Museum Association Conference 2013

My colleague Susan and I were privileged to attend last year’s Museum Association conference in Liverpool. We were welcomed outside Liverpool Central Station by a blaze of twinkling lights and the most dazzling Christmas tree. More lights accompanied our walk to our base at the dockland redevelopment, sparkling from the trees, glowing from the big wheel and reflecting in the water.

This dockland area is a museum menagerie housing the Merseyside Maritime Museum (which incorporates the International Slavery Museum), Tate Liverpool and the Museum of Liverpool.

Our conference was held in the BT Convention Centre, a building shaped like a state-of-the art cauldron and therefore well suited to the fervent brew of ideas, prophesising and conversational hubbub bubbling within. It was great to catch-up with old colleagues and when meeting new ones to compare notes.

The cauldron-shaped BT Convention Centre. Photo courtesy of ACC Liverpool
The cauldron-shaped BT Convention Centre. Photo courtesy of ACC Liverpool

Three main themes dominated the talks and workshops:

The Therapeutic Museum examined the role of the museum sector in improving people’s health, wellbeing and happiness.

Tomorrow’s World considered how technological developments are changing the museum experience and the skills needed by the museum workforce.

The Emotional Museum explored the strong emotional experience felt by museum visitors and how museums should engage with this in order to connect with diverse visitors.

The Freedom! Sculpture in the International slavery Museum. The sculpture is made with recycled objects in Haiti.
The Freedom! Sculpture in the International slavery Museum. The sculpture is made with recycled objects in Haiti.

The underlying message of all three themes was that, in order to survive, museums need to meet the needs of their communities. As one speaker said, to start with the heart then work outwards through storytelling to the collections [Christian Lachel, vice president, senior creative director, BRC Imagination Arts, USA Com].

My conference highlights:

In the session Challenging prejudice and discrimination, it was interesting to hear how Judith Vandervelde, senior educator, at Jewish Museum challenges the preconceptions that some children have about the Jewish faith. She does this by using objects such as Kippah skullcaps with football emblems to build bridges between communities. Also, in this session Alan Rice, Professor in English and American Studies, UCLan argued the case for displaying neglected controversial or offensive objects hidden in stores. They can become valid objects if displayed with the right contextual interpretation.

During the Digital democracy session John Ferry, digital and new media manager, Glasgow Museums, promoted the Story Player central content-management system, which can be managed in-house and authored by all staff e.g. curators, marketing and front of house.

In the Jodi Awards for accessible and digital culture I was inspired by artist Ticky Lowe’s use of a simple computer called Arduino to produce multi-sensory experiences involving lights, smells and sounds.

Arduino device. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Arduino device. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The bonkers session Collections twister, which involved throwing a huge dice to distribute imaginary objects, also included a not so bonkers plan outlined by Jane Henderson (Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University) to develop a national database for colleagues to share collections and knowledge.

This atmosphere of inspirational discourse at the conference was tempered by a spectre at the feast – the museum sector’s funding crisis or challenge, the preferred term of the Arts Council Chairman Peter Bazalgette. It was sobering to hear David Fleming (Director of National Museums Liverpool ) and MA president David Anderson in their speeches, describe the inequalities of funding across the sector between London and the rest of the country and that local councils have cut funding to museums by 11%. The MA plan to campaign against the worsening cuts. David Fleming urged us to ‘Not go quietly into the night’. My pondering how not to do this was answered by the Social Justice Alliance for Museums. You can read their charter for social justice.

Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport ) also spoke of the funding gap between London and the regions (a disparity of one to 14 in spend) which she asserted could not made up by philanthropy alone. It was encouraging to hear that Labour intended to extend the export deferral period to 30 months to give cultural institutions more time to raise funds and prevent the haemorrhaging of art works abroad.

After a wonderful send-off by Liverpool poet, Curtis Watts, we left the conference and joined our train, which was packed with colleagues chatting intensely, quietly musing or just plain stupefied by the intensity of the past days. It had been a really invigorating, interesting and supportive experience.

Lucy Faithful, Assistant Curator of World Art

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