Dispatch from Museums Australia Conference 2012

I am writing to you from a quiet dawn moment of sleeplessness whilst at the Museums Australia Conference in Adelaide, South Australia.

This is my first mainstream museum conference, and also my first Australian museum conference. Until now, I have been closeted safely within the confines of the museum technology community, and have been more exposed to American museumers and the stories of their experiences than those of my local sector.

Attending has been eye opening and challenging on different levels. I am learning a lot, and becoming very aware of some major gaps in my  knowledge about the sector in Australia. It has only really whilst being here that I’ve really started to consider the complexity of the funding structure that includes federal, state and local government organisations. Despite an awareness on some level that there were these different levels of support with different concerns and mandates, it had not really hit home how much that stratafication shapes what is possible and achievable within the sector. It is something I will have to think much further on.

I can see this complexity emerge most readily in conversations I’ve had about the role, purpose and future of Museums Australia itself. For all is not well in the world of this sector body. There are signs that it is an institution in crisis, with dropping membership numbers and fewer attendees at the conference. On Tuesday the organisation held a meeting to discuss its future, painting a fairly grim picture about the uncertainty of the organisation’s direction, path and, more than anything, relevance.

At that meeting, I spoke up about the fact that I had barely joined the organisation myself, and had only done so for the conference. I addressed that question of relevance of this seemingly slow-moving organisation that feels (to me) so removed from the robust and valued discussions I have about the sector in other spaces. I don’t know whether it was out of place for me to speak up, but I was one of only a very small number of people in the room who appeared to be an emerging professional, and so I felt the need to do so.

What I spoke to was my experience that there doesn’t seem to be the same mechanisms for discussion, for really pulling apart what the sector is doing right now in context of the changing social and economic climate as I have experienced elsewhere – whether at the conference, or as part of the network more generally. Although I am really enjoying this conference, and getting huge benefits from the insight into different areas of the sector, and about the complexities of working within the Australian government structure, there seems to be comparatively little room for joint problem solving or actually trying to nut out what the changes in our world mean for the sector here. The conference has been largely filled with show-and-tell papers, many of which are hugely interesting, but don’t necessarily provide people with either practical skills or the space in which to think through issues confronting them with colleagues. Now, that stuff of course happens in the conversations around bars and dinners, over meals, but this lacks the robustness of debate that can happen when professionals with different experiences are plonked down with microphones and a good facilitator and actually invited to talk about real problems.

Yesterday I did what may have been a professional misstep, and what was certainly a gamble, and ditched my prepared speech in order to just talk about my concerns that we still really don’t understand the point of (many) online collections, beyond the idea of “access” (obviously picking up from Koven’s work in this area). My original talk was stronger than the one I actually presented, and would likely have made my point more eloquently… but in going freeform, there became some room for debate and discussion (and heated temperatures – my session chair did not agree with me on some issues).

A frequent concern that I carry is whether I have the right to speak up about the sector at all. What right do I have to do so? What happens if the noise I make proves to be a diversion away from the issues of real importance; a terrible nag that ignores the things that matter because I am too blinded by my own interests. We all have our own biases, and it is certainly not correct that simply being noisy about an issue means you have something meaningful to say. I ask questions about the things that I cannot or do not understand, and it’s great to get answers. But that doesn’t mean these are the things the sector should be talking about.

This is also why there need to be strong mechanisms for debate; for calling someone out on a bad idea or working out why something cannot or will not work. A comment that someone senior in the field made to me this week was that “People are terribly polite in this sector.” I think he was right. It’s actually one of the lovely and charming things about working in museums, that museum people very much do want to work for the good of the community, and they carry an awareness that causing offense unnecessarily is something to be avoided (it’s an issue people grapple with so often in exhibition curation etc). But politeness can also be a problem, surely, if it prevents people from speaking up when something is rotten in the town of Denmark.

We need more people to join in the debate, and we need to encourage the people from small institutions to speak to their challenges as well as their successes, because without it we cannot even know if we are trying to address the things that matter. It is important not to be blinded by that which is shiny and present (or easy) at the expense of that which matters.

What do you think? What are the most pressing issues facing the Australian museum and gallery sector?

I should say at this point that I am only here at MASA2012 thanks to receiving a partial bursary from the MA Museum Studies National Network.

9 thoughts on “Dispatch from Museums Australia Conference 2012

  1. A) delighted we met yesterday … B) of course you have the right to speak up and say something – we all do. That is the point of these conferences – so we all have a voice and place at the table. C) as a strong supporter of Museum Australia – perhaps it is time to take a page from American counterparts and institute a young leaders program and cultivate a new generation?

    1. That’s an interesting idea. I have to say, having attended the conference, I have actually become a far more ardent and invested member of Museums Australia now. I’m going away with a lot from this conference, and have gained a lot of perspective about the sector. While before I came I wasn’t convinced of the value of MA, I actually really am now. It’s one reason that I think we need this kind of discussion; to ensure that the conversations we start here do continue on back home, and across and throughout the sector. And I think that’s something we as members are all responsible for; we are the ones that make the network.

  2. Although I am not from Australia and did not attend the conference, I have to commend you for speaking up. It seems that all too often, the truth is rarely spoken and people stand behind something because it has always been done that way.
    I recently attended a conference at Parsons on the topic of intelligent design and sustainability where groups of academics, designers, manufacturers, government, and museum professionals met to share ideas. It was unlike anything I’ve attended before and was structured to encourage innovative thinking.
    It is sharing of ideas that fosters innovation and that is one reason why I admire this blog.

  3. Ingrid, I think you’ve identified something of the problem that I’m grappling with. This isn’t about truth; it’s about noise. We just had a great discussion on the topic of social media and the squeaky wheel getting the grease; that it’s the noisy people who demand attention and getting listened to – but that maybe they don’t represent the silent and wonderful majority. And this is something that really concerns me. I speak out, and then people listen because I make noise. But what I say isn’t necessarily right and it’s not necessarily what people should be listening to. It’s actually my bad ideas that I want people to call out. This is why I think we need debate; to balance out voices like mine. When I speak out, as someone who is new and from the outsider, I’m probably not picking up the really important issues. Which is why I want to know what the people within the sector think are the important questions; its to counter my own biases, which could very well be wrong. So what are the right ones?

  4. As usual, honest and insightful commentary here! If you don’t feel empowered to speak out at a conference with fellow professionals, then where? Of course, as you say, if you can’t have a back and forth conversation though, it’s hard to see the point. But that discussion develops over time, no? Culture shifts are difficult! Sounds like this organization is going through some change right now.

    In the meantime, would you be willing to share any part of your informal/formal presentation about putting collections online? Its something I’ve thought about a tiny bit, thanks to Koven’s Ignite Smithsonian presentation, but I haven’t dug into very deeply. It’s something that my institution is pondering right now, and I’d love to hear your thoughts……

  5. Hi Suse,

    As someone who was heavily involved with the planning of the conference I’m glad to hear such issues being raised. We had hoped to have more open debate at the conference, but circumstances conspired against us a bit. A case of grand ideas left unrealised 🙂

    Firstly, as you say, many of us are too polite and find it difficult to stick our heads above the parapet. It’s hard to get good debate going in this context. Also, to find the right people to get these discussions going can take a fair bit of research – a time-consuming task that was beyond the reach us as an all-volunteer committee (enthusiastic as we were). As planning the conference gained a momentum of its own, it was often all to easy to default back to time-honoured formulas that everyone understood and it was easy to garner support for. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to ask the question as to whether that formula is the right one.

    We pushed at the edges of the standard conference formula (particularly in the Regional, Remote and Community museums day) – some of these changes worked and some didn’t. That’s the price of experimentation. But I think there is a strong argument for going back to basics with respect to the format, length and structure of the whole conference. Besides anything else, there is a proliferating landscape of museum-related conferences with which MA has to compete for both delegates and sponsorship dollars.

    I’m encouraged that you came away as an MA ‘convert’ so to speak – as someone who has attended several MA conference and has been on SA branch committee for nearly 5 years in various capacities I’m really too close to things to see the big picture sometimes. It’s good to hear a fresh perspective.

    I’m sure we’ll chat about this further! 🙂

    Regan Forrest
    MA South Australian President and chair of MA2012 organising committee

    (PS I’m responding here in a private capacity and my views do not necessarily represent MA nationally or in SA)

    1. Regan, it is so great to hear your response. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply, and to share your perspective. I definitely did come away from the conference a convert, and gained huge benefit from being in the room with people from across the entire sector. It was actually that which prompted my post, much more than any sense of criticism of the conference itself (even if that’s how it read). It was being in the context of so many people with so much experience that prompted my own sense of illegitimacy to speak to the sector at all, as someone still so new to it.

      When I spoke, in the meeting, about the robustness of my own discussions in the sector and how they have come from networks beyond the MA network, it was speaking as someone who has found a space on Twitter and blogging and social media. But this discussion has really forced me to think through this issue, and the more I consider it, the less I think mine is a typical experience within the sector. I imagine there are far more people working in museums who still get their news through more traditional mechanisms (like the journal), and for whom the traditional conference format is actually the best one by far. It is known, it brings with it definite outcomes. I might love discussion, but many people want case studies in order to get ideas for ways to approach things in their own museums. My experiences coming from the tech-thinking end of the sector are a-typical ones; which is what concerned me about speaking out. It was not any sense that my voice wouldn’t be welcome, but more than I was bringing ideas that work for a particular group of people into a context where maybe they wouldn’t be as appropriate.

      So how to deal with the noisy voices (like my own) that are interested in change and experimentation, in part because it suits the culture of a particular end of the sector in a particular moment, whilst also balancing the very real needs of the silent majority; particularly those who are offline, and who have not otherwise established the same robust network for discussion? It is those people who need the network, the journal, the conference, far more than the otherwise-connected people. There is a paradox in the fact that the ideas that get pushed through because they are the ones most discussed are not necessarily the ones most needed. My final line in the blog post “It is important not to be blinded by that which is shiny and present (or easy) at the expense of that which matters” actually was me thinking through this issue (although not very well). I think that much of what MA offers – both as a network and a conference – is actually the stuff that matters right across the sector, particularly to those without other forms of network. This is why both the conference and the organisation are so important, because they offer connection to bigger discussions to people that might not otherwise have ready access to them. And this is why it concerned me that when I make noise in this context, it might be a distraction from what is really important. MA, like museums and many other organisations, is trying to balance communicating with multiple audiences across multiple platforms, using many different media and languages, and that’s a really big ask. No wonder things are complex.

      Thank you again for both the response, and for your hard work on the conference. It was both rewarding and sobering to get a far deeper insight into the sector than has otherwise been available to me to date.

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