Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Museums Association‘s annual conference as part of the MA Transformers programme, in which I am currently participating. Not only did this make it affordable for my organsation, but it was great for networking as I had 18 new contacts from across the sector both geographically and in terms of discipline to introduce me to a new contacts (over lots of wine!). I definitely found the networking much more valuable this year than in the previous year when my network was much more limited.
Day 1 HIGHLIGHTS
I was disappointed that the Digital Futures: Museum Websites session was in a very small (and difficult to find) room and was completely full by the time I – and quite a number of other colleagues – reached the room. But I got my digital fix for the conference down in the Museums Practice area in the Exhibition Hall – which also had quite a few interesting digital vendors.
The highlight was a presentation from Peel Interactive about their work with Colchester Castle. They developed a number of onsite interactives delivered in a really smart way that enhances the object rather than focussing on the technology for its own sake – a principle we should all live by and often forget in our excitement over new tech. A particularly nice example was using AR with one of the Roman pots to bring the depicted fighting figures alive in their battle. This seemed like exactly the type of thing that would draw in the interest of younger audiences, and then give the museum the opportunity to tell more of the object’s story. Check out the video below for a bit of a taste.
Next was a session on the opportunities presented by academic partnerships with our own Oxford colleague Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow in the Humanities Division. He was joined by Leonie Hannan, Teaching Fellow at UCL Museums and Collections, and Katie Stamps, Research Assistant at Newcastle University in a session chaired by Jeff Cowton from the Wordsworth Trust discussing the benefits of this kind of collaboration to both academic and museums partners, new ways that we can build relationships, and how to get the most out of them once they are in place.
A key message was that museums need to carefully value their role and their needs in the relationship – they are not just services to be used by academics, they add considerable value and need to ensure that their own priorities are met. Also, as universities increasingly invest in knowledge exchange fellows (and the many other titles of this post) who are charged with building relationships between academics and external sectors, these individuals need to network more so that they are in a position to hear about and create opportunities: it seemed that a small network already began to form on the day.
Keynote: Antonio Vieira, Museu da Mare
The final keynote on day one was an inspirational and emotional talk from Antonio Vieira about setting up a Museum in the Mare region of Rio de Janiero, a region of favelas over the water and an area of poverty and violence. The museum placed a value on the history of the community that had previously not been celebrated and seen as a slum, and provided a focus point for young people to gain a greater understanding of the struggles their parents went through, and how this impacts their lives today.
It was inspirational how the community built this museum from scratch, against all the odds, but extremely emotionally testing when at the end of his talk Antonio revealed that the owners of the property in which the museum is currently housed are demanding that it be vacated, and the museum removed – as if you could just pack away all that history, work and passion. Antonio and his colleagues are fighting this development, and we are all left wondering if there is anything that we can do?
DAY 2 HIGHLIGHTS
Art & Science of Curation
Day 2 kicked off to a good start with the Art and Science of Curation session chaired by Liz Hide from Cambridge University Museums introducing provocations from Katy Barrett, Royal Museums Greenwich, Jenny Powell, Kettle’s Yard, and Mark Carnall from the Grant Museum of Zoology about what curation means to them. This led into a lively debate about the difference between art and science curators, whether curators should always be experts, if they should be experts on objects or experts on people, the importance of diversity, silos vs open projects, etc. Check out the storify for the session here.
In a lively presentation, Paul Clifford from the Museum of London talked about the value of ‘making’ as a learning process – as opposed to engaging through digital kit like iPads. He gave some absolutely fascinating examples of this kind of learning in action at the Museum of London with kids making static electricity and moss powered responsive posters and Roman helmets that tell you about themselves when you put them on! Great examples of students learning digital things by making them, rather than on an iPad – definitely some food for thought and a bit of fun at the end as we tried to replicate some of the student projects.
The last session for me was the one organised by the Transformers programme committee, looking at bringing about radical organisational change. Chaired by Hilary Carty, she introduced extremely interesting provocations from Kim Thomas from the BBC and Hilary Jennings, a consultant linked with the Happy Museum. Kim told the story of how they used their position of trust with the public to tell the story of female genital mutilation in a 2 part episode of Casualty, one of those pre-9pm shows that can make telling these types of stories quite a challenge. She explained the care they took, but how it was important to them to tell the story to a new audience. Hilary addressed the question of the role of museums in the wellbeing of both society and the planet. We Transformers then facilitated discussions on our tables about what lessons these had for us in our organisations. I was pleased to get involved, and have a new respect for session facilitators. Thanks also to Jess Turtle, the programme coordinator, for all her work.
Overall a thoroughly enjoyable 2.5 days in Cardiff at the Millennium Centre, well worthy of the 125th anniversary of the Museums Association. I had a wonderful time with old friends and new colleagues and have lots of great ideas to follow up on back in the office – now just to find the time!!