Always pleased to come to the Museum of London at the start of October for the annual Museum Ideas conference, which always manages to get some of the best speakers, sharing new work, often repeated at other conferences across the next twelve months (or longer). This year proved no exception.
Creative Disruption from the Inside Out
The day started with a provocative keynote from Kaywin Feldman, Director of the Minneapolis Museum of Art (which I will definitely be visiting when I head to Minneapolis for #MCN2105 in November – but it looks cold). Kaywin talked about disrupting an organisation, shaking up their established rhythm which often leaves us working silos. Kaywin is initiating organisational change to break down the silos in her museum and place the audience at the centre of everyone’s job description – not just the education officers. Kaywin was inspired by the working methodologies of contemporary artists and how they do not work within boundaries but across cities, art forms and communication mediums. She talked about encouraging innovation within the organisation, with many of the best ideas coming from the fringes (and the grumpy, but they are often ignored because they are so grumpy). She also talked about making sure that teams have a variety of skills, not just ideas people… At Minneapolis Museum of Art they have also tried initiatives like giving staff 20% of their time to exploring new ideas and side projects – very Google-esque, but a useful tool. They encourage their staff not to ask for permission, but be proactive self actualises.
Kaywin made interesting suggestions about ‘questioning your dominant logic’. Why do you hold your core beliefs and are they still relevant? Kaywin gave the example of getting rid of their members magazine, which they printed quarterly, was expensive and took time, and was limiting because it didn’t allow them to take advantage of last minutes speakers because ‘it didn’t make the magazine. They abolished their magazine 4 years ago and only had one complaint (Kaywin speculated that there would have been more, except most people didn’t notice because they didn’t read the magazine anyway).
Kaywin also shared an initiative that the Minneapolis Museum of Art does every ten years when anyone can bring in a work of art and they will display it, as long as it is less than one square foot. The image below shows one if just six galleries from the most recent show. This kind of initiative disrupts the idea that it takes an expert to recognise worthwhile art.
She also told us about Van Grow, a protect to grow their most famous Van Gough in a field with good visibility for planes landing at the airport – just cool.
The Good of Being Different in a Time of Sameness
The second highlight of the morning for me was Mike Sarna, Director of Collections and Public Engagement at Royal Museums Greenwich. I enjoyed Mike’s talk last year when he spoke about a forensic exhibition of decomposing pigs at a previous organisation in America. This year Mike talked about a one year Clore funded project that allowed him to investigate innovative practice in museums around the world. To get to this innovation he had to wade through a lot of sameness, that both penetrates our every day lives (you news, your morning coffee, your ‘uniform’) and our museums – what we collect, how we display it, and how we talk to and engage audiences. Some of his authority results from ideas of the museum holding authority and having to live up to that, and ideas of best practice.
Mike took us through some examples of innovative museum practice that he did encounter. You can read about how these in his Museum ID Magazine article.
Museum in Transition: The Romance and Science of Re-imaging
Setting out to be provocative, Rose Hiscock, Director, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, looked to the past rather than future for inspiration. Founded in the 1890s, like many institutions in the wake of the great expo, they are an active experimental museum, even until recently owning a eucalyptus farm to investigate its medicinal applications, and this runs through all its activity – they mash things up, crossing traditional artistic and commercial lines, find new partnerships, and take the best of how other sectors work as learned through these partnerships and incorporate this into their own working. A large institution, it is difficult not to work in silos – incorporating these ways of working is a challenge.
Rose needed to put these ways of working into practice. Rose shared her experience of taking on the directorship at MAAS three years ago, facing the major challenge that the museum was spending its full budget on staffing, leaving no funds for exhibitions and programmes. Going through a major restructure, they cut staffing by a third and came up with a new vision. They were then struck again, with the government deciding to sell their museum building and with them asked to move to another space in the city. It is only through this kind of innovative thinking that MAAS can reimagine itself for its new existence. But Rose sees this as an opportunity to really question what the museum is for, it’s purpose and values – with a blank slate, how will they build themselves (and not just recreate their old museum in a new spa).
True to her word, Rose said that she doesn’t employ people who have done a museum studies course because they learn to say no, and they want people who say yes. Now that is provocative…
Immersive Participatory Theatre in Museums
Just before lunch Peter Higgins, Enrichment Director, Punchdrunk, shared his passion for inspiring creativity through immersive theatre. Punchdrunk specialise in immersive, particapatory theatre. Peter was inspired by the company in a previous life as a teacher when he saw the transformative impact attending these events had on his students. He wanted to investigate harnessing this to inspire young people – Punchdrunk Enrichment was born. Peter shared the challenge of delivering this kind of theatre in a museum space, in this case the Znational Maritime Museum. Two year lead in time they delivered up to ten shows a day seven days a week, delivering more than 1,000 shows in 5 months. I can’t hope to reflect Peter’s enthusiasm and how amazing the experience students had in the museum – make believe come to life!
Hard questions were asked on whether this type of experience moves museums towards ‘visitor attractions’ rather than museums – a path that we would not want for our museums, but it seems like this immersive experience complements and enhances the museum experience, seeding enthusiasm and creating a personal connection with the objects they will later encounter, only a positive.
Cosmonauts & Alexander McQueen
After lunch we were treated to a few case studies of ambitious projects and museums breaking down barriers between themselves and their ambitious. The Science Museum shared the challenge of Cosmonauts for which they had to transport a large Russian space capsule (asbestos infected) – red tape isn’t the word! But it was important to their vision so they made it possible. This was followed by a talk from the V&A on staging the Alexander McQueen exhibition. Transporting the Met’s exhibition which they expanded to highlight London as the source of his early inspiratio, and also played on lighting, music and backdrops to communicate the drama of a McQueen fashion show. Plus a master class on managing the huge demand for the exhibition. It was very inspiring in terms of being more ambitious in my own thinking.
Collection Connections: Exploring Online Heritage Outreach in Africa
As a data addict myself, I found myself fascinated by Victoria Suzman’s talk about the African Rock Art Image Project at the British Museum. The BM were looking at engaging African audiences with their new rock art photography collection. To do this the embarked on some significant research into who their African audiences and how they engage online. Internet speeds are significantly slower in Africa than in Europe, and vary greatly across the country – unsurprisingly internet usage is much lower in countries where connections are slow and expensive. Even in African countries with relatively fast connections, the image rich webpages we take for granted can be frustrating to access. Consequently the BM had to make changes to how images are displayed to increase speeds for these key audiences. Internet limits also influence significantly which social media platforms are popular in countries (image rich platforms like tumblr over twitter) and the project had to integrate thus into their social media strategy for the project. They also looked at which plug ins are popular, or more importantly not used, in key target countries (such as searchlight) to ensure web content was not being presented in formats which key audiences could not use.
We talk a lot about understanding digital audiences these days, collecting data in the hope of understanding something about who they are, what they need, and whether they were successfully able to complete tasks on our site, how many people see our content on social media, whether they ‘interact’ with that content and what that means. I thought that this was a great practical example of usefully applying our preoccupation with data.
A Sense of Community
The final session of the day focused on placing museums within their community, from a very international perspective. Joshua Gorman spoke about the history of making the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington which was disconnected from its local black community, and the struggle of balancing traditional curatorial ‘professionalism’ and genuine community partnership. Saane Houby-Nielsen spoke about the struggle of the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm to understand its role in a Sweden which has been changing rapidly. Saane noted that the museum is located in one of the fasted growing tourism hotspots in Stockholm, and that many tourist expectations are being set by contemporary literature, rather than the Stockholm of the museum’s traditional displays. In the final talk Daryl Karp spoke about creating the Museum of Australian Democracy, and communicating the living democracy in a museum setting while doing it justice.
After these conferences where you hear about the fantastic work happening elsewhere in the sector, you are left asking so what for me? Well… Be bold, take the time to think outside the box and thoroughly explore innovative ideas, and if they are worth doing and speak to your vision and values, don’t let barriers prevent you from realising your goal. Finally find inspiration in new partnerships, whether they be across the silos of your organisation, or beyond.