The last day of the 2018 Museums Galleries Australia conference. There were some great ideas and discussions and museum education had some shining moments…
Opening Plenary – The arts of disruption and diplomacy
Angelita Teo – Director, National Museum of Singapore
Angelita began the day sharing stories from projects at the National Museum of Singapore. She talked about the museum’s capacity to shape collective memory and the challenges of presenting war history, particularly when it is still raw and complex. For war history exhibitions they presented stories from living veterans who were heavily involved in the process.
They also engaged school groups and children in the process of gathering and presenting stories. They taught the students about collecting oral histories and then had them gather stories from their own families. This had many positive outcomes. Including the example of a boy who did not have a strong relationship with his grandfather but through this project learnt so much about him, they have a stronger relationship and his grandfather was very proud. Another example was a class of girls who worked alongside their mothers to interview elderly residents – their mothers acted as translators for in the varying dialects and together they bridged a social and cultural gap.
Dr Gerard Vaughn, National Gallery Australia – Disruption, innovation and diplomacy
Gerard’s talk focused on the governing of GLAM organisations. Primarily his discussion focused around funding and the associated challenges.
Running a complex organisation has rather a lot to do with money.
He talked about the challenges of working out how to keep the ship afloat in the context of diminishing operating funding. A lot of a director’s time is spent fundraising. Operating grants are under a lot of pressure and this is a world-wide problem – NGAs government funding was the same this year as it was in 2007. He argued that as a sector what we want is an end to the efficiency dividend because we have no more efficiencies to find. We are going to have to cut programs and other services.
Gerard advocated for the work we do – GLAM’s are places for dreams; they change people’s lives. We are often small organisations and everyone is a specialist. We need new ways to measure impact and evaluate quality, to go beyond quantitative KPIs. A museum visit can be more than a numbered visit. It can be inspiring, spiritual, life-changing….
Furthermore he argued that mass cultural tourism is not necessarily a good thing. We need a new way to get the message across as to why museums are important, essential. New ways to measure cultural outcomes. A challenge for us all!
During question time, my former colleague Samantha Rutter brought to the front the important work of museum educators. Sam made a comment…
It would be easier to convince politicians and others of the importance of museums if you gave them a meaningful experience as children.
I followed with a question for Angelita: I said that, in my experience as a museum educator, school groups can be perceived by staff as a nuisance – they are noisy in libraries, messy in galleries and don’t spend much in the gift shop – so I’m interested in how your institution approached working with schools for developing exhibition content and whether that translated to more meaningful visits and any change in perspective among museum staff?
Angelita commented on her museum employing extra staff to make groups smaller and changing opening hours to have access at different times. But I was more curious about any perspective shift in museum staff after engaging school groups so effectively in development, also if it reflected any changes in their broader education programming.
Concurrent Session – My beautiful career, interrupted
This was a closed session, so I will only speak broadly and briefly. It was frank, fascinating and frightening. The speakers shared their difficult personal experiences in the sector and shared openly their feelings of isolation and despair.
It reminded those present of the challenges we can face working in this sector at the mercy of funding bodies, certainly when trying to create change. The audience was also very vocal about the need to strengthen support networks across the sector to better support each other during difficult times.
Plenary – Creative Troublemakers
Shonagh Marshall, Independent Curator – Utopia exhibition at Somerset House
Shonagh talked about he work developing the exhibition Utopian Voices, Here and Now as part of the Utopia project, which she described as a countercultre expression. Shonagh worked with a range of artists to explore their ideas about topics such as sexuality and race.
She spoke about engaging young people and mused about older people she worked with critiquing that young people are not politically/socially active. Her amusing comment was they are doing things, they just aren’t inviting us.
Shonagh also offered some of her own critical reflections about the exhibition. She said that it had been over ambitious and recalled the experience of reading back through her correspondence and discovering how many ideas had not come to fruition. Many ideas simply did not have the funding. Some artists did not feel happy with the project and pulled out, others experienced great success following on from the exhibition.
My thoughts would that it is better to be over ambitious and relinquish projects as you need to, rather than holding back due to perceived limitations.
Andrea Cunningham, Head of Learning, V&A Museum of Childhood – Seen and heard: the disruptive influence of children.
Andrea introduced her museum the V&A Museum of Childhood and some of the projects that had undertaken to engage children in meaningful ways. As a museum educator it was an exciting and inspiring presentation.
Everyone (is, or) was once a child – the collection is relevant and accessible. Andrea talked about the history of the museum: it’s connection to the main V&A museum and how it evolved to specifically being a Museum of Childhood.
In 2015 they had a review and planning process in which they resolved there was an absence of children’s voices and a lack of contemporary content. Co-creating had only happened with the learning team. The major idea was democratising the museum.
The aim was to have ongoing engagement with children, rather than a one off event. Andrea talked about a range of projects they undertook to increase children’s active involvement and presence in the museum. They approached their neighbourhood school to work directly with as they saw it as the easiest way to engage with children.
Artists In Residence – this project had children take on the role of artists in residence (complete with staff passes – which they loved!). They valued the trust invested in them. They created exhibitions of objects important to their childhood, complete with portrait photos. They had input in the installation and even created their own feedback forms.
Kids in Museums Takeover Day – they got involved in the national Takeover Day program. They wrote job descriptions for all roles in the museum. The children wrote applications, interviewed and then went though training with their adult counterpart. They did everything – director, shop, tours, running education programs. She conceded that in some ways it was just a publicity stunt. But also said that more than anything else they had done, it engaged the whole staff in working collaboratively with children.
Andrea talked about what they learnt from the experience:
- Children are optimistic and realistic, but not weighed down in reality.
- Considering an ability to work with children when recruiting staff is important
- Children’s agency in every museum is possible, it just needs to be fully integrated and committed to across the organisation.
- It’s ok to let go, the museum will not be destroyed
If you can’t talk to children, maybe you shouldn’t be working in a museum of childhood.
From here Andrea and the MOC intend to continue on their path of student involvement in the museum. They will do Takeover Day again, are planning another child-led exhibition (about pirates!) and are looking for more ways to integrate children’s active involvement in an ongoing way.
Closing Plenary – A manifesto for real change
Dr Simon Chaplin, Geoffrey Dodson, Dr Viviane Gosselin, Rhonda Inkamala
For this closing plenary the panel had an open discussion about their reflections on the conference and their ideas for going back to our organisations to create change. There were a number of interesting points raised about what we should do, what we can do and where we need to see our limitations. Some poignant thoughts were:
Simon – invite others to speak, break the rules if the rules stop you doing what you need to do.
Rhonda – be culturally inclusive, have the people that have the knowledge and the language skills, bring in the local language. Utilising the cultural knowledge: there are people in the community you haven’t even approached, including the children. Take care to be culturally appropriate.
Geoffrey – We’ve talked about what’s missing in terms of gender and culture, and content. It’s hard to see what’s missing in our own patch. What we need to realise is we can’t necessarily be agents of change due to limitations in diversity, reserves, funding. What haven’t you got and where might you look for it?
Viviane – museum practice is similar globally. ‘Disruption’ and ‘agents of change’ – have been said before, we need new definitions. Bring strangers, invaders or troublemakers into our walls. We are on the path to normalising having people disrupt us.
People who have been looking after collections need to think radically different. Maybe museums aren’t the answer, maybe they are not the best keepers of collection.? We shouldn’t let the idea that ‘the job of the museum must be protected’ stop us doing what we need to do.
Being an agent of truth and an agent of change can be hard. In closing there was a reminder that we need to take care of ourselves, take care of our staff and those who serve us.