Monday, November 03, 2008

Museum Association UK Conference 2008 writeup

Museums Association Conference, Liverpool England. 6 - 8 October 2008.

Last year, my friend Alex and I attended the MA conference and entered a competition to win a placement at the conference this year - and won! Hence, my conference report for the Liverpool MA conference 2008 after the jump. I'm not sure whether or not it was just that I ended going to a lot of similarly themed sessions, but this year's conference was quite heavy on the ideas of the authority of museums and collaboration with communities and the public (visitors). I'm sure it was probably one of the conference streams, but as I didn't go to any wrap-ups I didn't get a tidy end of conference blurb written down!

My notes are all brief and bullet points, but i've tried to get as much info/context in there as I need to in order to make it useful to look back on.


** Our Cities, Our Museums **
Restless urban contexts can undermine museums' claims to represent their cities. Develop insights into the relationships between museums and the lives of cities. Examine experiences from a metropolis, a regional capital, and a city without a museum dedicated to telling its story.

[Museum of London, Cathy Ross]
- Working with a grand narrative
- Curators feeding into interpretation; public feedback to that
- Covers stories of London, responds to zeitgeist, is outward-facing as a museum.

[Museum of Liverpool, Janet Dugdale]
- In development
- Focused on stories of the city and its people, despite many of the other Liverpool museums already telling specific stories of the city
- Broken down into catergories/themes; there will be a small section with a timeline. This is rather than a grand narrative.

[Sunderland Museum, Helen White]
- Focus very much on 4 topic areas (nat. history, art, social history, archaeology) rather than the 'city museum' approach, but still tells the history of the town and its place in British history.
- Hosts loans and travelling exhibitions which have appeal for Sunderland citizens without being about them directly (eg. Burmese artefacts in exhibition having interest for soldiers who fought there)
- City as very much part of the museum's history and vice versa

** Curators for Changing Times **
Curators are stereotypically preoccupied exclusively wiht objects, unable to engage with users and resistant to change. In reality new technology is creating new forms of dialogue and revolutionising curatorial practice. Can old museum structures keep pace with increasingly audience-facing and deinstitutionalised curators?

[Museum of London, Cathy Ross]
- Again highlighting curators engaging with audiences when developing content for interpretation
- There are academic advisors for curatorial departments, but in the end curators make decisions
- Curators still have control and aren't undermined, are still involved in production of content etc.

[Cardiff Museum, Victoria Rogers]
- Museum with no collection or curators (in development)
- Advisory panels made up from their target audiences
- Huge emphasis on target market research and feedback
- Project managers work from all of this to develop with exhibition project officers
- Decentralised sort of project, taking emphasis off the curatorial rigor

[Tyne + Wear, Kylea Little]
- Keepers/curators divided up into 4 subject areas
- They work both on their own with collections, and also with their outreach teams which allows them to liaise with community to produce content, or have these people advise content
- Different model of curators, but it's a lot better for the interpretation of collections, working with audiences. Curators still have last say, not all power is given over.

** Sharing Authority: a challenge to institutional control **
Does sharing authority with audiences present an intolerable challenge to institutional control? Or is it an opportunity to democratise an rejuvenate the institution? Three international museum 'risk-takers' engage in a provocative discussion.

[City Museum Copenhagen, Jette Sandahl; has also worked at Te Papa]
- Dialogue will enhance mutual understanding and respect
- Te Papa is an example of inclusiveness and community participation - recognise role of community in enhancing collections
- Te Papa is a 'bicultural' museum
- Exhibitions developed partly through consultation and partnership
- MUseums are often very selective and particular in the communities they choose to work with
- Letting go of control can open up avencues for exhibitions that can be fulfilling and work well
- Sharing authority: encouraging participation and interaction, encouraging new users to interact with museums. Eg. 'The Wall' at Te Papa using Web 2.0 features

[Manchester Museum, Piotr Bienkowski]
- Authority based on knowledge
- Emergence of museums tied into development of objective science

Manchester Museum:
- Working with communities to interpret, have had feedback from community members that the museum still holds its knowledge over others
- Artists put together exhibitions that contained fact and fiction in their panels; the Museum included a disclaimer about this which the artists saw as intrinsically or 'typically museum', very institutional.
- Human remains: Lindow Man represents several voices from scientific and other communities. Covering of unwrapped mummies to elicit response from visitors on how these remains should be displayed has been a recent tactic. Many responded negatively to the new and different ways of treating the remains.
- Visitors are upset their shared monopoly on knowledge represented by traditional museum practice has been overturned.
- Relationship should be host (museum)/guest (communities), rather than coproduction.

[UBC Museum Vancouver, Anthony Shelton]
- First Nations people involved in all sorts of discussion at the museum from its beginings in the late 40s
- Museum founder developed the idea of "Citizens Plus" for First Nations people
- Museum has always been a very political site, hosted APEC in late 90s
- Renewal included partnerships/consultation with First Nations, other Museums, Universities (incl. Oxford and Cambridge)
-- Applying for a grant for a whole overhaul of museum space and infrastructure
-- Creating memorandums of understanding as a result of community consultation
-- Scrapping visual storage as they want a "more respectful" way of displaying objects
- Includes performance and installation in their spaces to encourage community participation and new experiences in the museum
- Consulting with communities to expand collection/artefact information.
-- This is part of a broader framework of examining and including various forms and sources of knowledge



** Collaborative Dialogue with audiences on sensitive issues **
Museums worldwide are increasingly addressing difficult pasts, from prejudice and colonialism to conflict and genocide, but museums have themselves been sites and tools for injustices. This session debates whether or not museums are ready to openly and collaboratively address their own institutional complicity.

[Museum of World Culture Sweden, Adriana Muñoz]
- Colonial origins of collections from Bolivia; wasn't repatriated at Bolivia's request
- Most information about collection is from academic/curatorial origin
- The museum now tries to work with communities to gain more information from the "cultural owners" of Bolivian objects
- Museums in Bolivia often seen as reinforcing colonisation
- For true dialogue, museum staff must "lose control"

[Science Museum, London]
- Dana Centre @ the Science Museum; uses audience-led consultation to develop events
- Constultation with community to decide not only on content but also format of events
- Allowed for feedback and continuation of projects/collaboration with same community groups
- Work will go on to feed into permanent exhibitions

[Manchester Museum - Myths of Race, Are Museums Racist? debate]
- Constulted with members of community about a race/racism exhibition to tie into last year's slavery abolition bicentenary
- Exhibition wasn't seen as representative of the collaboration by some members of discussion, it was seen that the museum "cooled down" some of the content
- Are Museums Racist? debate was productive and insightful and fed back on the exhibition as well - museum staff now realise this should have been a precursor to exhibition development
- The museum is still keeping ties with those who were dissatisfied, trying to keep the relationships alive and their input coming into the future.

** Can museums really co-create everything with the public? **
People increadingly expect and demand participation in social and cultural spheres. Are museums ready to work with others in co-producing exhibitions? Or do we fool ourselves and others in claiming that we can and do co-produce?

[International Slavery Museum, Richard Benjamin]
- Some of the museum's success is measured by how effective collaboration has been
- Politics of Rememberance in Liverpool
-- Previous emphasis of maritime aspects of slavery in the slavery gallery in the Maritime Museum
-- Original gallery has emphasis on understanding while the museum emphasises challenging assumptions etc
-- Black community links: guest curators, community exhibitions, community volunteers, collaboration with community groups (eg. African Presence Group), collections development officer (to hear what communities want fromt he museum and its collections)
-- Important to have ideas originating from the black community, for them to approach the museum rather than vice versa
- Beyond transatlantic slavery - modern slavery issues are still part of the museum's core business. They need consultation with groups such as Amnesty International, and to take part in local activism.

[Horniman Museum, Finbarr Whooley]
- Thinks it's possible to co-create exhibitions with external partners
- Focus on consultation as a process
- Need rationale for including public in these processes
- Museums still have the professionals and paid experts (seems Whooley still holds the idea of museums in control in this aspect)
- Portrayal of communities and their information must be authentic and politically mature
- Museums' responsibility to provide a quality product at the end of the process
- Should only involve public if it will be authentic and enriching and add something the museum can't

[Hackney Museum, Sue McAlpine]
- "Community Museum"; galleries are about people, temporary exhibits almost always include community
- Difference between working for, or with communities
- Particular consultations with groups made museum shy away and go for "safer" steering group
- Museum involved lots of people but still held the reigns tightly as it was easier and less stressful
- Need established and well-tried formula for co-production to make it all work; always be clear what the museum is offering
- Community exhibition space lets Hackney have a voice, gives them somewhere safe to discuss and portray themselves.

** Creating Place as well as Space **
Can we create museum spaces that are both spectacular and welcoming? Can spaces for learning be not only warm and friendly but also inspiring and uplifting? Consider recent examples and explore the multiple - and sometimes competing - expectations of museum and gallery exhibitions today. Discover what worked and why.

[Museum and Gallery Designer Steven Greenberg]
- "Design is not enough"
- Consider the story and content as part of your design process
- Museums can't just be architectural grandeur (like stadiums where sport isn't played, for eg.)
- Tension between content and commerce (eg. in the V+A where they've moved the shop and broken up some flow of the gallery)
- Place containing shared experience, portraying this through exhibitions
- For BM to be world's museum it must display the world's civilisations together.

[Museums Sheffield, Weston Park Museum]
- Working with existing old and somewhat tired museum to transform it into an updated space to provide for its target markets (to discover, create, explore and enjoy)
- Not just redesign for visitors, but collections and staff also
- Combine museum and art gallery from two disjointed buildings into one site encouraging visits to both
- Utilised redesign to make the building more visitor friendly and accessible, used visitor feedback to inform some of this
- Consulted with museum users and non-users
- Focus on a lot of practical/visitor experience redesign

[Grande galerie l'evolution Paris]
- Originated as a "cabinet of all things rare in nature"
- Transferred into a zoology museum with exhibitions of specimens all on display
- Combination of gallery and storage meant nothing could move along. Was closed in 1965.
- Redesign: emphasis on light, one large space divided by theme or type of display
- Aim wasn't to recreate nature in the display, but trigger the visitor's imagination
- Not much written information throughout the exhibits - focus on the visuals rather than text

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

Wow. Fantastic monster there. The urbanity monster striding forth, as it does in most cities of the world. Nice hand-drawn banner too. Something like this image, , by French painter Fernand Léger, maybe effective painted large on a wall too, acknowledged as a copy of course. It can be seen at and a canvas print of it can be ordered from there.