Guest Blog: My First Time At the MA Conference

Today’s post is written by Iona Farrell, Volunteer at Beecroft Art Gallery and Museum in Southend.

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My First Time Delegate Badge

I have volunteered for Southend Museums and in particular Beecroft Art Gallery as an Exhibitions and Archive Assistant for a number of years. Volunteering has fuelled a desire to gain full-time employment in the sector and I therefore jumped at the chance to attend the Museums Association Conference. I knew I would gain fantastic insights into the museum world and learn new skills to put back into my volunteering and my future career.

Essex Museum Development provided me with a bursary to attend the whole three days of the conference and I could never have imagined how jam-packed the conference would be!  It was an inspiring mix of interactive sessions, workshops and fantastic keynote speeches rounded off by visits to cutting-edge museums within a beautiful city.

As a first time delegate (I even have a badge to prove it!) what most struck me was how welcoming everyone was. The first time delegates breakfast on Thursday morning provided an opportunity to mingle with fellow first timers (helped along by delicious bacon butties) and throughout the whole three days whoever I spoke to was always so encouraging in giving me advice.

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The auditorium within the Conference Arena

I had to deliberate long and hard over my conference booklet to decide how I could attend as many sessions as possible ! There was a real mix of content from workshops on how to write CVs and crack into the industry to practical guidance in staging accessible exhibitions and writing interpretative text.

What really surprised me was the variety of speakers. The hilarious Poet and Playwright Lehm Sissay and the equally side-splitting comedian Francesca Martinez opened and closed the first day of the conference with messages of empowerment and acceptance. Whilst Alejandra Naftal, director of ESMA museum, a former detention and torture centre in Buenos Aires opened Fridays proceedings with a hard hitting talk. Equally engaging were the broadcasters Lucy Worsley (who I must admit I was slightly starstuck at!) as well as presenter and historian David Olusoga who spoke about the potential for museums and television to collaborate. Something I am really excited about is the BBC Civilisations series airing in 2018. The BBC wishes museums to stage a series of events that co-ordinate with the programme and are providing free access to BBC archives for museums to tap into. This is something I think would be brilliant across Essex Museums!

Museums change Lives

The resounding message I took from the conference was the potential that museums have to truly change lives, one of the Museum Associations own manifestos. 2017 has been a turbulent year, with Brexit, increasing social isolation as well as the alarming rise of world leaders such as Trump. In her opening speech, Sharon Heal the director of the Museum Association Heal stated museums can respond to this by allowing people to explore their own histories and shape their futures for the better.  It is about being inclusive and reaching out to those who are on the margins.

History of Place- Reanimating Collections of Disability History

Linked to this idea was a session I attended run by the History of Place, a programme that uncovers the lives of the disabled and deaf within heritage sites. It was really useful in showing how museums can create accessible exhibitions, open to those who may not be reflected within traditional museum collections. Creative approaches such as replacing object focussed displays with multi-sensory exhibits using touch, taste and even smell to communicate to visitors really stuck with me. I am excited at how these exhibitions seem to be gaining momentum and look forward hopefully to seeing more examples of this within Essex.

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Museum Detox’s Pop-Up Stand

Museum Detox

Of course inclusivity is not just about expanding audiences but about workforces, one of the main themes of the conference. Museum Detox a collective of BAME museum workers (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups) had a pop up stand where ‘patients’ could take a White Privilege test, and were administered pills (Tic Tacs I might add!) and a prescription to challenge societal injustices within museums. Having studied the idea of the inclusive museum on my Masters course it was great to see these ideas put into practice and discussed so passionately.

It was fantastic to see how museums can tackle these issues creatively and I think that becoming more inclusive is so important within museums but it has to have real meaning and not just be a tokenistic activity.

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Samira Ahmed, Matthew d’Ancora and Ian Blatchford debate on the fake news phenomenon

Fake News and Museums

Another stand out for me was ‘Beliefs Trump Facts’ a debate that looked at how museums can respond to the disturbing trend of ‘fake news.’

Science Museum director Ian Blatchford and Matthew d’Ancora, a Guardian journalist argued it was about striking the balance between rational facts and personal stories. I will definitely take this aspect away, that with great storytelling you can connect with visitors and with this you have the potential to communicate important messages that can lead to a real positive impact in the wider community.

Yet journalist Samira Ahmed astutely countered their stance when she asked what are the parameters of free speech in museums, where should the boundaries be placed, should we state all the facts and reflect every viewpoint however controversial they may be? It seems there is no easy answer but museum workers should use their support networks, such as the Museums Association or within Essex Museums and seek advice from within the wider museum world.

Exploring Manchester Museums

After such an intense but rewarding few days on Saturday I journeyed to The Whitworth, as museums across Manchester opened their doors to delegates. Uthra Rajgopal, Assistant Curator of Textiles and Wallpaper showed us the exhibitions that are being staged as part of the #NewNorthSouth programme across the North of England that is supporting the work of South Asian artists.

In the afternoon I explored Manchester Art Gallery and was particularly moved by the video installations of artist Hetain Patel, whose work brings marginalised subjects into the mainstream. One piece (Don’t look at the Finger) was a mesmerising mix of sign language and kung-fu (yes really!) and I took away how powerful multi-media installations are within a museum setting. This work was also part of the #NewNorthSouth programme. I thought this was a brilliant idea in connecting venues together with a shared message. Southend Museums have a number of venues across the borough and it would be amazing if future programming could bring together all these sites with a shared theme.

Time to go home

I had such a fantastic few days in Manchester and left filled with ideas I can’t wait to put into practice. The conference has shown me what modern museums can achieve in an era of change and uncertainty. Through the support Essex Museums have given me by funding my conference, as well as speaking to delegates I came away knowing Museums are supportive places that truly have the potential to make a worthy impact on peoples’ lives. I want to thank Essex Museums Development for giving me the opportunity to attend.

Museums Association Conference: Bursaries for First-Time Attendees

Debating modern ethics

Debating modern ethics at the Museums Association Conference, 2014

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**STOP PRESS** – DEADLINE EXTENDED TO MIDNIGHT, FRIDAY 7TH JULY

 

I am able to offer two bursaries for first-time attendees to this November’s Museums Association Conference. The three-day annual MA Conference is the biggest gathering of museum staff and volunteers in the country and is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the work other organisations are doing, discuss issues affecting the sector and meet colleagues from around the country (and the world!).

Alongside the Conference is a “Marketplace” where you can meet suppliers of museum services and equipment. There are also usually fringe events such as tweet-ups, networking dinners and “unconference” break-out sessions.

Each bursary is targeted at a different area of the workforce:

  • Established professional

Those who have been in paid employment in the sector for more than 7 years (i.e. who began work before November 2010). This could be full-time or part-time paid work and doesn’t include paid traineeships. They should have been working at their current museum for at least six months by the date of their application.

  • Museum volunteer

Those who have regularly volunteered at an Essex museum for at least six months by the date of their application. This can be within any role in the museum.

The full eligibility details are outlined within the guidance document, but you do have to work or volunteer at an Accredited (or Working Towards Accreditation) Essex Museum.

You may find it useful to read the Top 10 Tips for Attendees and a summary of the 2015 Conference.

Please read the guidance notes before applying. The deadline for applications is midnight on Friday 7th July. Please contact me if you have any questions.

Click to download the application guidance

Click to download the application form

Museum Association Conference: My Top 10 Tips

Museums Change LivesThis Wednesday, I will be amongst hundreds of museum professionals and volunteers making their way to Birmingham for the annual Museum Association Conference.

This is the fourth time I’ve attended during my career and I like to think that I’ve got the hang of it. Here are my top-tips for those of you who are also attending:

What to pack:

10. Keep it to a minimum: There’s a lot going on at the MA Conference. Between talks, workshops and networking events you won’t have much time to get changed between day and evening wear. Therefore don’t bother packing lots of different outfits – keep it simple and maybe swap cardigans/jackets etc if you need to.

9. Sensible shoes: You will be standing around talking to people for long periods of time.

8. Business cards: It doesn’t matter how fancy these are (knocked up on the office printer is fine) but you will be meeting lots of people who you’ll want to talk to later – suppliers, colleagues who’ve delivered projects you’d like to emulate etc.

7. Power brick: whether you’re live tweeting through the event, looking up directions to a fringe activity or Googling the jargon which occasionally crops up in presentations, Conference can be tough on phone and tablet batteries. Having something to boost it will be invaluable.

Who to talk to:

6. As many people as possible: One of the great things about the conference is that you get to meet people from a range of backgrounds with different museum experiences. Experiences that you can learn from.

5. Put yourself out there: I know that it can be hard when you don’t know anyone in a room where people seem to have broken into cliques and are chatting away merrily. Introduce yourself, ask where people are from, which talks they want to attend etc. You’ll probably find that they are in a similar situation. Also, the conference is has several events designed for people with this specific problem – a tweet-up, networking breakfast and “Come Dine With Me”.

4. Regional Reps: Each English region has a volunteer representative who’ll be there this week (there are also two reps each in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). I’m the rep for the East of England and I can promise you that we’re a friendly bunch who would love to meet you.

What to attend:

3. Speakers Who Interest You: If your employer is paying for your place, you will need to pick speakers and workshops that fit in with your role and their aims. However, make sure you also make time to attend sessions which interest you personally.

2. Networking events: Talking to people all day can be tiring, but it’s worth doing. You never know who you’ll be approaching for funding, partnership projects or for your next job and this is a great way to promote yourself and your organisation.

And my number one tip is:

Enjoy yourself! We work and volunteer in museums because we’re passionate about them and here is an opportunity to spend 48 hours with people who feel the same way.

Do you have a tip for conference goers that you think I’ve missed? Tweet it to @EssexMDO and I’ll share the best ones.

Post-Conference Update (November 2015)

  1. Wear layers – you can’t predict the temperature of the venue (the ICC in Birmingham was boiling!)
  2. Drink plenty of water – lot’s of talking and long hours will make you thirsty
  3. Step outside at least once during each day – getting some fresh air and daylight will help with your concentration

New SHARE Training Calendar – Part 1

Object Handling, Packing and MarkingBooking for the new SHARE training calendar opens on 2nd September, but who are SHARE and why should you be interested?

SHARE Museums East are Arts Council England’s Museum Development partner for the East of England. They receive funding to provide training and other support to Accredited museums and those working towards Accreditation. Their activity programme includes formal training days, seminars, peer networks and project cohorts. The subjects covered are based on ACE Goals and include nearly every aspect of running a museum such as collection care and conservation, learning and engagement, income generation, marketing and reviewing your governance. Those of you who responded to my training needs survey have had their thoughts and ideas passed up to SHARE and that information helped to shape this year’s calendar.

Most of the details for this “school year” have already been uploaded to SHARE’s website so you can have a look and see which events you and your colleagues might wish to attend.

However, please be aware that SHARE is funded to provide these opportunities to Accreditation museums and those officially “Working Towards Accreditation”. While other museums may book, priority will be given to museums that fall within their remit.

If your museum isn’t Accredited yet but would like to be, or if you don’t really know what Accreditation is and would like to know more, please send me an email to discuss it further.

There are over 100 training events on the calendar so I’m sure there will be at least one subject of use to your museum.

Interesting session coming up in the first month are:

07/09/2015
10:00 am – 3:30 pm
Captivating Captions – On A Budget
The Red House, Aldeburgh Suffolk
18/09/2015
10:00 am – 3:30 pm
How to Run a Youth Panel
Colchester Castle, Colchester
21/09/2015
10:00 am – 4:00 pm
SHARE Retail Forum: Selling Skills and Sound Retail Practice
The Mews (National Horseracing Museum), Newmarket
22/09/2015
10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Social Media: Next Steps
Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton Bedfordshire
24/09/2015
10:00 am – 3:30 pm
Volunteers: Getting Them In and Keeping Them Happy (a Volunteer Co-ordinators’ Forum event)
Ipswich Transport Museum, Ipswich Suffolk
25/09/2015
9:30 am – 1:00 pm
Being Creative With Memories: Music and Life Stories
Chelmsford Museum, Chelmsford Essex
28/09/2015
10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Public Services Collections Seminar
Bishop’s Stortford Museum, Bishop’s Stortford Hertfordshire
29/09/2015
10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Keeping A Record: The Essentials of Museum Documentation
Parham Airfield Museum, Framlingham Suffolk
30/09/2015
10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Excellent Visitor Programmes
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich Norfolk

Most of the calendar is already on-line and available to view here.

In part two I will go publish the results of the training needs survey and highlight where you can find the training you’ve requested

Curator of the Future: Part 1

Curator of the Future

On Monday 13th April, I attended the annual British Museum National Programmes Conference. This year’s topic, “The Curator of the Future” prompted some lively debates. Here are my thoughts and notes from the first part of the day.

I have attended several of the British Museum’s previous National Programmes Conferences, and have always been impressed at the quality and range of speakers. This year’s conference did not disappoint and Katy Swift from their UK Partnership’s team did an excellent job in bringing the day together.

  • The Role of the British Museum in Supporting Curators

The conference began with a presentation by Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum. The BM views itself as a “museum of the world for the world”, and takes its responsibility in supporting other museums very seriously. They do so both by acting as a “lending library” for objects but through knowledge sharing, running subject specialist networks, traineeships, work-shadowing schemes and developing touring exhibitions. They are responsible for the Portable Antiquity Scheme, which has just recorded its millionth find from metal detectorists.

However, their ability to supplement local exhibitions and displays is important. Over 2700 objects from their collection were out on loan to other museums last year. Through these displays, more people saw items from the British Museum in locations outside of London than in their site in Bloomsbury. Mr Williams asks of “Tell us what you want and where you want it”.

  • The Curatorial Survival Kit

Four presentations were made by a range of speakers about what skills curators need now and will need in the future.

Maurice Davies of The Museum Consultancy compared museums to marketplaces and curators to the traders who work there. He feels a curator’s role is to present the expected and also engage customers with the new and unexpected. The key is communication skills – they need to be able to share their knowledge of their collection with the audience. Maurice feels that specialised roles within museums such as documentation, conservation and learning are positive because they have raised the standard of delivery, but is concerned that the role of “curator” is now made up of the left-over bits. He also raised concern that in some institutions, exhibitions designed by committee without a strong lead and vision from a curator have resulted in dull displays with clear theme or story.

Timothy A. M. Ewin, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum , presented passionately on the Campaign for Good Curatorship. He cited Museum Association research from 2013 which found that over the past ten years the number of Natural History specialists working in the sector has declined by over 35%, Art curators by 23% and Human History (archaeology, social history and world cultures) by 5%. The Campaign believes “that great museums need good curators and that delivering public benefit is about balancing community engagement and expertise in the objects which represent that community’s heritage”. The inference being that many UK museums are emphasising engagement so much, that collections knowledge is suffering and said engagement is shallower for it.

(I thoroughly recommend visiting the Campaign’s website and reading their manifesto. Mr Ewin mentioned that they are recruiting committee members if you are interested in getting involved).

Bill Seaman, Museums, Arts and Culture Manager for Colchester and Ipswich Museums (CIMS) spoke about the need for change in the sector due to austerity and cuts in funding. There isn’t one solution to this problem, as differences in collections, local needs, politics and funding levels all have a role in finding a solution that works for you. For example, in their recent restructure, CIMS have merged the different specialist curator roles with learning and engagement posts to create general “Collections and Learning Curator” posts.

Bill also raised the issue of new graduates from the many Museum Studies courses being run in the UK. Are students being training in the right skills to fit the job market as it stands now? If so, how can museums and educational institutions work together to remedy this?

Vicky Dawson, Chair of the South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries talked about their museum development offer (the equivalent of SHARE in our region). In particular, she talked about training for mid-level curators who’ve found that the skills they need for their current roles, as well as to move up, have changed. While agreeing with previous speakers that communication skills are important, Vicky stressed that “collections are central to a museum but they don’t look after themselves”. After all, what’s the point of being a museum if you don’t have well-cared for, well-interpreted collections?

The speakers Q&A session which followed became quite heated, both in the role and in comments made on Twitter by the attendees. There is much debate as to the correct balance of collections care/research and audience engagement. Can one person really have all of these skills or do we need specialists? How do we encourage diversity in a sector which already has too many people for too few jobs? Many museums have ceased to have entry-level positions, relying on volunteers, interns and trainees – does this make it harder for people to get onto the employment ladder?

While many of these debates have been raging for a long time, particularly around diversifying the workforce, it seems that no single answer has been found. I find the passion with which people argued encouraging, because it shows how much we all care about the future of our sector.

I will be posting a follow-up blog on the rest of the Conference soon.

~Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer

SHARE Children and Young People’s Conference 2015

On Wednesday 4th February, SHARE Museums East and ROH & NNF Bridges ran their third annual Children & Young People Conference at Coleridge Community College, Cambridge. “Object Lessons 2- Celebrating Creativity and Partnerships in work with Children and Young People” was attended by museum staff, volunteers and freelancers from throughout the region and the full programme can be found here.

Catherine Hammond, Education and Outreach Officer for Epping Forest and Lowewood Museum Services, shares her thoughts and experiences of the day:

“I had really been in two minds about attending the SHARE conference.  As is so often the case, with so much to do and so little time, a day in the office catching up with current projects seemed a good option. But, once again the conference proved a good reminder of the importance of getting out, sharing ideas and experiences, and most of all being inspired by the huge amount of talent and creativity within the sector.
The day got off to a good start with a warm welcome by Bev Jones, head teacher of Coleridge Community College, our base for the day.  Bev’s commitment to developing creativity and a sense of community amongst the students in her school and recognising the role museums can play in this make her a great advocate for our sector.
The keynote speakers all set clear messages for the day – Susan Raikes, from the British Museum gave a timely reminder that ultimately it is the objects in our collections that are at the centre of memorable, inspirational learning experiences.  Paul Collard gave us some fascinating case studies of putting creativity at the heart of learning, what this can look like and what it can achieve for young people.
The breakout session ‘Why should I bother with arts award’ by Ancient House Museum in Thetford, answered the question very well. I was convinced to give it another go in our museum by the demonstration of very simple but highly effective ways of delivering it as part of an existing programme.  There was also a wonderful bonus presentation by a member of the teenage history club at the museum, a wonderful advocate for the benefits such a group could bring both to young people and the museum itself.  I very much hope they get their funding to visit Japan to develop their project on flint – to inspire such ambition and ideas among young people was a testament to how much confidence this group had given them.
After a good lunch, the breakout session on Lifelines, the Start Hospices project by the Fitzwilliam Museum was a very informed presentation about the value of working with families with life limited children and the practicalities of what such work can involve.  It was particularly interesting to hear how much support was available from practitioners within the hospice movement itself, from psychologists who could help with managing the personal and emotional challenges of working with this group to family workers, art and play therapists.
Jo Roberts’ presentation on establishing a framework for professional development was a timely reminder of how important it is to place a value on our skills and experiences to ensure museums do recognise the value of having  experienced practitioners in learning roles at a time when many museums are facing cutbacks.
The final project reports from SHARE’s Takeover Day Cohort members Francesca Pellegrino at Lowewood Museum and Nollie Cacciatore at Much Hadham Forge Museum, showed how flexible this programme is in terms of how you choose to deliver it, but that having Takeover Day as the focus really helps to get young people on board.
Steph Parmee, from Gainsborough House Museum closed the day with an entertaining and reassuring presentation showing how well even smaller specialist museums including Newmarket Horse Racing Museum have adapted to the challenge of the new curriculum and continue to offer creative learning experiences that directly engage learners with their unique collections.”
The film of Lowewood Museum’s Takeover Day project is available here. Jo Roberts was presenting on the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) new foundation course in Museum Learning, more details of which are available here.