Well it’s over a week since our return from the Museum Association Conference in Birmingham, we had a fantastic two days but it was really exhausting and a full on experience, rushing from one event to the next. We both agreed on the journey home that we were brain frazzled, but somehow it was worth it. In the time since the conference Amanda has reviewed the delegate list and we were, as we suspected, just a handful of front line staff that were in attendance. Possibly five out of 100s!
This in itself was a very interesting experience, as many of the exhibitors in the hall were noticeably overly interested in hearing that we were from the Royal Pavilion & Museums. This faded quite quickly on hearing we were front line staff and not Directors or CEO’s with the authority to make decisions for their businesses. However we were not deterred and have left the conference feeling motivated, empowered and enabled.
The general atmosphere at conference was very friendly and welcoming, delegates went out of their way to say hello and share information. Networking was in full swing and we met lots of interesting people.
Attending some of the talks, we realised that the heritage sector in general is suffering severely from financial cuts. There was no beating about the bush for the way forward, it’s change all the way as the sector as a whole has to adjust to keeping going with less and less funds.
One event Amanda attended was titled From Resilience to Prosperity. It used a metaphor of a meteorite about to strike the earth to bring home the severity of cuts the sector is facing. Alternatives to the current business models were put forward, which acknowledged and accepted future changes, such as loss of revenue impacting on staff numbers. But it suggested ways to counter deficits by marketing opportunities.
Holly attended a session about how museums should be more like football clubs. This notion sounds ridiculous in the first instance but it focused on the smaller clubs like United FC formed from the disparaged Manchester United fans when an American took over the club a few years ago. Since then, United FC and several other clubs have developed strong community engagement programmes. The talk argued that museums could learn a lot from this sort of club who benefit from lifelong supporters.
As a sector we were told that we are in a better position than other public services to benefit from ‘social capital’ as it can be built on through culture and we are the keepers of culture so to speak. A crisis is upon us and as a sector we need to act rather than over react. This is all a new concept to us and we think we will have to research more to fully understand the implications. But it was interesting to see a position which promoted action and positivity and a way forward with a focus on drivers of commercial success to increase productivity and, in effect, be in control of our own destiny as an individual heritage building, by making bigger and bolder changes.
Lots of people we spoke to were already in museums which had gone to trust. One example is Birmingham Museums who went in to trust a few years ago as this gave them better protection from council cuts. As a trust they were able to start a campaign against the cuts with local and online support. Due to the campaign the planned cut was spread over two years allowing them to plan new methods of fundraising and savings. We also spoke to one of the curators at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, who left us feeling quite positive by acknowledging that whilst transition in itself can seem quite frightening, there is life after trust. A life more streamlined with the focus and emphasis on the strengths of the museum and the individuals within that museum. Strong brands with new models of delivery from an onboard workforce are successful.
On our first day at the conference, Amanda was flagging considerably by 5pm, but Holly being full of life and energy, insisted we went to yet one more event. I was so pleased we did as it was really informative. A very dynamic director from Bede’s World with a strong northern accent and a history of employment within the steel industry was fabulous. He emphasised the importance of the workforce ‘rubbing along’ together, not ‘rubbing against’ each other. He had transformed Bede’s World and seemed to have done so with a very down to earth pragmatic approach, which was based on common sense and facing reality. He had made decisions which empowered his staff and the community. He changed how the idea of a museum can extend into the community and even managed to set up a 6th form college for a group of failing students from a nearby school. Bede’s World is now looking to become a provider of education and also offers apprenticeships to those learners. This was inspirational!
Other events were just as inspiring and motivational such as the Museum Accessibility Talk for the Blind and Partially Sighted. It talked about a visit as a whole experience from planning through the threshold, to leaving. Its emphasis was on access for all being equal and gave advice on how to do this successfully. Apparently only 20% of museums have large print information. From this event I came away more informed on the use and advantages of vivid, varied language being given from describers. Also how important it is for all staff to be fully informed on accessibility and one of the most important things which I heard, not only at this session but another as well which focused on access for all, was that friendly, happy and well informed staff make museums more approachable and accessible.
Amanda also attended a session on LGBT collections within museums which talked about the Walker at Liverpool. This was really interesting and The Matt Smith Ceramics at the Queering the Museum exhibition, were just brilliant and is well worth Googling. I was really pleased to hear the lady from the Walker saying they have funding to work with us, how exciting I can’t wait!
Amanda’s last session at the conference was her favourite, it was called Travellers and Museums. She made a point of visiting this session as she already had an interest in the subject, due to her role of working with the Women’s Land Army on a voluntary basis. She had discovered that the Romany Communities involvement in the Women’s Land Army in World War 2 was very under researched. This, it seems, extends to the histories of the Romany, Gypsy, Travelling and Fairground communities in general in the Museums and Records office. For many reasons, one being the communities own reluctance to share their histories, and also a tradition of story telling amongst themselves.
The Oxford Museum has managed to forge links with an Irish Travellers Woman Group in the Oxford area. This in itself was quite a feat as the communities are hostile to outside approach. A charismatic lady called Kit who had been the mainstay and primary contact within the travellers group had been persuaded to attend the conference and talk. This had been quite a worrying decision as Kit explained that she was faced with fears of discrimination outside her community and was always expecting a virtual ‘slap across the cheek’. That very morning she had been asked within her own community why she was bothering to attend as no one would be interested.
Kit was dynamic funny and passionate and now loves museums after her work with Oxford University Museum. Why, she asks, are our histories invisible? Her enthusiasm and passion mixed with individuality and pure oomph were really inspiring. Oxford University Museums decision to make these bonds and work with the travelling community, facing what appeared to be many challenges, have really produced valuable links and a wonderful exhibition and highlighted the need for more links with communities across Britain from other museums. Kit highlighted how the travelling communities own histories have changed beyond recognition within the last 30 years and how her ‘daddy’s’ stories, which reflect long traditions of a life now vanishing, will soon be lost and how much they need to be included in visible histories reflected within museums. In her words “We have always been here”.
In another room in the vast complex that is Birmingham ICC, Holly attended some session on the visitor experience within the museum. The first was given by Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust detailing how they have used primary sources from the Tudor period to create several school activities including Elizabethan shopping and Tudor recipes. These activities are available for teachers from the website, so even schools a distance from the museum can participate from their classrooms. The highlight of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trusts year is mid-March when they hold Shakespeare Week. In combination with museums and venues around the country they help organise events for children and adults to engage with Shakespeare in a new and exciting way. Part of the talk was given by the events programmer from Tatton Park who this year ran a number of events for school children and general visitors during this year’s Shakespeare’s week. But, I hear you cry, Brighton Museums have no connection to Shakespeare, why is this relevant? Well as explained during the talk, the connection does not have to be obvious, Sunderland FC are planning Shakespeare’s Dream Team event for 2016.
Holly’s last talk was given by the National Trust property, Erddig and TheWholeStory company. Erdding found that their visitors were not engaging with the information about the house, yet it had so many stories to tell. They allowed their volunteers to research stories about the house which TheWholeStory company came in to train them to deliver these stories to engage with the visitors. The stories that are told link the area of the house and gardens that they are in, for example a story about the carpenter next to the gates that he fixed. Erdding have found that their volunteers have found this a more fulfilling day and there is a waiting list to be trained as a story teller. While they have started to get positive name checks in the visitor surveys.
As you can see our trip to Birmingham was full of interesting information and amazing examples of brilliant people. We saw how they work future potential exhibitions, a way to look forward to the future realistically but positively and an insight into new approaches to running the museum, digital technology and the visitor experience. We thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it even though it was exhausting!