I’m sure people in all professions value opportunities to get together to “talk shop”; whether it’s teachers’ inset days, pharma sales rep conventions or IT tech shows. But there’s something about working in the cultural sector that makes these get-togethers with other professionals especially energising and inspiring.
I’ve been thinking about why this might be and I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that we belong to a wonderfully open and sharing sector. We talk often about sharing more of our challenges and things that didn’t go so well, but on the whole I think we already share openly and willingly far more than in many other sectors. We genuinely wish all our colleagues in the sector every success and certainly no organisation I have ever worked for has really viewed other organisations as competitors in the traditional sense.
I think we all believe that a healthy cultural offering and exciting new visitor experiences can create more potential visitors for everybody.
The second reason cpd or networking days in the cultural sector are so energising is that what we do is just so inspiring. As the MA say “museums [and other cultural and heritage experiences] change lives!” (My edit).
In the last fortnight I made time in my busy working weeks to attend two events in Glasgow – the Scottish Museums Federation AGM and summer conference and an MA “show and tell” on New Approaches to display and interpretation.
At the SMF event in Kelvingrove Museum we heard all about Dundee. It’s an exciting time for the city. Speakers Gill Poulter and Pamela Roberts outlined projects going on at the Verdant works and also the community engagement work going on in advance of the building of the V&A Dundee. My parents are both from Dundee and it’s a city I’ve visited often (more often than most) but although I have a fondness for it I would not really have recommended it as a tourist destination. However, in 2016 it is my top tip for a super city break! Testament to the immense difference that cultural projects can make to a place.
After the Dundee speakers, we heard about a fantastic project run by a partnership of the Scottish Refugee Council, Glasgow Museums and others. ‘A View from Here’ is an arts and heritage project to document the heritage of the high flats in two districts of Glasgow and the experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and local Scots who live there. This is a heritage soon to be lost as the high-rise flats are demolished. Please follow the link above to watch a trailer for the documentary, I am really looking forward to seeing the full film.
The last project we heard from was the redevelopment of Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh. A very welcome refresh of the more than 300 year old institution to make it more accessible both physically and intellectually.
A week later I was back on the train to Glasgow again, this time to St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life for a Museums Association event on display and interpretation. In the morning we heard from three projects involving participation, co-curation and community ownership. All three were inspiring exemplars of what can be achieved when museums open their doors to the local community and break down the curator/visitor dichotomy.
At the Silk Mill in Derby, visitors are literally creating the displays through Maker’s Faires and workshops and with high-tech power tools. Development Manager Hannah Fox was somewhat modest when describing how she, with a very small team, has managed to create a remarkable momentum amongst the community of involved volunteers. It has certainly resulted in a really buzzing place that is more than a museum, it’s a community and even a state of mind!
From Barnsley we heard about the interesting situation of creating a new museum in a place without one and the ways in which that can be transformative in the local sense of place and identity. We heard how initially local young people thought of Barnsley as a place that didn’t have any history! And how the wounds of the pit closures were either too painful for those who experienced them to talk about or were embarrassing or misunderstood by those too young to have been there. Of course museums aren’t the only way in which communities tell their stories or create a sense of identity. But when the wider London-centric media is so all-pervasive and tells such damaging stories about the working class and the parts of the industrial north affected by the miners strikes and pit closures, this can become accepted truth. Barnsley shows us how museums can be a catalyst for challenging stereotypes. The museum development became a hub around which a community can gather and share stories to create positive identities and beliefs about themselves, their past and their potential futures.
It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the stories people tell themselves about their identity and past when it comes to affecting their future and aspirations.
In the afternoon we heard about some projects using very different display and interpretation techniques – from the elegantly simple and budget conscious at the Foundling Museum to the high-tech at the Bannockburn Visitor Centre.
It’s hard to sum up the two days, the projects we heard about were diverse, but the overall impression I was left with was one of the importance of museums, culture and heritage. Of course it’s still possible to run or create a museum in the old “ivory tower” model with little relevance to people’s everyday lives, but the evidence from these two days, not just the speakers but the delegates too is that there is genuine belief that museums (and other culture and heritage experiences) can, and more importantly SHOULD change lives. And that makes me proud to be a part of this sector!