This year I was fortunate enough to attend my first Museums Association conference, in Liverpool on 11-12 November. A smorgasbord of thought provoking talks and networking opportunities, the two and a half day conference (including the ‘tweet up’ and networking drinks on the Sunday night) have provided inspiration and food for thought.
There were five very different keynotes over the two main conference days, from Ricardo Brodsky, director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile; Helen Goodman, Shadow Culture Minister; David Anderson, President of the Museums Association; Lucy Worsley, broadcaster and Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and Curt Watt, performance poet, rapper and author.
Two of these were particular highlights for me, for very different reasons.
The Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, explained the impetus behind the establishment of the museum as a moral reparation project for the victims of the country’s dictatorship and how the museum approaches a controversial issue in the society where the story is still alive. Clearly passionate about his museum and his mission, it was impossible not to get swept up as he told the story of his country’s 9/11, 1973 when Augusto Pinochet seized power for the democratically elected Socialist government.
Taking the slot after lunch on the second day, Lucy Worlsey offered some light relief from a heavy two days of talks. Delivered with pizzas, and illustrated with a reel from her 20 available hours of broadcast television, as well as offering light afternoon relief, Lucy provided some serious insight into the value and pitfalls of working in television, covering territory not dissimilar from our recent venue hire event, but with additional insights into developing a show yourself, from pitching the idea, to dealing with expert contributors, and coming to terms with the fact you do not have editorial control.
Most of the conference sessions were pulled together around three themes, which ran concurrently, and delegates were encouraged to pick a theme to follow throughout the conference. On offer:
The Therapeutic Museum Coordinated by Carol Rogers, Executive Director, Education, Communities and Visitors, National Museums Liverpool, this strand looked at wellbeing. Accepting that wellbeing and mental health are as important to quality of life and life expectancy as physical health, the strand looked at the way museums contributed to the national wellbeing agenda, the importance of partnerships, and how museums can demonstrate their impact in this area.
Tomorrow’s World Coordinated by Iain Watson, Director, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, this strand explored how museums can learn from what is happening now to plan successful futures, not only over the next few years, but taking the lead from futurologists to create a vision of museums for our grandchildren and great grandchildren. Sessions looked at technology, but also the workforce of the future, and discussed what the purpose of future museums could be.
The Emotional Museum Coordinated by David Fleming, Director, National Museums Liverpool, this strand looked at how museums can become places were emotions are encouraged, where stories are told, and where a visceral response is preferable to an intellectual one – more like a place of worship.
I chose for myself the Tomorrow’s World strand, which kicked off in its first session with a crash course on how to approach the practice or futurology, from Futurologist and Director Of Things Immaterial, Nick Price. Grab a snippet of the type of thing we heard in the video below.
He was followed by the new Director for Museums for Arts Council England, John Orna-Ornstein, who started with some futurologist predictions of his own.
John then suggested some characteristics for a future ready museum:
- Clear purpose
- The real thing
- Dialogue and creativity
- Audience focus
- Working with others
- Fleet of foot and risk-taking
The highlight of this strand for me was the Digital Democracy session chaired by Mark Macleod from the Infirmary Museum, University of Worcester and Uta Hinrichs, Research Fellow at St Andrews University.
The session started with Ross Parry looking at the idea of participatory media in the past, making four definitive statements in 8 minutes:
- Museums have always been participative.
- Furthermore this participation has always relied on media.
- And yet, the forms and aims of this participation and these media have remained historically and culturally contingent.
- Consequently, it is new formulations and expectation of participation and media (rather than simply the idea of them) that challenge the museums today.
Next John Ferry, Digital and New Media Manager, Glasgow Museums, took us into the present with a look at current participative approaches in Glasgow Museums. In particular he looked at how digital has been used at Riverside Museum where they have over 90 large touchscreens which visitors can use to engage with the collections and additional content, and where they have developed a bespoke CMS ‘Story Planner’ to manage their extensive content.
The last speaker in this session was Jussi Angelesleva from ART+COM in Germany. As he took us through a dizzying array of example of some of the work his company has done, he had several key messages:
- Interactives should be used to tell museum stories, but should never become more important than the stories themselves
- Digital can be used both to provide archive information to experts and present information to the public, but should never be used to do both
- The need to consider what information is best to deliver in gallery, and what should be delivered remotely online
- Whatever experience provided in the museum/gallery should be something that we can’t experience at home!
Highlights of his talk were the work ART+COM have done at Berlin’s Natural History Museum where dinosaurs are brought to life for visitors through Jurascopes. Key to this is, that although the technology behind the interactive is highly sophisticated, for the visitor the experience is simple, and there are no barriers to engagement or distractions from the collections.
A round up of this session from the presenters is available here (or soon will be!).