Thursday, December 20, 2007

Museum Association UK Conference 2007, Glasgow Scotland.

I've had this written for a good month and a half now, so it's about time I really got around to posting it. And when I get my head together more, posting about museuming here in the UK (as a visitor mostly at the moment, as i've only had a little temp work as front-of-house staff so far).

Museums Association UK 2007 Conference - 22-24 October 2007 Glasgow, Scotland.


Keynote: Museums and the cultural economy (Will Hutton, Chief Executive, The Work Foundation)

* Major growth in the "experience" industry as part of (or adjacent to) the service industry in terms of employment levels and profits generated.
* Value seen in galleries/museums as high up the hierarchy of needs (see Maslow).
* Working within cultural/creative industries; Museums are part of a core producing cultural content, but work and communicate with other industries not in that core.
* UK spends large amount of GDP on cultural/museum sector.
* UK needs to federalise their museums and perhaps decentralise some to get them out of London into other, regional centres as well.
* We must try to work for people not in the sector; take our experience and skills to them (eg. airports, info centres etc).

Developing interactive exhibits (Case study: Glasgow Science Centre)

* Two things to develop that lead to visitor experience:
- Programmes (short development, easily altered, can be quite specifically targeted)
- Exhibitions (No staff required to run, long development, broader)
* Interactive exhibits defined here as requiring actin from a visitor that gains a response.
* Move from static display toward interactive exhibit:
- Interactive displays can have varied levels of interaction.
- Use interactive exhibits to communicate a scientific message (make sure they're scientifically sound and the staff are confident in their knowledge to explain them)
* Development process:
- Evaluation ties the process together; focus groups/observations/Q+As etc. Evaluation feedback loop: current knowledge -> report on current situation -> make changes -> evaluate again -> look at current situation and knowledge.
- Starting point: get to know your visitors and exhibits.
- Important to keep Generic Learning Outcomes (indicators of visitor behaviour) in mind for evaluation.
- Active Prolonged Engagement can also be a way of indicating/measuring visitor behaviour.
* Exhibition Development Process:
Define concept (theme/message) -> Conceptualise (decide on content, targets for Generic Learning Outcomes, decide on communication tools - exhibition/website/program - then decide on the interfact and if it communicates your themes/messages properly) -> Prototyping (the concept or mechanism to minimise design failure and check and double check) -> Design and Build (consider ergonomics and accessibility, the installation/maintenance and also the look and feel) -> Interpretation (for interactive exhibits, this interprets the message, provides instructions and explains content).
* Program development process happens in conjunction with exhibits.
- Why link the two? Programs are a further communication tool that encompass more learning styles and capture more content.
- Activity trails, exhibit showcasing, shows/workshops, self-contained floor-based activities are just a few of these programs.

Developing in-house collections knowledge (Nick Merriman - chair; Margaret Serpico, Maurice Davies, Richard Taylor)

::Richard Taylor, National Railway Museum::
* Monument Fellowship - funds a position to help succession from one person with massive knowledge and experience who's been in an organisation long-term to their newcomer.
* 3 goals in using the fellowship for the NRM and their particular fellow (retired librarian/archivist, was there 30 years):
- Matching his style to what the output of the fellowship is (ie. writing a training manual instead of making a training video, or something like that)
- Not adding to existing staff's workloads
- Getting something out of the fellowship that could continue past the end of the project (benefitting the wider museum community with the output of knowledge)
* Knowledge that can be gained from the Fellow:
- How pieces came into the museum
- How parts of the museum's collection are organised
- Practical documentation/archiving information

::Margaret Serpico, University College London::
* In-house knowledge comes from a number of places:
- Curators
- Specialists
- Special interest groups
- Donors
- Conservators
- Publications
- Scientific knowledge
* Often a lack of specialists tied to specific collections - for example, most museums with Egyptian collections don't have an Egyptologist.
* ACCES ( is offering a list of curators with specialist knowledge for people to contact
* Generate knowledge, capture it, and transfer it.
* Try to use SSNs (subject specialist networks) to build up knowledge of people throughout museum organisations in the UK

::Maurice Davies, Museums Association::
* Workforce
- Some people are ready for certain positions and can jump right into jobs
- Other positions require experience and many museums expect people to be prepared for their jobs (having been trained by someone/somewhere else) rather than providing on the job training
- Many entry-level jobs are now for short-term projects rather than for apprentice-like assistant curator/keeper positions
* Very little opportunity for people to spend time developing collection based knowledge during working hours
* Must try to prepare people who have academic and/or subject knowledge with museum skills, bring them into our industry
* Leicestershire Museums hiring "museum generalists" and then training them up in subjects


Keynote - Don't Look Back In Anger (Maurice Davies, Deputy Director MA)
* In the past decade in the UK:
- Greater funding
- More absolutely new museums
- Reinvigorated goals and approaches to museums
- Issues with cultural property/repatriation starting to be dealt with
* Where now? What to approach in future?
- Improving the workforce
- Sustainability
- Partnerships (especially with other public sector agencies, regional/city museum partnerships)
- Advocating value
- Exhibitions outside capitals
- Dynamic collections
* What do we want to achieve? Inspiration, especially through collections/displays. How?
- Contemporary connections - bringing burrent issues into exhibitions. This could help renergeise debate, to engage people with politics and issues
- Creative ambition - creating a "full experience" in museum exhibitions, sound/sight/senses are important
- Compelling communication - there can be a failure to get the message across through our mesia, whereas an enthusiastic staff member can express it to us. Must try to engage people AND ensure the interpretation hits the mark.
* Making museums matter
- They can be influential in our society
- Inspired staff are important and can bring a lot to the organisation. Use creativity of your staff. Nurture and develop young/entry-level staff
- Bring in outside talent
- Stimulate and support creativity
- Take risks!

Our Workforce Matters (Caitlin Griffiths, Chair; Alec Coles, Michael Houlihan, Hedley Swain)

::Alec Coles, Tyne and Wear Museums::
* Need more diversity in staff - especially to allow broader service to the demographic range of visitors museums have.
* Level of pay is not necessarily a reason for people not entering the industry.
* "Museum profession" is not the case - it's a sector with many professions within.
* Try to open up the workforce - don't be so strict on what people's qualifications need to be.
* Welcome people from other sectors; as well as this, let people leave our sector to take their skills to other people and bring new ones back.

::Michael Houlihan, Museums and Galleries of Wales::
* Museums focus on being learning institutions, but their staff need to learn as well.
* Training issues within the industry - in house, university etc.

::Hedley Swain, Libraries and Archives Council::
* Why do we need a diversified, well-trained workforce?
- To be in and of our communities
- To be more efficient with what little resources we have
- To bring in more skills/experience at all levels
* Need to identify skills museums need
- Variety of professional and personal skills
- Important to identify them to be able to fill the gaps
* Develop staff efficientyl - when you get them, offer them training opportunties

Shared Treasures: putting stored collections to work (Ellen McAdam, chair; Janice Lane, Anne Wallace, Jacqueline Donachie, Nicholas Oddy)

::Janice Lane and Anne Wallace, Glasgow Museums::
* Glasgow Museums - education program
- "Hands On" learning from objects teacher's guide; mainly aimed at preschool/primary age children
- Not just sending out the books, but also going out with the resources and informing/training teachers to go on and use the book themselves
* What objects to choose for classroom use?
- Younger groups - toys, shoes
- Older groups - brushes, lights
* What to do with them? (Look and talk about each point/object)
- Describe
- Deduce
- Interpret
- Classify
* Specific focus on painting/artwork; starting to learn the skills to interpret/understand art. This ties in with new schools curriculum here and its themes relevant to art.
* Results of the program:
- More interest from schools in museums/objects/this program
- Creating engaged and interested audiences
- Crossover with other sectors/audiences

::Jacqueline Donachie, artist::
* Inspiration from objects or research in collections can lead to new artworks
* Collaboration between community and museums (and by extension, collections)
* New perspectives gained on contemporary life/objects by looking at objects in collections
* Artists using museum objects - redisplay/reinterpret/recontextualise

::Nicholas Oddy, Glasgow School of Art::
* Using objects for analysis in art school
- Get students into museums and galleries
- They must only look at the object, no contextual information. After this initial analysis they can look at a selection of textual information for comparison
- Look at the object's context within the museum; object histories.
- Series of 'readings' of an object
- Idea of 'precious' stored and displayed items because of their status as museum items.

Keynote - Creating Value: Thriving in the 21st Century (John Falk and Lynn Dierking)
* Change
- We're in the midst of a shift from industrial/thing-based economies to knowledge/learning-based economies.
- Shifts in public expectation of what we provide
* Knowledge economy trends (free-choice learning booms here)
- Experience sells - not goods/services though
- Increased public expectations
- Shift from mass-production to personalisation
- Expectations of quality
* To succeed in the knowledge economy
- Customer-focused bottom-up organisations
- Provide personalised and customised learning-rich goods
- Communicate with the public in customised ways, build niche audiences
- Provide measurable evidence they are fulfilling their social contract
* Why do people visit museums?
- Historically we've asked this from inside the institution; we need to look outside for the answer
- Visitors coming to museums in order to meet identity-related needs. 5 identity-based reasons for museum visits: Explorers, Facilitators (ie. motivated by others they're with), Experience Seekers, Professional/Hobbyist, Spiritual Pilgrim (after restorative experience)

* Enhancing value of museums: focus on lifelong learning, reframe museums to reach less "usual" suspects
* Using knowledge economy trends to meet challenges
- Focus on experiences, not products; reframing an exhibition/program/museum to target a group's interest (eg. art gallery as family-oriented place/activities)
- Personalising offerings; eg. a group of science-based organisations (zoo, sciencentre, natural history museum, aquarium) offering a variety of different types of programs for families who are science-interested but weren't aware of what the group of organisations offered.
- Desire to learn/need for knowledge; eg. reframing art gallery as a place to learn English for immigrants in a rich environment, welcoming them into a new community via the museum
- Documenting quality; eg. a museum shifting from children to family oriented, integrating staff from all levels to help change the institution to a family-learning one.

Handing over intellectual control? (Suzanne Keene, chair; Ross Parry, Hedley Swain, Margaret Greeves, Rebecca Wilhelm, Nat Edwards)

::Ross Parry, University of Leicester::
* User generated content (UGC) is everywhere!
* Museums are too interested in how we deliver content, instead of the actual content
* There's an important differences between just user participation and then user generated content.
* Confidence about fostering/managing/monitoring user generated content is being questioned.

::Hedley Swain, Libraries and Archives Council::
* Should museums be actively and routinely encouraging UGC?
- Muse retain some authority
- Accept that we lose some control when we put stuff out on the web
- Think through why you do UGC and what the organisation gets out of it

::Margaret Greeves, Fitzwilliam Museum::
* How do we determine the value of UGC? How do we ensure UGC is useful and successful?
- Social? Institutional? Individual? What value to measure?
- How useful is UGC?
- To a user, the value is in making a connection with a museum, in using the museum's resources; it invited engagement
- To a museum, the value is in feedback from the way users USE the UGC.

::Rebecca Wilhelm, Stockwood Park Museum::
* Are museums ready to manage a future of UGC?
* Museums need the resources to manage UGC, not to let it overtake the rest of their operations
* Do museum have enough contemporary knowledge to pull off UGC?

::Nat Edwards, National Library of Scotland::
* Are we expecting too much from our visitors? Is a 'passive' visit by a visitor necessarily a bad thing?
- No on both counts
- Must not infantalise visitors, nor be too complex for them


Presenting and sharing collections-related knowledge (Nichola Johnson, Chair; Rowan Julie Brown, Robin Holgate)

::Rowan Brown, National Museums Scotland::
* Helped develop Scottish Transport Industry Collections and Knowledge network (STICK network)
* STICK came out of consultation with relevant parts of museum industry and what people within the industry wanted to get out of a network
* The network's purpose is to promote care and enjoyments of transport and industry collections in Scotland, and to also encourage engagement within these collections
* Very few resources available for STICK, many resources pulled from member's institutions to reach goals and work on their action plan
* Website:

::Robin Holgate, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester::
* Using handheld devices to provide visitors with access to collections knowledge
* Manchester Communications Gallery
- Themes reinforced by the use of a range of communication media, use of handheld guides
* "mi-Guide"
- Context-aware information system; can target users individually and personalise their content (eg. different types of learners, teachers with groups, parents with families etc)
- Each exhibit has an RFID tag - each device sees this as you walk through the gallery and streams relevant information to your device
- Touch screen interface
* Guide make it able to
- Target your user
- Provide collections information
- Provide variety of formats (eg. audio, video, images)
* Possibility to store/forward information to personal devices so visitors can access this after their visit.
* Guides like this offer opportunities to try different kinds of interpretation, from basic -> enhances
* Guides are only as good as the content you provide.

::Discussion of panels on collection knowledge throughout the conference::
* Sessions:
1 - Developing knowledge in-house on collections
2 - Revisiting and reinterpreting collection knowledge
3 - Collections as research resources; link between the academic and the museum institutions
4 - Handing over intellectual control
5 - Presenting and sharing collection knowledge

* Questions about collection related knowledge to ponder:
1 - What more interaction do people want in the area of collections knowledge? What kinds of linking (other than SSNs) can be done?
- Make SSNs more experience-based rather than subject based (eg. Crime and Punishment SSN is experiential)
- Making knowledge publicly available - museum wikis?
- Look at consulting outside of your museum's subject areas for more information/context on your collections; look at geographic information
- Central news place for up-to-date information on research projects happening in the industry in specific museums
- MLA to be portal to SSNs
- Consult within industry on how various delivery methods have/haven't worked to get collection knowledge out to audiences
- Institude a research framework that's industry-wide
- Audiences defining how we examine our collections, rather than museum-defined categories?

2 - Where should the MA take it on behalf of the industry?
- Evaluation of SSNs
- Links between collection knowledge and learning/education, not just curation
- Look at what the rest of the world is doing with regard to collection-related knowledge
- Examining publicly available knowledge about collections
- Cross-discipline approaches to the same subjects

3 - What areas have been missed at the conference?
- Acting as an advocate
- For the MA to structure conferences differently subject-wise
- Aid in succession planning (like the fellowship program); help out with specialist expertise training
- Campaign for long-term projects and sustainability of work in the industry
- Lobby for collections-related knowledge as an area in its own right


Because I wasn't there representing an organisation or museum, I did feel like quite an outsider and didn't network as much as I should've (or at all, really). Hopefully by the time I go to next year's (for free, woohoo!) i'll have attached myself barnacle-like to somewhere that I can represent at the conference. Here's hoping. Regardless of that, it was a worthwhile experience - not only as an excuse to go to Glasgow, but also to familiarise myself with the state of the industry here in the UK.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Museum of Nicole"

It's so weird, approaching bits of your life like this. An interesting experiment, anyhow; and certainly not as well-documented as I would make objects in REAL collections! Hit the jump to see it all.

[Object type: Audio cassette]
Object type: Audio cassette
Size: Cassette - W65mm, L100mm. Case - W70mm, 107mm.
Materials: Plastic, paper, magnetic tape.
General description: This audio cassette is a dual-sided 90 minute tape of the kind that can be purchased blank and recorded onto. Side A has a paper label that reads "Nic's punk tape" handwritten in black pen. The plastic case has a paper insert with a tracklist handwritten in black pen (some writing has been covered with white-out). It reads:

1969/I wanna be your dog/Search + Destroy - The Stooges
Holidays in the sun/Pretty vacant/EMI - Sex Pistols
USA/White Riot/Janie Jones - The Clash
Anger burning/Protest + Survive/Ain't no feeble - Discharge
California Uber Alles/Holiday in Cambodia/Haloween/Nazi punks fuck off

Terminal Preppie/Soup is good food/MTV Get off the air/Pull my strings - Dead Kennedys
Rise above/TV Part/Police Story - Black Flag
Filler/I don't wanna hear it/Straightedge/Out of Step (with the world)/Salad days/Good guys - Minor Threat
God Song/Generator/American Jesus/Fuck Armageddon/Punk rock song - Bad Religion

The spine reads: Puhnk.

Provenance/history: This tape was compiled by the donor and gifted to the collection early in 1999.
Donor: Dave K.
Condition: The paper label on the tape is worn, however the casing of the cassette itself is in good condition and not cracked. The magnetic tape is in good condition. The plastic case and paper insert are both in poor condition - the plastic casing is cracked and some pieces have cracked off, while the paper insert is slightly worn and dogeared.
Storage location: Museum curator's desk. (Formerly: museum curator's car tape deck.)

[Object type: Ephemera]
Object type: Ephemera
Size: Various.
Materials: Paper, cardboard.
General description: This small collection of ephemera has been registered as one object and not assigned part numbers. It consists of a variety of items including stickers, whole tickets and ticket stubs, membership cards, postcards, flyers, and miscellaneous paper and cardboard.
Provenance/history: Collected at various times and places by the museum curator, some gifts.
Donor: Nicole H.
Condition: Various. Some paper in good condition, other pieces of paper and cardboard extremely faded from constant exposure to high UV levels. Other paper/cardboard has warped in high temperature and humidity levels, or has been marked/stained by blutac/putty.
Storage location: Shoe box 01. (Formerly displayed on one side of a door.)
Images: Please see the photo with notes at Flickr.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Public Inquiries, helping visitors.

It's a difficult position working in a museum as a white Australian talking to visitors about Australian Aboriginal culture. There are so many opportunities for miscommunication, misunderstanding and outright bigotry that it can be a real minefield to walk into. I've come out of Uni with an anthropology degree, but I do not profess in any way to be an expert on Australian Aboriginal culture; however, I know a little and can often point people in the right direction more than provide them with expertise I don't have.

This afternoon I had a basic query here from someone at the front counter in the Inquiry Centre. To begin with, he was asking about websites that gave general information about Aboriginal history; this then led to him wanting somewhere he could look at old photos or snapshots of art. I suggested checking out State Library or State Art Gallery websites in Australia, and asked a little further about what he was looking for. It turned out he had some photos of rock art. So I then confirmed a state library or art gallery would be a good way to go - perhaps even if he wanted general identification one of the curators here could look at it. Was he just after an identification, I asked, or general information on rock art?

Eventually he said that he'd gotten some photos of rock art from a NSW site. I then directed him toward the Australian Museum - more relevant, with a large(ish) Anthropology department. Further prodding gave up the information that the site was on his brother's property. Bingo. He wanted information and (of course) he 'respected their culture' but they were all afraid their property would be taken away from them. I assured him that native title was an incredibly misunderstood issue in this country, and it was his duty to (or at least his brother's duty to) report a finding of an Aboriginal heritage place/artefact as it's covered in legislation (National Parks and Wildlife act down there I believe, and the QM Act up here); reporting it did certainly not mean their property would be whisked away. He got very very cagey about all of it after that and ended up thanking me and leaving.

In this circumstance, there are a lot of things I feel in the wake of an inquiry like this. I feel like it definitely is my responsibility to make white Australian visitors aware of the law regarding Australian Aboriginal culture in Australia and their responsibilities in relation to that. I feel like I might have pushed a little hard. I feel frustrated the guy wasn't up front about what he was really trying to find out. I am sad that a lot of his attitude was "i'm not racist, but..." - simply because of the history of this country and its current politics. I hope something positive comes out of the exchange, at any rate..

The entomologists have it way easier, you know.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Reshelving volunteering project, updated

I might as well post a quick update just for record's sake about the progress of volunteering.

After getting a reasonable way with the shelving project, it was put aside while we waited for more shelf fittings &c. So i've sort of been doing odds and ends a little, and some stuff that's semi-related. I've rearranged some of the nearby objects so they're on the shelves (roughly) in order. I've also inventoried a couple of sections of compactus units and gotten their location records up to date as well as labeling the shelves properly with their locations.

My supervisor and I have also collected together a lot of unregistered objects that have been unattended for far too long. I registered a few, and helped her do a few - as well as some items that'd been given back to the collection/research area from our Loans department. A few bits and pieces are being repatriated to communities, which she is handling, along with a lot of old photos and display panels which are of interest/use to communities.

My supervisor is away for a couple of weeks, but i'm able to keep working away on stuff while she's gone. Because we were still waiting on the shelving fittings before she left, she's given me printout lists of the bags and baskets in the QLD part of the collection to inventory and sort out - hopefully we'll also get to measuring/photographing/describing all of it properly, so that we can really update the database with some useful info and proper locations. That's going to have to wait, though, because the shelving stuff arrived the day after she went on holiday (ha!) - so it's back to the grunt work and installation for me.

But I know once that's sorted there will be more inventory and shelving and sorting stuff out, and that's the stuff I really dig. It might seem a little boring, but I really do like working in collection management and making sure that everything's where it should be, and the database is detailed with as much information as possible.



A Night at the Museum - film and reality

Just a few grabs from recent news:

Thousands visit Natural History Museum after Ben Stiller movie.
New York's American Museum of Natural History has seen a 20 percent jump in attendance over the holidays. And museum officials say it's due in part the new Ben Stiller comedy... But the museum's president says the increase in attendance can also be pinned on a spike in New York City tourism.

Don't forget your sleeping bag! American Museum of Natural History launches sleepover program.
"A Night at the Museum" monthly sleepover program officially begins Saturday, but word-of-mouth has spread quickly -- it's booked through March.

Suddenly, this museum is hot!
Attendance at the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, soared higher than a T-rex skeleton over the holidays — thanks in large part to the popularity of the new kid-oriented comedy Night at the Museum.

Fake Museum Increases Attendance at Real Museum
To respond to the increased attendance and frequent movie-related questions of museum visitors, the AMNH "scoured the movie" (pity the poor intern with that duty!) so they could "tell visitors what was here and what wasn't" according to AMNH director of visitor services Brad Harris.


I pretty much figured this would be the case; the presence of any museum in the media (generally visual) will always mean an increase in interest, whether it's been seen via advertising or something like a film such as this. More often than not it will give a lot less than 100% of an idea of what the museum is and what it entails. (We get countless people phoning my work with little to no idea of what the museum/sciencentre actually are and what's in them.)

So with something like this, where you have a movie ostensibly set in a museum where it's really a set of a museum, there's going to be confusion, along with excitement. It's really, really awesome that the movie (which is fun and terrific, by the way) is making people enthusiastic about heading along to the AMNH again or for the first time (or heading along to any museums at all!). I can imagine it must be overwhelming for the staff and management somewhat - although I do wonder if they somehow wrangled it in their favour, to lend their name and facade to the film.

However! As the last quote highlights, folks are getting mismatched ideas between movie museum and real museum - of course people are going to be expecting the dioramas (&c) they see in the film - if i'd not been anywhere near the AMNH (as I haven't), i'd expect a reasonable amount of similarity - after all, the sets were magnificent. It's a real pity that the popularity of the museum has been such a boon for its popularity, but is in some ways also sabotaging its reputation, via the creation/enhancement of people's expectations.

I hope that the streak of popularity continues throughout the year and well beyond for the AMNH, but I also hope that it's because they have a strong enough presence (maybe even 'brand', if you like) and exhibitions/public programs interesting and enthusiastic enough to keep people entertained and coming back, regardless whether they've seen A Night at the Museum or not.


Friday, January 05, 2007

A slight frivolity..

Thieves beware: museum curators are after you

LONDON. Faced with the prospect of dissolution, the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police has come up with a new idea—to recruit curators and art historians as special constables. The scheme, dubbed Art Beat, is set to start in April. This is the first time the police has attempted to recruit such specialist volunteers.

Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley told The Art Newspaper that the scheme was devised after the Art squad was told by the Metropolitan Police Authority that it could be disbanded if it did not become 50% self-financing by 2008.

Art Beat Special Constables are being recruited from museums such as the Victoria & Albert and the British Museum, universities, insurance companies and other cultural organisations. After four weeks training in police procedure as well as specialist art squad techniques, volunteers will be sponsored by their employers to work as Special Constables for 200 hours a year or one day a fortnight. They will be uniformed and will have full police powers.

“The aim is to build bridges between the police and the art world and maintain a high visibility presence in areas with a high level of art sales,” said DS Rapley. “This could include patrolling antiques markets like Bermondsey or areas with clusters of art dealers like Kensington Church Street, Bond Street or Camden Passage, or undercover intelligence work.”

The Art and Antiquities Unit currently consists of only four full time officers. “At the moment we are not receiving as much information as we would like from the art trade,” said DS Rapley. “We have tried to recruit from areas with the kind of specialist knowledge that will benefit from our work.” So far the police have recruited archaeology and antiquities experts, and hope to have 14 constables trained by April.

Well, I will be looking for work in London later in the year... But seriously, i'd much rather be some kind of superhero-esque type, striving for vigilante justice in the blackmarket artefact trade world. There would be capes! I could be Super Curator! Really.

*primps her resume*