A participatory museum sector? On discussion, debate and transparency.

All right, fair warning. This is a long post.

The annual Museums Australia conference was held in Canberra in mid-May, and covered a range of topics under the broad banner How museums work: people, industry and nation. I had an interesting conference, in part because I was invited to be a speaker in a plenary session on Shaping the Future of Museums. In it, Dr Patrick Greene, David Arnold (NMA), and I all responded to a presentation from Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, Director CSIRO Futures, in which he spelled out six megatrends expected to change the way we live. The session framed much of the conference for me and opened up many conversations about the future of the sector.

For the remainder of the conference, I purposely sat in on sessions outside my usual comfort zone to get the broadest possible insight. There was lots of useful content (the sessions on the public value of museums, and the business of money were unmissable), with many of the discussions pivoting around common themes; about the importance of collaboration; about how we identify and solve the problems that actually matter; about how we enable career development and training right across the sector; and about the benefits that co-creation engenders for all participants.

As the conference went along, it became apparent to me just how much the questions facing the sector mimic those being played out in our institutions themselves, particularly around questions of participation and collaboration. How does the museum sector become more participatory and allow people right across the sector – regardless of their formal position – contribute to the solving of the problems facing the sector? How to come to terms with the tension between allowing new voices in, whilst simultaneously speaking with a singular voice in order to ensure clarity of communication and vision? How to transition from closed conversations to open ones?

Many of these tensions were readily apparent in an article on the price of climate control and environmental sustainability in Australian museums in The Australian, in which Michaela Boland notes that:

…the structure of the three-day conference — which featured keynote addresses from AGNSW director Michael Brand, West Kowloon Cultural District chief executive Michael Lynch and new Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson — did not lend itself to much actual debate. The overall impression was that Australia’s museum industry seems blithely unaware of its own significance and potential.

Not scheduled for discussion… were many issues concerning the industry, among them Australian museums acquiring items from dealers of questionable reputation, the propriety of museum curators writing catalogue notes for art auction houses and complaints by the auction houses that cultural-heritage rules are stymieing sales of Aboriginal art.

In the days before the conference got under way, meetings were held by the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, Museums Australia and the National Cultural Heritage Committee, where these topics were discussed behind closed doors.

One senior figure tells The Australian museum directors think it is unwise to discuss sensitive issues publicly; another says the institutions are scared to air their dirty laundry lest they fall foul of government funders.

Here a journalist writing for national paper picks apart the conference for being closed and failing to have space for debate, concluding that the sector was “blithely unaware of its own significance and potential” as a result. This rankled me a little, because I disagree that a lack of debate indicates a lack of awareness. Instead, I think it’s indicative of real tensions around the problems of if and how a sector can open up to become more participatory and inclusive, whilst still maintaining the capacity to speak to really important issues with a single voice – tensions I see replicated in discussions about institutional voice in an age of social media.

Social media has made it theoretically possible for everyone to have a public voice in any conversation, whether they have relevant knowledge or not. It makes publishing easy, which means that it is very much an “opt-in” activity. But does the reality that every voice can be heard mean that they all should be, or  are some voices and opinions worth more than others? Does every topic need to be open to debate, or are there some we should just trust to the experts?

Late last year, Matt Popke wrote an excellent comment about institutional voice that is valuable here:

It could be that we need to dramatically alter our institutional voice altogether. Instead of focusing on The Museum we could shift more attention to the individual members of the museum team. As more start blogging and otherwise directly engaging people through social media they’re going to become more visible within the organization anyway. As we pull back the curtain more on our internal processes, we’re going to expose more of those people who are individually making our organizational choices. As these people become more visible, their personalities and individual values will start to take the fore more and more in relation to our institutional identity.

When that transition happens there won’t need to be an institutional position on political issues anymore, just the positions of the various individuals within the institution. It will be their choice how visible they want their opinions to be (to a point, it’s becoming less certain how much anybody gets to choose their degree of publicness anymore). The organization simply won’t have the same kind of monolithic “voice” anymore.

I think the more we allow this process to take hold and be visible within our organizations, the easier it will be to draw the public into the discussion and convince them that they actually have some influence over what we do (and the more they actually will have some influence over what we do). We talk a lot about participatory engagement these days, but we have to change internally a lot before that participation will reach any kind of critical mass.

These ideas are picked up by Mairin Kerr in a discussion on digital protectionism in museums. In considering “Why are there gatekeepers?”, Kerr asks:

…do we really need an institutional voice? Or is this us holding onto the past – the single authoritative voice and idea that an institution must stand united for something. Why not show that there are divisions? Why do we need a strong message? Why can’t the message be diversity? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging multiple voices and perspectives in the new age of museums?

These are important questions. But it’s also important to think about why the unidirectional and opaque “institutional voice” was dominant for so long. I don’t think it was just because that was what the technology enabled. There is real power in having a singular message that is communicated clearly. Consistency of message is critical in showing people what you stand for and enabling them to understand it. While experts can get into hugely nuanced discussions about a topic, based on a shared vocabulary and deep knowledge, most people won’t have the prior learning to engage with the ideas at such a level, and in those cases, clarity is important.

So how do we resolve this paradox? As an insider, I want more opportunities for discussion and debate. I want to be able to take ownership of these issues and make them my own; to feel like I can play a role in shaping the sector. But I also value the power that comes from clarity of vision. Is is possible to have both nuance and simplicity? What happens if the museum directors quoted above are right, and talking about these issues openly makes us vulnerable to political attack? Is that a price worth paying?

Maybe what we’re really looking for – both within our institutions and within the sector – is a kind of “cohesive multivocality” (thanks Ed Rodley!), which allows for multiple perspectives, but all with a shared mission and ultimate goals. And if that’s the case, what are the steps we need to take to enable such a thing to exist?

What do you think?

Initial takeaways from Museums Australia 2012

Museums Australia 2012 is wrapping up today with a day targeted at regional, remote and community museums, which I will only get to a little of due to flight times. However, I wanted to write up my experiences of the rest of the conference, which has been hugely interesting. Of particular use was the opportunity to meet people from small, medium and large museums and galleries within Australia; to talk to directors, academics, curators, students, museum marketers, web and digital project managers, business developers and many more, all in the one place. Such close connection with people right across the sector, at all levels, is a rare and precious thing.

The parallel sessions often had multiple strands of talks that I wanted to attend, in large part because of this diversity. There were discussions relevant to my own areas of focus, but also ones that provided very interesting context to other work.

My personal highlights from the program included:

  • Assoc Prof Joanna Mendolsson’s fascinating presentation on changes in leadership AGNSW in the 1970s, which had interesting resonance with what I’ve been reading lately about the LA MOCA situation.
  • the session I chaired with Jareen Summerville, Cath Styles and Angela Casey, Jonny Brownbill, and Nicolaas Earnshaw, which provided fascinating insight into mobile and social media, and their complexities. We had time for a great discussion about some of the nuance of physical (and digital) situational complexities; technology and education, and much more.
  • In an excellent session on developments on exhibition practice, presentations from Georgia Rouette on the experiences of exhibition designers in Australia partnered with Jennifer Blunden’s cool work on meaning and language in exhibition text, Regan Forrest’s consideration of design factors in visitor experiences, whilst Janet Mack and Penny Grist spoke to permanency in permanent exhibitions.
  • the keynote presentations, particularly from Dr Catherine Hughes (Atlanta History Center), Nigel Sutton, and Michael Mills on museum theatre (with free massages!), and Victor Steffenson from Mulong Productions on living and connected knowledge.
  • Keynotes from museum directors Roy Clare (Auckland War Memorial Museum) and Dr Robin Hirst (Museum Victoria) both provided interesting context to the work and thinking happening in the sector from a leadership level.
  • Holly Schulte giving a really fascinating overview about the nuance and complexity around releasing old police photographs from the Police Museum forensic photography archive (like what happens if someone’s grandfather turns up online, and they didn’t know he had a criminal record?).
  • Dr Dennis Stevenson spoke about living collections and DNA taxonomic testing (really cool innovations in science)
  • In a great session on art collections as a resource, Assoc Prof Alison Inglis spoke about museums and historiography of Australian colonial art, while my old university lecturer Lisa Slade spoke about contemporary art and the colonial archive.
  • Joe Coleman sang my song, speaking on open collections.
  • A visit to the incredible Museum of Economic Botany.
  • #drinkingaboutmuseums with a whole pile of newly met colleagues

Even in that snapgrab of highlights (there are many more I could talk to), there is a sense of the depth and also diversity of presentations here at MASA2012. This is something you cannot get in the same way with a niche and targeted conference, which shows why it is so important to have both kinds of event.

But as with all of these kinds of conferences, it was the opportunity to talk to, exchange ideas with, and learn from, engaged and engaging members of the profession that was the most valuable; and it’s the stuff you can only get from being in the room. From being a member, and coming to the conference. From listening to the stories and experiences of others (and only not in the sessions); from finding those like you, and different from you. I genuinely think attending conferences in this sector has been my most valuable professional development tool, whether a museum tech conference, or MASA2012.

It has been an incredibly rewarding week. It has also been a difficult one; posting as I did yesterday. Although not intended to be disrespectful, the post certainly didn’t make clear the respect I do have for the experience and knowledge of people working in the sector, and for the huge amount of work that goes into this kind of network and event. Rather, it was a post motivated by sudden realisation of my own visibility in an incredibly deep, diverse and complex environment; and my grappling with my own inadequacy to speak to what really matters.

But it was also motivated by a real sense of realisation of the vitality and importance of Museums Australia, which I hadn’t had before I attended. This was a catalysing event for opening my eyes to its purpose as a critical mechanism within the museum sector in Australia. MA brings together all the diverse voices, each with different needs and concerns, into a single place to share ideas, talk and learn. Our whole sector is strengthened by its presence, but because it is a member organisation, it is necessarily strengthened by ours.

So if you had a similarly rewarding conference experience to my own, why not:

1. Go home and share what you’ve learned with colleagues
Have a brown-bag lunch session with others from your museum, and share your highlights from the conference with other people. Bring the news of the conference home with you, so that others are aware of the conversations that started and continued here in Adelaide. Spread the news about why attending the conference is a great idea.

2. Recruit a new member
Bring someone new into the organisation. Invite an emerging museum professional or more experienced colleague who isn’t already a member and get them to (re)connect to the organisation.

3. Register your interest for #MA2013.

4. Put in a proposal for #MA2013.
The theme of the conference next year is How museums work:  people, industry and nation. The call for abstracts opens next week, so it’s a great opportunity to continue the conversation. Why not find some other people with interesting stories to tell, and connect to put together a whole session? I have already heard cool ideas for sessions for next year; I look forward to seeing how these initial ideas develop by May next year.

5. Email someone you met at the conference.
Given that some of the best things about this kind of thing are the people you meet, make sure you follow up with at least one of the people you connected with at the conference in the coming week.

6. Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

7. Identify one thing you want to act on after the conference (could be an idea, or a connection with someone new), and follow it through.
This was a great piece of advice given to me during the week. After taking in so much information at a conference like this, it can be hard to distil everything down. Rather than trying to do everything, or act on all the great ideas that you will have absorbed, find one. And follow through on it in your own institution, or your own career.

What about you? What were your highlights? What will you take home with you from Museums Australia 2012?

Thank you to all those who worked so hard on this conference, and on putting together a program that I really enjoyed. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have gained so much new appreciation for the complexity of our sector from being here, including questions about stratification of museum funding. I look forward to seeing how those conversations develop over the coming months before MA2013.

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.