MA conference 2015 reflections 

Highly personal reflections on MA conference Sydney 2015.

Really interesting conference for me – my first Australian MA conference, so I can only compare to MA (Vic), AAM, ECSITE and the UK Museum association. (Disclaimer: Rushed thoughts before getting on a plane. Notes for me before I forget, really. )

First, it’s a nice size; not so big that you’re just bobbing in a sea of strangers. There’s always session envy, you can’t go to everything, but it isn’t overwhelming. This also helps with the accessibility of thought leaders. They’re nearby, not cliqueing away from a swarm, easy to find them at coffee and ask questions. Oh, yes, half hour coffee breaks are good too!

Next, I think we as a sector are way too nice. I’m not advocating heckling from the floor, we have to be supportive and safe, but I didn’t see much genuine questioning and critique. Too often an echo chamber of a hundred people tweeting ‘hell yeah!’ to each other. Lynda Kelly stands out as a challenging voice (with evidence and references too!) and I’d love to see a few more voices speaking out like that. But beyond individuals, could we make critique somehow safer and therefore more likely? Practicing what I preach – I found the round table arty chat completely unhelpful. Maybe I’m Captain Dunce of HMAS Uneducated, but the big words in long sentences flew over my head.

Presentations were interesting, though I get more from the twitterbursts around them. As for keynotes, Jonathan Jones inspired me – a good reminder that artists’ thinking and research can be as or more inspiring than the resultant artworks. And of course Xerxes blew us away with his narrative presentation. For me, some once-known, half-known and never-known stuff – but he synthesised it with such clarity that I think I now have a framework for engaging our teams in a common language. I’ll be taking it all back to my team.

Randoms? Wifi donkeys and tinder-for-collections. And I missed the improv session (maybe even as I type!) which was a shame for me.

My overriding thought is that there’s a sense of possibility and change, of hope and new energy. Financial pressures are nothing like the UK’s and anyway can be liberating – experimenting and partnerships are forced as well as encouraged. We’re getting the rise of digital native up the organisations, and at the top having some new thoughtful and passionate directors (women, yay!) will develop our sector’s leadership while we still benefit from the experience of the longer serving. Twitter democratises the voices – the influencers shown in the twitter-mappy things were unrelated to internal hierarchies. I think there’s a moment – and it’s a massive privilege and stroke of luck to be a department head at *right now*.

Next time? I’d like a rule that every presentation is slideshared afterwards. Yes, a rule. If you’ve got something to say, we should get it outside the conference walls and give it some longevity. And let’s talk more about narrative, architecture, exhibitions, exhibiting, making meaning through spaces. (Personal biases, yes!)

Last thing – can Rose Hiscock always encourage us to wag off a session to embrace an adjacent creative activity. I enjoyed the photography show at AGNSW and I might not have gone without that challenge.
Right. Session planning for 2016, now!

Inclusivity starts at home

Saw the Museumnext Indianapolis call for papers – the theme is ‘inclusivity’. I thought about all the usual suspects on this topic at conferences in the past and then tried to recall what had frustrated me about them. And it was that they were often inclusive projects being discussed, not inclusive cultures leading to projects/products. The difference being that when the project ends, the inclusivity ends – but culture is always including. So, stand up and be counted – what did I have to contribute on this?

Two seemingly unrelated start points popped into view.

In my second week at Museum Victoria, there was an event to mark the retirement of a long-serving colleague. I’d not met her, and this was two hours of tea, cake, gifts and speeches. I’d just arrived, wanted to get some work done and start delivering for my boss – so why would i take two hours out of my day for someone i didn’t know? A colleague was horrified; ‘You have to come. In time you will see why. I can see it doesn’t make sense to you but you must trust me on this.’

The next week, I put a proposal to the Executive – and the first question I got was ‘who did you talk to in developing this?’ I was genuinely stunned. From my UK experience, i was expecting questions about strategic fit, data, costs, risks, benefits… But no. ‘Who did you have a chat with’ was what I heard.

I had landed in an organisation that actively maintains a collegiate culture – in which farewell is as important as welcome, and is an opportunity for social norms of unhierarchical togetherness to be expressed and maintained. 

The collegiate culture acts as a fertile soil in which museum practice can thrive. Museum Victoria doesn’t rely on evidence in the same way as museums in the UK. Rather, the hiring and empowering of skilled individuals, combined with cultural practices that make consultation the default, make the collective opinion a near-perfect simalcrum of evidenced reality – or is able to temper and contextualise the data with greater subtlety than I’ve experienced before. And this really benefits our audience work.

Within this museum’s culture, it is completely ordinary to assume that someone ‘other’ could make ‘my/our’ work stronger. When exhibition teams are putting such effort into including the, say, Finance team, it is actually no extra step to include, say, a youth project, a Kindergarten for poverty-line parents, a non-mainstream community. When the tent is already big, bringing in a few more isn’t troublesome. And because the CEO and divisional directors routinely ask ‘who have you spoken to?’ it is simple and obvious for that culture to extend to asking ‘what are the community views about this?’ Once it is routine for that question to be asked, there is a cultural enforcement of inclusivity of diverse perspectives.

And we can easily work with other agencies. Others have written about our work with Vic Health through our Talking difference program, but my point is how straightforward it was to dovetail our objectives around identity and migrant communities with a Health agency’s objectives around reducing incidence of mental illness. Welcoming another organisation hardly feels different to working with a different department within the museum.

The First Peoples exhibition at Melbourne Museum, winner of the AAM’s best Exhibition award in 2014, was created by extending this collegiate and inclusive approach to the Aboriginal community of Victoria. Where a different organisation may have looked to co-create, we handed over authority completely to the Yulendj group to shape the story – their story. We did not seek their input into our curators’ approach to display, but rather by placing our exhibition-making ‘machine’ into their hands.

The above examples didn’t happen because someone advocated for inclusion, they happened because inclusion is simply ordinary. They spring from an consciously maintained culture – one that drags the new, naive British head of exhibitions to the farewell of a retiring education officer in order that he might learn through participation that participation is how we do things here.

Flowers don’t grow because we demand of the seeds that they grow, or put a policy on flower-growth in place. They grow because the conditions enable them to – the nutritious soil, the warmth of the sun. By actively attending to our culture, we create the fertile ground in which inclusivity can bloom.