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

Thought and Notes: Museums Association Conference 2015

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Sharon Heal presents statistics from the Code of Ethics consultation

Earlier this month, I attended my fourth  Museums Association conference. Several things struck me over the course the event. Firstly, the people care about making the sector better and stronger. Secondly, that we don’t have the answers on how to do that yet. Thirdly, more change is coming.

Big themes this year were ethics, diversity and the continuing changes happening in our sector.
The revised Code of Ethics was voted in. If you haven’t read it yet, I advise you to do so. Not only is it a cornerstone of accreditation but it’s a living, breathing document that should influence our everyday practice no matter the size of our museum. The code has been compiled in consultation with museum  staff and volunteers across the country. Given recent controversy over sales from collections, it is not surprising that good practice round disposals continues to be a key element. Reflecting 21st century practice the code also covers sponsorship and recommends that museums seek to work with partners whose priorities match their own.
Museums Change LivesSeveral sessions looked at diversity in the workforce. This is a debate that has been going on for several years and there are no easy answers. Many museums are actively looking for ways to change. Apprenticeships and other work-based training schemes do seem to have had some success, although it is too early to tell if the individuals taking part will continue in museum careers. Some people are concerned that creating additional temporary entry-level jobs when the sector is so competitive is a mistake. I believe that this is a debate that will continue for quite some time, but that it’s good that museums are trying new and different ways to recruit.
With councils being forced to tighten their purse-strings even more, and the Comprehensive Spending Review coming up at the end of the month, it sometimes feels like there’s little time or money for anything creative to happen in museums. However, there were some excellent case-studies which are well worth checking out. For example, Richard Gough from Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust talked about corporate volunteering, which is something our own Museum of Power have good experience with. The Conflict Resolution session included some heart-breaking stories of how museums have the power to knit communities back together, such as the Historical Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina in Sarajevo, National Museums Northern Ireland and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. However, the session that really blew me away was “More Than Reminiscence” by Tunbridge Wells Museum and Canterbury Christ Church University. They’ve been doing some fantastic work with dementia groups and their model is easy and low-cost to follow. Have a look at their tool-kit and see if it’s something that you could use with your own collections.

Opening Doors: Notes on Rethinking Disabled Access and Interpretation

On 15th September 2015, the Museums Association ran a one day seminar entitled Opening doors:  Rethinking Disabled Access and Interpretation In Your Museum. Amanda Peacock, Learning Officer at Chelmsford Museum, attended that day with a grant from Essex Museum Development and has kindly shared her notes from the day:

I wanted to share with you some of the interesting ideas and forward-looking practice that were presented at this excellent MA Seminar on the theme of disabled access and interpretation in the museum. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), now in its 20th year, was established to prevent discrimination against disabled people accessing goods, services and buildings amongst other things. Other than a lift to get to the top floor and a disabled loo, I was interested to learn what museums could do to further improve access for disabled visitors to their collections as well as to the building itself. Also how, or if, disabled people are represented in museums, whether museum collections include objects that reflect the lives of, or have been created by disabled people in our society past or present. Throughout the day there was a live speech-to-text transcription displayed on a big screen. This service was provided by a company called ‘StageText’, which provides access to deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors.

Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape Arts and our Chair for the day, made the comment in his introduction that, ‘museums should be fully inclusive and welcome people with disabilities not only as visitors, but employees and artists too.’ Improving access and facilities for disabled visitors can be a challenge for those institutions that are in listed buildings, but access is not just about installing a lift, what about intellectual access? Museums need to consider their collections, are they fully accessible to disabled visitors or are there barriers that discriminate? How do they use them – is there appropriate gallery support such as: audio visual aids, subtitles on videos, handbooks, appropriate lighting, considerate interpretation or clear signage?

Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester spoke about their work with museums in relation to disability access, participation and representation. A variety of organisations were involved in the project, which challenged museums and heritage sites to look at their own collections in a different way. They evaluated displays for diversity, searched databases for relevant material and considered how they would interpret these objects with disability in mind. One of the more important outcomes was that museums should work more collaboratively with disabled visitors, rather than stating what the museum can offer them. Overall, the project enabled museums to explore the potential to reframe collective attitudes towards difference.

Next to speak was Emma Shepley, Senior curator at the Royal College of Physicians, who discussed its award-winning portraiture exhibition ‘Re-framing disability’, that explored four centuries of hidden history through rare portraits from the 17th to the 19th centuries, depicting disabled men and women of all ages and walks of life. The 2011 project involved 27 disabled participants who explored the human stories behind the portraits and discussed the relevance to their lives. The project culminated in an exhibition of recorded interviews, essays and photographic portraits that went on tour to ten venues, including the House of Parliament!

Anna Harnden, museums, galleries and heritage programme manager at VocalEyes, lead an interesting participatory exercise around object interpretation for blind and partially sighted visitors and those with other sensory impairments. Delegates were given a picture of an object and had to think about the barriers visitors might face in accessing it and how other senses could be utilised for fuller engagement. There were lots of great suggestions, but Anna did emphasise that it is not enough to just describe an object, the reasons why it is important to the museum’s collection is equally important.

To end the Seminar, Becki Morris, collections assistant at Heritage and Culture Warwickshire, explored in some depth how visitors with ‘invisible disabilities’ (dyslexia and other neurodiversity conditions), experience museums and Trizia Wells, inclusion manager at Eureka! (The National Children’s Museum) highlighted how its award winning access programme has been embedded throughout the museum. For example, they asked families what they wanted, which included: an inclusive, welcoming attitude from staff members, affordable and appropriate activities and clear information for visitors. As a result, the museum developed: a training programme for all staff (including online courses), free activities tailored to specific disabilities, support from local groups, an ‘access’ tab on the homepage of the website, a DVD virtual tour of the museum and weekend and holiday clubs to name but a few! In conclusion, the museums that are most effective at removing barriers to access seem to be those that collaborate closely with disabled people and adjust their offer accordingly.

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

Top of the Class – A Museums Association and Group for Education in Museums Seminar

In April, Phil Ainsley of the East Anglian Railway Museum attended this MA/GEM run seminar day looking at museums and schools. Phil was able to attend due to a grant from Essex Cultural Development. Here are his thoughts on the day:

I was immersed into a lecture theatre filled with representatives from all over England, including some heavy weights such as British Museum and Library – yet we all, big and small, have similar challenges to face. Maintaining school visits being one of them.

Museums have traditionally found a relatively easy connection between education and their ability to offer schools visits. Times have changed significantly recently, with schools adhering to the scriptures of a revised chronological curriculum. Museums need to maintain or increase educational visit numbers for income.

A disruptive disconnect had taken place through the process of change. Schools staff are pressed by their auditor (Ofsted) to satisfy up-rated professional standards.  Museum’s are being disadvantaged by the need to satisfy demonstrable learning outcomes.

Schools and academies are increasingly run by more independently,  it was widely reported no cosy relationship exists – anywhere!  New alliances will be built up on individual relationships, as they are re-established then these connections should be cherished.

Most educational advance is delivered without outside visits – it takes a leap of faith stepping outside and offering children a visit. Heritage learning has a big strength, as it links the visitor away from C21 life into unfamiliar territory, forcing a learning or enquiring mind set . As there may be a lesser number of electronic distractions this is a plus! Museums are a place where the young may interact with “inspiring adults” who can enthuse, stimulate thought, and demonstrate. Through unusual objects, show children a contrast to the familiar and everyday

Schools visits are almost exclusively undertaken a primary age children, while many might like to enthuse an older age range, is was universally accepted that is a tough nut to crack. So don’t fret and deliver what you are not comfortable with. Schools offerings should be delivered with consistency, so it was recommended that your collection must be the prime focus –  your curatorial task is to find the link between collection objects and educational goals (noted below).

A museum visit should have some outcomes, it may be it re-enforces what’s been introduced at school, or an opportunity to see new objects or see new activity that can’t be seen in a school building. You may want to pose a question at the beginning of a visit to be answered towards the end.

Visits therefore are more of a lifestyle choice of the schools teaching staff promoter (normally a subject co-ordinator) and the head to sanction the visit.

Best practice is to find historical themes that are not set in any one time period, as the recent changes teach history chronologically. Therefore sweet spots to concentrate on include:

  • In living memory
  • Local History
  • A significant turning point in history

Some school measures may include attention to

  • Spiritual, Moral, Social and British values
  • Heritage
  • Diversity

Which if demonstrated by your collection, will give the necessary specific curriculum value required back at school.

Post visit evaluation therefore is of value to ensure learning took place. Certainly a feedback form – what may be developed together make a stronger connection – even better a dialogue should take place – “How was it for you?”

An alternative approach is a form of outreach through use of loan boxes these can be promoted by web sites, or a link out to “Flickr” ( or any alternative photo-sharing website).

As children are our target audience, then their questions, thoughts and feedback is most important. Adult museum and teaching staff need to concentrate on their observations experiences and questions arising from the day’s visit.

Homework on schools.

Schools with the highest pupil premium may be good candidates for alternative methods of teaching away from the school building. You could read the OFSTED report on schools to identify good points and potential weakness. It can be the weakness you try and address – in this find a path to improve their score.

Normally there would be a named teacher leading in a specific subject area. School newsletters may report on previous visits – in all cases the first person to speak with is probably the school secretary – so never forget them!

Teachers time is a very finite resource, it is suggested any contact is in the “twilight hours” (immediately after lessons 3.00-4.30)

For details of forthcoming Museums Association events, visit their website. The GEM annual conference is in September and details can be found here.

If there is a training day or event that your museum could benefit from attending, but requires financial assistance contact your MDO to discuss potential funding sources.

What is a Tweetup?

Tweetup (Noun)


“a meeting or other gathering organised by means of posts on the social media website Twitter”

– definition by Google

You may have noticed in the events listing that I organise a quarterly tweetup for “museumy people” (including staff, volunteers and students). They are free to attend and you don’t need any experience or knowledge of social media.

Tweetups are very informal affairs. The ones I organise take place in The Ale House, which is just outside of Chelmsford Station. They start at 5:30pm, but you can join in whenever you turn up. We sit and chat about museums and our experiences, ask each other’s advice and share ideas. Along the way we discuss different digital platforms, including blogs, Facebook, Pinterest… and of course Twitter, and how we can use them in museums, but that is only part of what these sessions are about. They’re really just an informal way to get to meet other people from all different levels of the sector.

The next museum tweetup is on Monday 26th January, and we’re being joined by museum bloggers “Ministry of Curiosity” aka Terri Dendy, Collections Information Officer at the Science Museum, and Kristin Hussey, Assistant Curator at the Hunterian Museum. Their blog has been featured in Guardian Culture Pros, Art Industry Magazine Online and the Museums Journal. At the 2014 Museums Association Conference they ran a discussion session which led to the creation of a Social Media Manifesto.

If you’d like to come along, enjoy a natter and meet new people, you’d be very welcome. If you register on-line here, it helps me know how big a table we’ll need in the pub.