Jen Grasso, MA Curating Collections and Heritage student, reports on insights generated as a volunteer at the 2019 Museums Association conference in Brighton.
Conversation, collaboration, cooperation, connectivity, storytelling, (re/de)contextualization: within the framework of sustainability and climate change, themes of dialogue permeated the Brighton Centre where the Museums Association held its annual conference, 2-5 October 2019. As a conference volunteer, I was a fly on the wall observing aspects of the conference first hand. In my role in charge of the roaming microphone, I even helped facilitate the discussion.
Sometimes the dialogue was strategic, encouraging networking to make real-life connections with like-minded (and very friendly) individuals. At other times the dialogue was more literal to the conference theme of sustainability, encouraging open discussions about practical, energy-saving methods. This included pragmatic discussions about shifting temperature and humidity parameters, recycling old exhibition materials and even finding alternative transport options to reduce an exhibition’s carbon footprint. Specific zoning techniques were mentioned, such as grouping objects / collections with similar conservation / preservation needs together in displays, which is not only greener but also recontextualizes the objects within a space, changing the narrative and making a new story. Presenters also encouraged cooperation with local suppliers of greener / recycled materials or even local institutions to take care of / take part in labeling and other display needs to reduce global impact, produce less waste, and to make reusing the norm.
The importance of dialogue within all departments of an institution was emphasized too – from the gift shop to the cafe, from the ticket sellers to the conservators. It takes each and every voice to make a collection / exhibition / institution successful. These conversations can even become part of the exhibition, for example, when working with unpredictable materials (such as the Fatberg!) where issues of display, conservation, health and safety are interconnected. Interdepartmental dialogue also helps inform the staff on better approaches for future practice by encouraging an ongoing conversation about roles and responsibilities in an institution.
Specialist hearing aids and site-specific listening devices for the hearing (and visually) impaired were introduced at the conference to help facilitate dialogue between museums and those who might not have been able, or comfortable, to enter into dialogue before. Technology was also used to help broaden the audience even further with live-action in situ video games encouraging younger audiences to take up a dialogue while not even realizing it, through the act of gaming. Digital interventions addressed matters of voice and authenticity through the “polyvocal medium of podcasts” or by reaching out to communities to share their stories directly on institutional websites, giving much needed first-person accounts. Language can also be used in a virtual setting to increase traffic and thus increase visitors through minor tweaking and embracing the digital “algorithm”, using it to an institution’s advantage. Innovation is a social process and community engagement is a dialogue that needs to be embraced.
Sometimes the conversation was as simple as being clear about an institution’s intent through using clear signage and providing transparency about the development of a particular exhibition. How can a display facilitate a dialogue about the origins of its objects and tell a story that honours the subject matter while still being engaging? There was also a lot of dialogue about ethics. Importance was placed on changing museums’ narratives as a whole. Issues such as racism, genocide and colonialism have shaped the sector and they need to be discussed. There are ethical decisions to be made about who to work with (on a micro and macro level) and sponsorship remains a contentious issue. At the conference, climate activists waving pink flags ran through the auditorium praising the National Theatre for ending its relationship with Shell and rounds of applause were given for the Royal Shakespeare Company for ending its partnership with BP.
As Clayton Thomas Müller explained in his keynote speech, we are all individual sardines in a large school of fish and it only takes a small percentage of us swimming the other way to change the entire school’s direction. So while the theme of the conference was sustainability, what it really seemed to be about was dialogue: keeping it open, widening it, letting it evolve, being open to new forms. Keep talking, keep engaging; tell new stories, change the narrative. Campaigner Dr Errol Francis has argued, “[Museums are] polyphonic space[s] for ideas.” They can be transformative, democratizing and inclusive. And that’s not too bad as a mere fly on the wall.