2 small thoughts on old empire museums

I began the week with Courtney Johnston’s blog. She’s rebutting a reactionary blogpost from the UK, which states that Museums must be enlightenment scholars of objects, and that any community perspectives are of little value when set against (and it is ‘against’) scholarship (western, obv). Her amazing response was a great way to start the week.

What grabbed me in particular was her quotation from Mark O’Neill

The sense of being the invisible centre is reinforced by the exemption of one culture in each museum from scrutiny – that of the metropolitan country itself. 

This touches on one bugbear of mine. Once a person or organisation decides to apply disinterested rational enquiry to everyone but themselves, they’re bad scholars and should be called out as such.

After a few days reflection, another point occurred to me. Enlightenment thinking is teleological; it runs in one way, which is assumed to be towards ‘better’. The very framing of’old empire museum’ principles is towards a complete, completist, collection and body of knowledge, and that is self-evidently ‘better’. The notion, therefore, of contested meanings, of returning to communities for a new perspective that may unravel that linear journey, must be resisted if the enlightenment isn’t to fail on its own terms. It’s an internal failure of the frame of reference.

Disclaimer / announcement of humility: Since moving to Australia two years ago, I have learnt a lot. And I have been [forced to / able to] reflect on past experience differently. The above is me wrestling with it. My lacking of deep scholarship doesn’t really equip me to demonstrate and reference any of that and i’m perfectly happy to be shot down for sub-undergrad theorising 😉


What do we call them?

How do we name the [non-specialists that use museums]? Are they the audience? the visitors? The users? Or guests? And because language shapes thought, and influences our communications with colleagues, what does this mean?

So here’s a start to conceptualise this – super personal, no broad sampling base but interested who else sees this (or disagrees!)

We call them…* Who do I hear using this term? What can it imply that’s positive What can it imply negatively?
Audience Marketing, exhibitions, Education/Learning Lots of them 😉



Might applaud

A homogenous mass – not individuals.

Museums broadcast ‘at’ them

Visitors Exhibitions, marketing, Commercial Individuals and social groups. Feels ‘real’ Fleeting and not engaged in depth
Users Digital Purposeful, driven, knowledgeable Self-centred. Get it and leave, rather than browse and linger


Guests Customer service, tourism specialists Museums should be good hosts

We might know their names.

Focus on ‘basics’ such as toilets, signage

Being welcoming is ‘enough’

Not here to learn/engage

Customers Commercial, customer services They can help the museum financially.

We can use service industry practice

If they aint spending money we don’t care about them. Don’t value (free) web offer

*let alone what they call us!

Some terms are preferred and socially encouraged by managers / CEOs. This can be brilliant – an org that depends on immediate financial return for its survival might do well to think of everyone as a customer.

But there are hidden downsides too. ‘What are we offering for our customers?’ doesn’t sit in the same conceptual field as ‘how are we serving our audiences?’ A team with too many terms will confuse itself. I have seen confusion between exhibition and digital teams with the word ‘users’ – user doesn’t really make sense to the showcase layout designer.

Personally, I hate hearing visitors referred to as ‘customers’, I think because in my ideal world all museum services are free and bountiful and everyone wants them. Hippy, yes. Though this is a rational overlay on something deeper I can’t articulate.

‘Guests’, however, has made me think differently. The implied obligation to host well forces a focus on the most basic Maslowian needs during exhibition development. I recently used an unexpected underspend to buy seating; I think that was influenced by thinking of ‘guests’ not ‘visitors’.

I don’t necessarily think the museum world needs to agree on one definition – the diversity is good. But I do think we need to be more aware of how we speak of visitors (my preference!) – and what that may imply to others.

Interpretation is dead. Long live interpretation!

Crisis of professional confidence. And, being me, I’ll write it publicly and allow cleverer people than i to let me know how i’m missing the point…

I’m seeing that the word ‘interpretation’ is no longer fit for purpose – its meaning is too degraded to be useful. Taking four definitions…

The US National Association of Interpretation

Interpretation: A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.


Heritage interpretation refers to all the ways in which information is communicated to visitors to an educational site, such as a museum or science centre.

Interpretation Canada

Interpretation is a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and relationships of our cultural and natural heritage, through involvement with objects, artifacts, landscapes and sites. 

Interpretation Australia

Heritage interpretation communicates ideas, information and knowledge about natural or historic places in a way which helps visitors to make sense of their environment. Good interpretation will create engaging, unique and meaningful experiences for visitors.

So why does this list of definitions bother me? Apart from disquiet that a profession over 50 years old can’t agree on the basics, it’s the introduction of multiple meanings and unchallenged assumptions that feel problematic.

So one meaning is around a process – interpretation as a verb. ‘The team will make this exhibition using methods collectively referred to as interpretation.’

Another is around an end product – interpretation as a holistic, collective noun. ‘The team will make the [interpretation] using objects, text, lighting, sound…’

A third is as a specific subset noun within something else. ‘The team will make an exhibition containing objects, interpretation and lighting.’

Never mind that some definitions are struggling to make a noun of something they seem to treat as an adjective.

But there is a much wider problem for me. The notion that a ‘resource’ has only one intrinsic meaning or set of meanings is woven tightly within all of these. While the better ones are generous in allowing audiences multiple meaning-making, and acknowledging they may have different interests and motivations, the authority over meaning is kept very close.

Who has chosen which meanings are valid? How transparent is it who has made that choice and how? And it’s implied that there are correct ways to engage with the resource and incorrect ways.

I’m starting to think about it differently. I suppose over the years I have been influenced by Learning outcome methodology, and the concept of ‘engagement with’ rather than ‘communication to’. And being in Australia, where certain truths about museum collections are more visibly, actively and helpfully disputed, has made me question this authority position further.

So I think I’ve landed here. Interpretation happens inside the minds of the visitor, and all that is – or isn’t – in the space contributes to the active meaning-making going on inside any individual mind. We in exhibition-making are there to create the conditions in which people can do this.

Our job is to understand and enable this meaning-making. We present, display, write about, theatrically present, select, light, etc etc – and in so doing enable the visitor to make their meanings. All of these skills are encompassed within the loose network of professionalisms we call interpretation, evaluation, informal learning, curation, etc. If we deploy these skills critically and enthusiastically, the end product will enable audiences to make meanings, and those meanings will be life-enhancing. This could involve selecting what meanings we think should be made – that’s fine but we need to consciously own (document and publish) that we are doing so.

Following that logic, we must grant extraordinary generosity of spirit to our visitors – they are arriving for a reason, and they will use the stuff we make for that reason.

Visitors are the meaning-makers. Visitors do the interpretation. Long live interpretation!

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.

Advocating for digital and the finite bowl problem

Reflecting on watching the MuseumNext conference. How different a conference looks when followed on twitter from another hemisphere!

As always, this post is a half-formed thought; I write to clear my head and see what others have to say. Critique nicely 😉

I see a great deal of powerful advocacy for more/better digital work in museums. But I’m uneasy about its impact. I’m not critiquing the vision; rather critiquing an underlying assumption in the method: that better advocacy will lead to more/better digital.

Anyone remember being a student at the Pizza Hut salad bar? You have a bowl, you can fill it up as full as you can, get your money’s worth (so you’re fed with cash to spare for beer text books). Using onion rings to hold another tomato worked well.

The current digi advocacy seems to be ‘we need more…’ – similar to ‘squeeze more into the salad bowl’. We’ve just been through annual budget planning. There’s not a single department in the museum who can’t make a case for needing more – to fulfill statutory and moral needs, to serve our audiences better, to generate revenue… But no-one is advocating for less money in their field. No-one is saying ‘yes, you’re right, you need it more than I do’.

Museum’s generally agree we need more digital stuff – we all want more salad in the bowl. The problem is, if you want more peppers, you have to leave out some tomatoes. Who decides, in what framework, with what benchmarks? Someone has to lose, and Museums are generally made up of nice people.

The argument I often see is looking at superfans setting up communities with youtube channels and saying ‘why can’t we do that, it’s free?’ What this misses is that management attention is also a finite bowl. The senior team’s heads only have enough space for a certain amount of salad. What should they stop focusing on?

I would love to hear thoughts on what Museums should stop doing in order to do more digital. Fewer exhibitions, less scholarship, less outreach, less conservation…? Because until that’s the discussion we are having, i think a lot of advocacy for digital activity will remain a face/off between a preacher and a wall, in which the choir is passionately singing the same chorus, but hears only echoes.


Conference + long plane journey = hmmm.

Two weeks on from AAM 2014, I’ve recovered from jetlag and cleared my emails. We’ve also been having a series of debriefs at work between the attendees of Museums Australia National and Victorian conferences, AAM and Remix Sydney. From these I have some pondering points…

Who’s swimming, who’s staying out of the water?



I’m now 40, and living in a new country. I’m noticing things as a cynical hack and as an ingenue. It’s an odd mix. But it’s helping me notice who is in sync with the world outside museums and who isn’t. My experience of AAM – selective, biased – was that there was a cluster watching how our world is changing (seemingly seeing it as not-my-problem) and a cluster who were swimming in the rivers of change. And this split – very crudely – into Exhibitions / Digital.

Exhibitions are big, risky, and have oodles of compliance / risk / board oversight. So the department gets headed up by someone who’s a fair distance from the cultural cascade. I don’t mean whether we go to galleries, read novels, get the trends in illustrative design – I mean the shifts in how people make and communicate meaning.

The digital people are in the river, not watching from the bank. And they seem further up too, nearer the source. They are open, generous and willing to dip under the surface, risk drowning. And to be carried along, to know that they are part of the current and moving along with it. Can’t go much faster, but really can’t go much slower either.

Exhibitions are going to change, but are the leaders of exhibitions teams (and, I include myself in this) just watching the river? It’s making me question aspects of our practice, and where my focus is at work. Which brings me to the next thing i took away…


Is interpretation dead?

My exhibition work has sprung from the 80s interpretation way of thinking, broadened by the move to Outcomes and Engagement. When I used to train exhibition developers, I would start by asking the question ‘why make an exhibition?’ – why not make a book? – encouraging the students to look at and use the strengths of the medium not think as a native of the book (more usually, the monograph!).

So now I’m looking at what’s happening in digital, and asking ‘why make an exhibition?’ Narrative, accuracy, relevance, social engagement – they all seem to be better suited to emerging digital platforms and activities, rather than to exhibitions. Specifically, narrative itself is moving cross-media, and a simple A >> B >> C exhibition narrative simply doesn’t cut it. (My mind is still blown by Mike Jones’ post on producing a storyworld bible at the Australian National Maritime Museum.)

What have exhibitions got that only they can do?

I’m back to social, in-real-life experiences. And I’m at authenticity and theatre more than anything else. I know they are almost contradictory. But it’s what exhibitions have that digital hasn’t (yet?). I’m right here, centimetres from the real thing. that’s amazing. And I can journey through a space that’s been created for atmosphere, tension, hidden pockets and dramatic reveals – to which I willingly succumb.

Maybe exhibitions should worry less about traditional narrative (please understand, it sticks in my throat and I want to be wrong…) and go for groups experiencing a theatrical authenticity. Owning the oxymoron might eventually offer more to our public.


What if we were all nicer people?



I met great people at the conference; some new to me and some IRL meets with twitter folk i’ve followed for a while. Many because of the drinkingaboutmuseums hashtag, but others because they tweeted ‘I’m at the back of the room, come and say hello’.

The spirit of caring expressed in Merete’s question and by those new river-swimmers was a contrast to what i have heard down the years from colleagues at other conferences, where they felt an undercurrent of racism, sexism, and general ‘old straight white guy privilege.’ I’m sad it’s still happening, and that I may unwittingly be a part of it.

I think we must work harder to be excellent to each other. We cannot be generous enough. It’s our business as museums and as people. There, that was easy. Always good to end a post on something obvious that no-one can argue with. Maybe I can doggy-paddle in the shallows after all.