusiastic and it confirmed my thoughts that its a must for anyone working in the sector.
Museum Development North West
When MDNW gave me the opportunity to attend the Museums Association Conference I realised it’d be a fantastic opportunity for gaining inspiration and learning best museum practice. The themes of this year’s conference were Audience, Collections and Workforce; as you can imagine with the mix of topics available and a two day programme of exciting speakers it was a challenge to choose which seminars to attend. I found the conference app extremely useful for this acting as a one stop shop to the whole event. There was access to daily programmes, events and exhibitors information. The My Agenda function was really convenient and helped me to shortlist seminars, identify clashes and then decide on the programme best for me.
The Conference started with an extremely positive welcome from conference host Hilary Carty that really set the tone for the next two days, followed by speeches from the conference coordinators of the three main themes. Social purpose is becoming more central to museums and their collections and these themes get us thinking about how museums get audiences more active, participatory and engaged with our collections. Lemn Sissay’s opening poem presented how often the simplest tasks are complicated by bureaucracy and how truly ridiculous things can get. Some of the scenarios may have been exaggerated but they were things I have come across and despite being light-hearted and entertaining I’m sure it resonated with everyone in that Exchange Auditorium and it was good to know I wasn’t the only one.
I was really interested in looking at new ways to use the collection, especially to increase income generation. Like many sites, offsetting running costs with income is becoming increasingly important as funding becomes more stretched. Because of this I attended the seminar, Should Museums Sweat their Assets. The panel consisted of professionals from Royal Greenwich Museum, Norfolk Museum’s and the University of Aberdeen Museum, all very different types of organisations but it was established pretty quickly in the discussion that yes – museums need to do it as a necessity. The real question was how much should you sweat them? Some of the methods that they used were not suitable to apply to my museum, but they had certain principles that could be applied to any site. Firstly don’t be afraid to say no, if you don’t think an event or opportunity fits in with you branding then don’t do it. Secondly, make sure that anything you do is within your capacity to deliver. Finally and most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new things out. Takings risks can be good, sometimes failures happen (even at big venues!) You can learn from those failures but will gain much on the successes.
This leads nicely onto another very inspirational talk at the conference, the keynote speech from 14-18 NOW Director Jenny Waldmen and artist Jeremy Deller. Not only was the story behind the sensational We’re Here because We’re Here project fascinating but Jeremy’s talk around what motivated him to take on the commission was really interesting.it sounds like Art briefs set by museums can be so specific and full of guidelines that they can stunt creativity and put artists off. It was the open brief given to him by Jenny that convinced him to take on the role. What was her brief? ‘We don’t know what to do for the centenary of the Somme, do you have any ideas’ – as simple as that but it gave him the freedom to create something truly unique and relevant. Museums seem to have a reluctance to give ‘power’ to the unknown. This is something that came up in an earlier seminar on Youth Participation with a young artist Pat Farrell, but as Jenny advised partnerships only work when generosity is given from all sides and it seems that that includes artist freedom to explore. Assessing the 14-18 NOW commission, ok, the soldiers were not in the museums, museums did not get the initial footfall, but the visibility of such a project to regular public had a massive impact with 48% of audiences wanting to go an learn more which would not have been successful if not for external thinking.
Another excellent seminar was Belief Trumps Facts looking at where museums sit in a world of ‘fake news’ and ‘experts’ and as trusted institutions what is our role in ensuring that we provide a balanced narrative. One particularly interesting discussion by the panel surrounded if and how museums can ethically accept funds from organisations with specific agendas. How important it is to provide ‘real’ information, particularly when covering global or sensitive issues. In an era where there is less money available should institutions be turning down funds/sponsorship to run their programme. General thought by the panel was museums should be covering important issues like these but it was integral that museums researched the information to ensure it was a true story. Research the individuals first then look at the wider story and finally if it controversial then it needs to be much more rigorously researched.
Alongside the main programme there were other events running throughout the conference. Free workshops were offered to all museum professionals with a diverse and engaging programme running across both days. I luckily managed to get a seat in the Developing Innovative Events Programmes workshop with a focus on events around the Robots exhibition by the Science Museums Group. It was an interesting workshop but extremely busy. This could be applied to all of the workshops, as I couldn’t get into the others. I stood at the back trying to listen but with the noise of the exhibition hall I gave up. Feedback for next year, run these sessions in bigger spaces. This did give me an opportunity to experience some of the other fantastic offerings at the Conference put on by the Festival of Change. I adjourned from talks and museums to attended a relaxing life drawing class put on in exchange
Final thoughts on the conference; I really enjoyed the three days and the difficulty in choosing which seminars to attend was testament to how good the programmed sessions were. I attended thirteen sessions across Thursday and Friday and took away lots of ideas to go back to site with. The keynotes were wonderful, Lemn Sissay, Alejandra Naftal and the fantastic presentation by the wonderfully wobbly Francesca Martinez were the highlights of the conference. I would recommend any museums professional go to one of these lively events. Thanks MDNW.
Jenny Ingham, Museum Manager, Queen Street Mill Textile Museum
Trying to reflect on one of the most challenging and moving presentations I have encountered in my professional career has proved somewhat difficult. A week after the conference I found myself trying to convey to friends the experience of listening to Alejandra Naftal, Director and Co-Curator of the ESMA Memory Site Museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, talk about her museum and the ‘Disappeared’ of the Argentinian military dictatorship.
The museum is a former military building, which was used by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983 as a clandestine centre for detention, torture and extermination. Some 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ by the state. Children born in captivity were given away to military families, their real identities hidden from them. In a powerful and moving presentation, Alejandra explored the museums role in modern Argentinian society.
When it is easy to become bogged down in an institutional bubble and distracted by day to day concerns, the conference helped me reengage with the bigger questions facing our sector; why do museums matter, how do we engage with the challenges that face modern society and how do we better represent that society?
Focusing primarily on the Curatorial strand of the conference, I was very impressed with the panels I attended. They all made me look afresh at the work of my own museum and our collections. In the Legacies of Empire panel, Yasmin Khan delivered a very honest appraisal about the challenges and rewards of co-curation as museums seek to better represent the varied communities from which British society is drawn. Jonathan Wallis of Derby Museums too delivered an impressive illustration of how to engage with the often forgotten traces of Empire in local museum collections that are anything but local in nature.
Panels on the Fearful Object and Reanimating Collections of Disability History also provided other examples of best practise to aspire to. In the Fearful Object it was particularly interesting to see the shared challenges that were encountered in quite different settings and the support we can give each other as professionals. In Reanimating Collections of Disability, the combination of presentations on current exhibitions and a practical workshop element was particularly useful.
The wider provision of workshops was my one area of disappointment. These were frequently too full to allow people in and after some initial attempts I gave up. It seemed a shame to advertise these workshops, by all accounts very good, and then host them in quite small venues.
To end on this critical note would not be reflective though of what was a very positive experience. Since then I have been trying to take the time to look again at my own museum and reflect on how we can better represent the world around us. It may seem a long way from the subject matter of the ESMA Memory Site to that of the National Football Museum but there are fact close links. In reading more about the Disappeared I was reminded that the prisoners were allowed to listen to radio coverage of the 1978 World Cup Final. Argentina beat Holland in a stadium only a short distance from the ESMA Memory Site Museum, with the fans celebrations audible to those incarcerated inside. Thanks to Alejandra’s presentation, I now look at familiar items in our collection in a very different way.
Alexander Jackson, Collections Officer, The National Football Museum
There was a poignant moment in Lemn Sissay’s entertaining keynote speech at the start of this year’s MA conference when he asked the packed hall: “does it annoy you when other people call themselves curators?” As a first-time delegate, thanks to a funded place from Museum Development North West, I suddenly felt very aware of being an industry insider. In an auditorium of museum professionals who all seemed to look the same and dress the same, I felt like a member of an established community that is still coming to terms with opening up its rituals and practises to Britain’s diverse communities and more tellingly, developing a truly diverse workforce of its own.
One of the dominant themes of conference was museums’ drive to be radical, participatory and socially engaged in the spirit of the Museums Change Lives agenda. From MA Director Sharon Heal’s own Keynote speech to the MA Transformers Festival of Change, everybody was encouraged to think about how museums can build bridges in our divided society. There were many well-thought-out sessions illustrating how museums are forming meaningful partnerships with hard-to-reach communities. I particularly enjoyed the presentation ‘Dissenting Voices’ that looked at how organisations work to reflect the views of marginalised groups. This included Tom Turtle from the Homeless Museum and speakers from the People’s History Museum and Derry and Strabane District Council. I also found the session ‘Legacies of Empire’ extremely thought provoking. Jonathan Wallis from Derby Museum reminded us how much collecting emanates from colonialism and the centuries of cruelty and exploitation it relied on. Other speakers emphasised how far museums still need to go in terms of diversifying their own workforce, if they wish to do justice to stories of Empire and its painful legacy. Thanks should also go to Jean-François Manicom from the International Slavery Museum for showcasing such a stunning film.
On the second day of conference I attended excellent sessions on ‘Working with Refugees’ and ‘Reanimating Collections of Disabled Histories’ that called on museums to be far bolder in tackling these topical issues. As a profession we are undoubtedly working hard to change lives and it is fair to say that the many examples of innovative practise showcased at conference already add up to a substantial sum of parts. We were shown how brilliant projects that help people to gain self-respect and empowerment through collections can be created on a shoestring, but having said this, there is no room for complacency…
With austerity set to continue, there was much talk of the need for museums to widen their core activities to generate income. In the session ‘Should Museums Sweat their Assets’ the panel agreed that for most visitors a good café, shop, clean toilets and baby changing are as much part of the museum experience as the galleries and exhibits beyond the foyer. This made me think again about the emphasis being placed on representing diversity in our institutions. This diversity of race and class, so often missing amongst the predominantly white and middle-class professionals who came to conference is most often found in museum cleaning, catering and front of house teams. It would be good to see some of them at conference and hear their voices too.
Bill Longshaw, Collections Assistant, Gallery Oldham
I am sure I was not alone in spending a considerable amount of time trawling through the Museum Conference guide, trying to decide which seminars and workshops to attend. I felt that the amount on offer covered a real breadth of subjects; many of which were pertinent to my own situation. In the end I just couldn’t get to everything I earmarked, but nonetheless felt that I got an awful lot from the conference; perhaps even more than I had first anticipated. This included new ideas, some actual practical knowledge e.g. how to use a raspberry pi and also to an extent some reassurances that what we are doing here in my own workplace is in line with what others are doing.
On the whole it was some of the larger panel discussions that I got the most from and I managed to attend seven of them which were broadly connected to youth participation and learning, volunteers and health and wellbeing. I particularly enjoyed the format of these hour long sessions which included 3 speakers, a chair and the opportunity for questions at the end. I felt that the multiple speakers gave different perspectives; bringing the topics to life. For example, a seminar about youth participation included an artist who had been employed by the Whitworth. His honesty about the position and his initial cynicism was refreshing and added another dimension to more academic work carried out in this area. It was a useful reminder that everyone has ownership of museums and certainly made me ask what should museums be and who should they be for? We were posed the question ‘Who do we give the power to’? which opened the way for interesting discussion, debate and further questions for the panel.
One of the things I took away is that it is ok and even encouraged to take a risk. Listening to ‘Out of the Classroom’ (a schools project which took place in Wales and involved taking the reception classes into a museum for 5 weeks) and to Funders in Conversation (HLF, Esmee Fairburn, Arts Fund and Hamlyn Foundation), particularly highlighted this. I’ve already quoted some of the things that were said by the funding directors in my own workplace. Some of these large funders can seem like massive faceless bodies and so actually seeing and hearing these directors speak did make them seem more personable and we were given some useful practical tips for the applications too. I now have many notes to refer back to and even looking at them now is reminding me of all of the ways in which I may be able to implement ideas in my own setting.
Health and wellbeing has also become a topic close to my heart over recent years and finding out about the opportunities to feed into the research, as well as the various networks out there was a real insight. Listening to people involved in the ‘It’s not so grim up north’, project again was brought to life by the inclusion of not only the academics evaluating the work, but by one of the participants who has now gone on to volunteer for the project, as well as a staff member involved in implementing the project giving us a well rounded examination of it.
I also enjoyed being able to hear from international speakers such as Alejandra Naftal who spoke about the ESMA memory site. Although our challenges are vastly different, it was a great reminder that my organisation is not in isolation and there are so many other museums out there that we can approach for help and advice.
I did manage to have a look around the exhibitor stands although I found this perhaps to be the most daunting aspect of the conference. This was because coming from an organisation with little money I was conscious of trying not to ‘waste’ peoples times. Nonetheless it was good to keep an eye on who is out there and could possibly be approached in the future. Similarly I did go to some of the workshop sessions and found them useful to varying degrees. A top tip would be to get there in plenty of time if you desperately want to see one and don’t try to dash from a previous session as you may end up right at the back struggling to hear or encouraged to go right to the front where you will have to sit on the floor.
I am very grateful to Museums Development North West for the opportunity to attend my first Museums Association Conference. I have plenty of notes, ideas and contacts to chase up and really appreciated the opportunity to network and see the bigger picture as it were. All in all a pretty inspiring two days.
Kate Dobson, Museum Manager, Nantwich Museum
I was lucky enough to have a place funded by Museum Development North West so I could attend the Museums Association conference for the first time. I’m so glad that I took up this opportunity as it was a very different experience to what I had imagined and certainly well worthwhile for a broad-ranging generalist museum role such as my own.
There was certainly a wide variety of workshops and presentations to attend. I chose to attend mostly the sessions which offered real case studies and practical advice. Dudley Canal & Tunnel Trust gave one of the best workshops of this type that I’ve ever attended, exploring ways to improve access without any budget at all, packed with lots of ideas to immediately take away and use. The team behind the excellent ‘My Primary School Is At The Museum’ project shared their experiences in a very open, honest and practical way which has really encouraged me to work towards trying something with a long term school residency at my museum.
The conference certainly is the definitive hub for our sector. It was great to catch up with colleagues who I hadn’t seen for years, along with peers who I’d never met before, but share the same challenges and then come away with some new ideas and plans for shared projects at the end of the chat. The exhibitors’ stalls were also a good way to discover new innovations and chat through plans for developments.
I thought it was worth trying out some of the more esoteric presentations in the main auditorium to really get a broader feel of the conference, but found them a bit frustrating as there seems to be a disconnect between the larger, and much better resourced, museums and the sort of heritage world I experience in my everyday work, so I headed off to try more of the seminars elsewhere. I’m glad I did as I found the session “The Fearful Object” a thoroughly fascinating and thought-provoking presentation. Various museums shared their experiences of working with significant objects in their collections that had the power to offend, upset or challenge visitors. They discussed the way they had approached the display of such artefacts, and why it is often better to address these difficult subjects to give a deeper understanding of our stories, but all agreed that this had to be done in a way that the visitors gained a full appreciation of the context they came from. Nathaniel Hepburn, when discussing his experiences at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft used two phrases which stuck in my head; “Just because some voices shout loudly, it doesn’t mean they are right.”, and then, “When you need help, ask. The sector will hold you”. These summed up for me the sense of inspiration and solidarity which I took away from the conference.
Tom Hughes, Collections & Audience Officer at Port Sunlight Village Trust and Chair of Museums of Cheshire.
Museum Development North West kindly funded me to attend the Museums Association Conference in Manchester, this was the first time I’d attended. The conference was very beneficial for a number of reasons, most importantly it was a great opportunity to network with colleagues old and new. I had some really exciting positive conversations with key decision makers at a number of museums, with a large number of leads for myself and team to follow up on.
The Museums Association Conference gave that much needed space to explore new ideas with a variety of organisations in a way simply not possible in our day-to-day working. As a Greater Manchester based organisation, I also found the fact the conference was in Manchester meant that there was a more intense focus on the role of heritage institutions within our city region. It was particularly interesting to hear from Donna Hall, CEO of Wigan Council and the lead for Culture in GMCA. Similarly, Lemn Sissay’s keynote was one of the most entertaining and thought provoking I’ve heard, especially relevant due to his role as Chancellor at the University of Manchester.
There were a number of other fascinating sessions which I attended about the national picture of museums and heritage institutions. Specifically, hearing directly from Neil Mendoza about his independent review of museums and the subsequent grilling from Ian Blatchford so soon after the publication of the report was absolutely invaluable. Likewise, the in conversation with the leads at HLF, Esme Fairburn and Paul Hamlyn Foundation in the light of this review gave important insight to the sector and the role of funders in supporting organisations.
I’m still piecing my way through reams of notes and expect to be following up on conversations for many weeks to come, but certainly would recommend anyone working in the museums sector to attend this annual event.
Tom Besford, Touchstones Rochdale
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
Thanks to Museum Development North West I had the opportunity to attend the Museums Association (MA) conference which this year was hosted in Glasgow. The conference was held at the Scottish Exhibition Centre from 7th-9th November and the three themes the conference focused on were Being Brave: Courage, Innovation and Risk Taking, People and Places: Stories, Communities & Collections and Health and Wellbeing: Impact, Evidence and Delivery. As a first time delegate I was a little apprehensive about attending but starting with the first time delegates’ breakfast on the Monday morning soon settled any fears. It’s early (7.45am) but I’d definitely recommend going as it’s a great opportunity to network as well as meet MA board members and representatives.
The conference programme included many interesting sessions that I would have loved to attend but clashes on concurrent sessions meant I had to decide one which sessions would be most useful. One of the most interesting and engaging sessions I attended was about getting to grips with gender and using the ‘F-Word’ in museums. This session focused on how women’s museums and collections are for everybody and that museums and other organisations can go some way in redressing the invisibility of women’s lives and achievements in public spaces through their work. The Women’s Museum in Denmark gave a simple example of how they have done this through putting female perspectives first by using the phrase ‘girls and boys’ rather than ‘boys and girls’. The session ended with questions from the floor and the audience voted in favour of one organisation covering up all the male images in their building when they focus on women’s history and suffrage next year (being brave in action!). This really gave me food for thought about how we represent gender within our collections and displays and is something I am going to reflect on over the coming months.
Another session titled ‘Adapt or Die? discussed the future of the National Media Museum in Bradford and gave an excellent insight in to how museums are having to change the way they do things and step outside their comfort zone in order to survive. There were some great top tips that came out of this session which were to ensure you have a strong collecting policy so you don’t lose your sense of purpose, be open about what you are doing and ensure public understanding of the language we use to talk about disposals and transfers and finally have the courage to change and tackle policy. If you were wondering where in all of this there was time to also check out what Glasgow’s Museums had to offer, the evening drinks receptions allowed us the opportunity to see the wonderful Riverside Museum and Scotland’s oldest museum the Hunterian. The Wednesday also provided a full programme of tours to different museums from which I chose the Tenement House. The tenement was a beautifully preserved, step back in time piece of history which I could contrast and compare with how we interpret our set of cottages here at the museum.
Overall the conference gives you the time to step back and reflect on the bigger picture and the issues that are facing our sector, something you rarely get to do on a day to day basis. The Being Brave strand of the conference really struck a chord with me when Sacha Coward said ‘If you haven’t got LGBT histories in your collection, it’s because you haven’t found them yet’. I now want to know more about all aspects of our collection and the hidden histories they might contain so that we can tell new stories from different perspectives about the history of the inland waterways – just to find the time to do it!
Zofia Kufeldt, Collections & Exhibitions Assistant, National Waterways Museum