Museums Australia Victoria Conference at the University of Ballarat
Last week Ballarat hosted the inaugural state conference for the Victorian branch of Museums Australia. It was great to have the event in our regional town and a good initiative to support those from smaller regional organisations to attend this kind of professional development opportunity.
I attended the first day of the two-day conference, which included six keynote presentations, a parallel session and a workshop. I was also one of a small, but dedicated, group of tweeters. Big twitterers included: @Maggiwithoutane @LMBourke and @MeganSheehy who helped to keep the conversation robust.
Disasters and the role of cultural organisations
There was a definite theme that encompassed many of the day’s speakers and that was one of disasters and disaster recovery. While the stories of what happened were shocking, there was a positive message to be taken from them; that cultural organisations can greatly assist in the healing process. The first keynote speakers were Dr Robin Hurst (presenting Dr Patrick Greene’s paper), Toshimitsu Tanaka (Osaka City Government), and Bob Parker (Mayor of Christchurch). They each had tales of disaster to tell.
Patrick Greene’s paper discussed his experience of both the 1996 Manchester City Bombing and the Black Saturday bush fires here in Victoria. Patrick discussed both museum’s desire to respond to the needs of the community and how they found a place by providing opportunities for those affected to express their shock and grief, and to reflect on the experience. He specifically discussed Museum Victoria’s difficult role to collect items that told the story of the fires.
Toshimitsu Tanaka gave us an appreciation of the devastating extent of last year’s earthquake and tsunami, and provided a broad look at Japan’s disaster preparation and response. I felt I gained a real insight into the complexities of attempting disaster prevention and also the role of education in supporting one of the key methods of survival for those who had been in the disaster zone: self help processes. Toshimitsu’s talk also made me reflect on what I had heard last year at the MA national conference about how museums were trying to not only salvage and restore items, but also collect and leave items whose damage told the story of the disaster.
Bob Parker was a very charismatic and engaging speaker who was clearly passionate about supporting Christchurch and sharing their story so that others may learn from it. I was very moved by his storytelling, which reminded me of the importance of good interpretelling in sharing stories, another topic discussed at last year’s national conference. Bob also used video as a very effective means of giving us a deeper understanding of what it was like to experience the earthquake. He spoke about the power of sharing a common emotion: when thousands of people all think they are going to die, that is a very powerful bond. His main message was in the importance of preparing infrastructure and storage to withstand natural disasters as his sees our institutions as important keepers of history. In his words:
“Our lives are a small moment in geological time, but if we make our buildings well-prepared for disasters our priceless artifacts can stand for the future.”
Engaging Youth Audiences
I attended the parallel session about engaging Youth Audiences in museums. The three speakers were Robert Heather from the State Library of Victoria, Marg Sinott from Warrnambool Art Gallery, and Tim Sullivan, my manager here at Sovereign Hill. As I have worked at two of those institutions, many of the ideas and programs were not new to me. But I thought they all delivered important messages worth sharing.
Robert Heather spoke in particular about the development of the Look! exhibition of picture book illustrations. This was the first exhibition the Library had designed specifically for children and he highlighted some of the key issues to consider when developing exhibitions for children, including: hanging pictures at a lower height, more accessible label text, spaces to share and participate and engaging complimentary events. I would argue, however, that many of those features are valuable for all audiences.
Marg Sinott discussed some of the steps Warrnambool Art Gallery were doing to attract younger audiences. These include a Family Fun Day and the Gallery’s major involvement in the Fun4Kids festival. I was particularly interested in their efforts to engage teens in volunteering and participation – they have around 250 teen volunteers helping during the festival.
Tim Sullivan presented two pieces of research that have been recently completed about Learning in Museums, with particular reference to experiences here at Sovereign Hill. One of the papers was written by Dr Lynda Kelly at the Australian Museum and it highlights the multi-faceted nature of learning experiences in museums, including the important role the social experience plays in learning. The other paper was written by Dr Margaret Zeegers from the University of Ballarat and particularly focusses on the two-day costumed schools program, including the emotional experience and the powerful recall ability participants have. I felt the key message from these papers was that students’ (and indeed all visitor’s) emotional engagement is one of the critical aspects of a successful visit to a cultural institution.
Leadership in Regional Arts
The afternoon’s keynote session was entitled ‘Leadership in Regional Arts’ but I’m not sure that name did the speakers justice. Bonnie Fagan from the University of Ballarat provided some very useful information about Registered Aboriginal Parties and the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register. She discussed the role of the Registered Aboriginal Parties and how institutions can contact them for support to understand proper display and registration of Aboriginal items in their collection and she highlighted the important of sensitivity around potentially sacred objects.
Frances Lindsay from the National Gallery of Victoria presented some interesting points about working in the ‘Age of Challenge’. She discussed social media and gave an example of a recent exhibition by Ron Muick who allowed photography in his exhibition, which resulted in massive social media sharing, leading to a boost in NGVs social media community and a full-page spread in the English Guardian. Her message from this was:
“let the public come in and photograph your exhibition, it is one of the most effective ways you can market your museum”
In keeping with the morning’s keynotes the last paper was from Janet Schultz who detailed the experience of Marysville Historical Society following the Black Saturday bushfires. They faced massive challenges following the fires and the loss of their collection, including managing a range of grief responses people were experiencing. Janet spoke of the emergency service personal who said that the arts played the most significant role in recovery; people need to be supported to say what they need to say about the experience.
Digitisation on a budget
Particularly in the light of discussions about disaster response and the loss of collections, the afternoon’s workshop – a ‘how to’ guide for low budget digitisation – was very timely. Daniel Wilksch from the Public Records Office of Victoria and Peta Knott from Museum Victoria provided useful and practical ideas for how small organisations can begin to digitise their collections. Much of what was covered about how to digitise is available on the PROV website. Peta also introduced Victorian Collections as an online cataloguing tool that provides a great place for small Victorian organisations to house their digital collections.
Overall it was a day full of useful ideas and sharing across the sector. I hope these local regional conferences continue.
Update 18/04: there have been a couple of other blog posts about the event including one by Catalouging in Gippsland. There is also a great post on the Culture Victoria blog of their talk about Museums in Social Media and the Web – this talk was on Friday when I could not attend. But it looks like a broad summary of what has been happening in the field. I highly recommend the Let’s Get Real report mentioned and Koven Smith’s talk. I also recommend the Horizon Report (Museum Edition) as a good place to develop an understanding of where we are heading.