We Empower Museums, that is the We Are Museums strap line and in a year of often rapid and occasionally violent change in societies across the world, its is a statement that feels more important than ever. Now in it’s fifth year, the annual gathering that is We Are Museums 2017 offered some great examples of how museums are becoming empowered to meet this challenge as well empowering communities and society.
Over the last 12 months my professional life has been beset by bland, meaningless and vacuous ‘slogans’ that neither reflect the actual work of my organisation or offer any substance or practical solutions for changing practice and influencing the sector. So, I came to the We Are Museums 2017 gathering in the Latvian capital of Riga with caution and fear that the two day conference would be empty of content.
However, this annual gathering of We Are Museums, which is led by Diane Durbay and Claire Solery ,was a refreshing antedote to a cynicism that had started to creep into my own work through some very poorly handled organisational change. Statements dotted around the whole conference like the ones below were aimed at stimulating conversations between museum professionals about the the role museums rather than be a substitute for content.
We Are Museums 2017 took residence in the Latvian Art Academy just opposite the conference host and recently renovated Lativian National Art Museum for two days. Over the course of the gathering I got to experience some genuinely exciting and innovative museum practice that felt carefully curated (sorry curators) along themes including Museums as Creative Spaces, The Empathetic Museum, Museums as Social Capital Builders, The Post-Internet Museum.
There were a multitude of organisations represented at the conference, mostly from Europe but also from as far away as North America and Australia all taking part in what felt like an exciting discourse on the value of museums.
What did I take away?
As well as meeting some fantastic peers from many different institutions, what did I take away from my two days in Latvia? The conference allowed me to step off the hamster wheel that is public programming and gave me the space to look at the diversity of excellent practice in the museum sector. The insight I gained whilst not being revolutionary (and you would assume fairly obvious) has helped consolidate some of the thinking I’ve been reflecting on over the last 12 months about my practice and my belief in museums.
A museums’ values are more important than ever before
The line-up of speakers for the two days were from a diverse mix of museums from the Jewish Museum Frankfurt to Wellcome Collection to Helsinki City Museum to the National Gallery of Denmark. All of the organisations that presented shared a key feature, a strong purpose and set of core values. The organisations’ values were right at the forefront of all the practice that we heard from, having this clear is what I believe gave their staff the confidence to be brave and courageous to expand the work of their individual museum.
If it ain’t authentic don’t do it
Museums have often been guilty of chasing fashions and responding to trends regardless of the nature of their collections. This has often led down to cul-de-sacs for museum practice with disengaged curators and collections staff less likely to work with programmes that are more relevant at later points. I found the presentation by Julie Rokkjaer Birch from Denmark’s Women’s Museum really inspiring. She shared how the museum were inspired by the women’s history collection to lead a vibrant discussion on sex in a historic and contemporary context. The interventions such as being commissioned by the municipal state to deliver sexuality education in schools to Men Only dining clubs or their Gender Blender exhibition stayed true to their founding purpose of their collection of the Danish women’s movement.
“Audiences are a museum’s greatest asset”
One highlight was the talk Rosie Stanbury, Head of Live Programmes at Wellcome Collection who highlighted the importance of having audiences at the core of all your work. This was a common thread that ran throughout from presentations by Leyla Tahir from Tate Collective or Seb Chan from the Australian Centre for Moving Image, for an organisation to be successful in their work they need to have a clear understanding of who their audiences are and why they want to work with them. This clear understanding can lead to change such as audience profile or even office spaces and culture. Rosie discussed the Open Platform in the Reading Room that aims to be a participatory space where visitors can share their own knowledge and experience that some ‘discussion’ formats often shortchange. If an audience can’t see themselves or are able to participate and share in your work they won’t want to have a relationship with you.
This is something I feel particularly strongly in and is key to reflective practice, look beyond your organisation. Looking outward can be for lots of reasons such as inspiration in dealing with particular issue to how other organisations have dealt with it, or as was the case from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh engage a new audience. Desi Gonzalez was charged with making a visual art museum more inclusive to people with visual impairments and recognising the limitations of the expertise in her organisation reached out to collaborate with institutions and people to develop their final audio-guide. The process as highlighted in her excellent blog series led to some fundamental insight without which the audio-guide much more inclusive that it could have been.
Desi’s work at the Warhol is just one example of many we heard about that put people at the heart of the design process for new programmes and activities. Several museums have embraced this practice that is borrowed from the design industry. When Helsinki City Museum underwent a transformation right from the beginning of the process they wanted it to be designed with people and give everyone the opportunity to fall in love with the city. They started the process by simply listening to the people of Helsinki about what they wanted from a city museum and how to make it relevant to their live. The result is a museum that puts content on a par with the overall museum experience with the cafe at the heart of that. This people centred design approach is what Leyla Tahir from Tate Collective believes is at the heart of what makes the programme a success and making a 120 year old collection of art relevant to a generation of young people. Listening to young people and giving them a voice is key to Tate Collective and that can be broadened out work with all audiences. Less shouting more listening I believe.
A change will come
Museums aren’t static bodies but the best museums are dynamic and embrace innovation in practice. For museums that have a strong set of values, programmes that are authentic to their collections, a clear understanding of the audiences they want to work with and willing to be open and collaborate with them or organisations that can reach them will inevitable be successful. And the key to that success is the people who work in museums, staff that feel empowered will inevitably empower audiences, but as Seb Chan highlighted that requires a culture change. Just as importantly for museums to have dialogue with it’s visitors, museums need to create a space for conversation between staff and staff across the museum. Now more than ever there is no excuse for ‘silo’ working there needs to be a move to what Seb called ‘radical transparency’ at all levels of the museum hierarchy embracing collaborative tools both physical (in the case of the offices of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) and digital to create an open discursive culture.
The brilliant team at We Are Museums have written a great take-away blog and uploading full videos of all the presentations on their Vimeo page. After one of the most invigorating conferences I’ve been to in a long time I look forward to Marrakesh for We Are Museums 2018 to share and hear about some of the exciting practice across our sector.