Belfast Waterfront Centre – 8th-10th November
by Simon Brown, Curator at Newstead Abbey and Project Curator at the National Justice Museum. MDEM helped to fund Simon’s place at the conference and below are a round up of his thoughts from the three days.
One of the joys of the MA conference is the opportunity it gives us to see new things. This could be from the speakers in the conference sessions, meeting fellow delegates, or most powerfully in experiencing the place itself. This year was a seemingly unique opportunity in all of these ways, as the conference returned to Belfast for the first time in over thirty years. The conference theme of Dissent: inspiring hope and embracing change not only reflects the character of the host city but also the social and political context we are all working in today.
A welcome reception at Belfast City Hall was the opportunity for those of us from England to feel the surging confidence that characterises the modern Belfast. This huge civic building was an impressive setting to meet fellow attendees, and was a great context to then move on to a nearby pub and dive into the familiar Irish atmosphere of conversation and music.
Conference Day 1:
The conference itself began on Thursday morning with a warm welcome from the host Roisín Higgins, a lecturer in the history of Ireland at Teeside University. She made reference to the waterfront building we were sat in as a symbol of peacetime Belfast, built just after the cease-fire in 1997. It would have been inconceivable to many of her generation to build such a vast glass building in the city before then.
Roisín handed over to MA director Sharon Heal, who expanded on the conference theme. She reflected on what has changed in Belfast in the thirty years since the MA conference here, but her most pertinent point was that “as well as big changes in society, there have been big changes in what a museum can be.” We would hear many examples over the following days that illustrate her point.
The first session was a panel of three ‘museum dissenters’, who discussed the conference theme and what they were hoping for from the coming days. If I were to ever play a game of Fantasy Conference Panel then this would have been pretty close.
We were privileged to hear from Elaine Heumann Gurian, who has worked with distinction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, among many other organisations over a 45-year long career. Elaine gave a sobering perspective on the current political mess in the United States- she said that she knew no-one who voted for Donald Trump, and that this illustration of a fragmented society frightened her. Her paper ‘Do Everything’ is a rallying call for a response to the popularity of far-right politics. Her key point was that “strangers seeing each other is the bedrock of healing.”
Elaine was followed by Paddy Gilmore, head of programmes at National Museums Northern Ireland. In his role as a trustee of the MA, Paddy has been instrumental in bringing the conference to Belfast. He highlighted the power of small acts of protest having a huge effect, taking inspiration from American football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick’s decision to protest against police corruption during the national anthem at football matches has created a global movement, even while being hugely damaging to his career.
The panel was completed by Sara Wajid, head of engagement at the Museum of London and co-founder of the Museum Detox network for BAME museum professionals. Sara described her work as one of the inaugural Arts Council funded Changemakers, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. She was one of a group of people who were funded to join new organisations as -as she put it- ‘state sponsored dissenters’, with a view to challenging the working practices of their hosts. Sara was disappointed that so few organisations saw this huge opportunity, but was impressed with Birmingham Museum Trust’s determination and planning to take advantage. The resulting exhibition, The Past is Now, has been the subject of much discussion, and further sessions explored it in more depth. Sara mentioned two important pieces of writing in looking at the subject of proper representation in museums: ACE’s Character Matters report and the essay The Museum Will Not be Decolonised by Sumaya Kassim, one of the co-curators on The Past is Now.
One of the strong themes that developed over the first day was of museums taking a moral, ethical position, and making all their decisions from that context. Elaine Heumann Gurian defined this as a museum’s ‘moral core’, which was expanded on by the first keynote speaker, Laura Raicovich. Laura spoke about her work as Director of Queen’s Museum in New York City, and their response to the result of the 2016 presidential election. The museum took an overtly activist stance to the threat of the Trump administration’s policies- co-ordinating the Art Space Sanctuary scheme, and acting as a host space for activists planning the inauguration day strike. This work resulted in tensions with some of the museum’s trustees, some of whom feared political interference from the administration.
This influence of political tensions on our day to day lives is something that Northern Ireland, of course, has much experience of. Further sessions explored the history of Ireland and how that is reflected in the so-called Decade of Centenaries. The difficulty of this history is echoed in how it is remembered. Lar Joyce, the Heritage Director of Dublin Port Authority, spoke about the focus of the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising being on the six days of the rising itself- not the context or conditions. He saw this as a missed opportunity, particularly when the personal, emotive stories on display could be used as a vehicle to describe the wider context.
In the same session Deirdre MacBride shared a very instructive toolkit she edited while studying her PhD. This helpful resource is a practical legacy for anyone interested in commemorating contested and complex histories. Her guiding principle was: start from the historical facts.
A later session on challenging histories in historic houses echoed these issues. John Orna Ornstein, Director of Culture and Engagement for the National Trust, shared his experience of the Trust’s Prejudice and Pride LGBT programme. His view that historic houses need to be living and creative places found a powerful outlet in this programme, which he felt was absolutely worth the negative press reports and difficult conversations with some volunteers and colleagues. Terence Dooley of Maynooth University also shared his research of historic houses in Ireland, which can steeply divide opinion. The actions of their owners in the great famine of 1845-51 for example are a source of friction among the public. Over 300 Irish country houses were destroyed in the civil war of 1920-23.
Moving away from such locally prominent political content, it was enjoyable to have the opportunity to hear from two curators from the completely different environment of Africa. Ernestine White-Mifetu, Curator of Contemporary Art at Iziko South African National Gallery, discussed the context in which South African curators work. The gallery’s building is itself a hangover of colonialism. The collection is hugely dominated by European art, and the organisation only began to collect work by any African artists in the early 20th century. This idea was expanded by Ndeenda Shivute of the National Art Gallery of Namibia. Their galleries are at the centre of a cultural shift towards independent celebration of South African and Namibian culture. Both curators spoke about the problems of arts ministers being moved between different jobs with no background or interest in the arts- some things are universal.
An instructive conversation was had in an afternoon session about women in museums. The Space Invaders network has set out an ambitious programme for change with three broad aims: helping women into leadership positions, bringing equality to the workplace and ensuring women’s stories are heard in museums. Women in the sector are still paid less than men, and still only make up a third of the 45-strong membership of the National Museum Director’s Council. Nirmal Puwar of Goldsmiths is conducting research into personal experiences of women in the sector and will soon publish the results. (The consultation is still open online). She was joined by Rachel Thain-Gray of the remarkable Glasgow Women’s Library, sharing findings from their recently published Equality in Progress report. Rachel reiterated that they are happy to speak with any museums about how they can work together. It was indicative that I was one of only two men present among over 50 people in this session- we would all benefit from listening to experiences outside our own.
The whole day had been enriched by the Festival of Change, a new element that was introduced to the conference last year and has thankfully been continued. Interventions to the conference were invited by groups who wish to change the way the sector works, which resulted in some of the most meaningful experiences of the two days. Museum as Muck, a group established to support working class people in the sector, were surveying delegates and taking pledges of support. The Vagina Museum, the Museum of Femininity and Glasgow Women’s Library had hubs for discussing gendered issues and work towards greater equality. One stall was used as a reflective space for conversation about mental health in the workplace. These spaces were a welcome and valuable counterpoint to the busy hubbub of the rest of the conference.
Day one was concluded with another compelling window onto Ireland’s culture, with a keynote speech by the Galway-born writer Rita Ann Higgins. She read from her long back catalogue of published poetry, veering between poems that were incisive, poignant and hilarious. This set the scene for the evening party at the impressive Ulster Museum, where the inaugural Museums Change Lives Awards were given to three projects from across the UK.
Day two started very early for the MA’s director Sharon Heal, who was interviewed on Radio Ulster at Belfast’s War Memorial at 7:30 am, explaining the importance of museums for preserving memory. It showed the significance to Belfast of such a high profile conference being held here.
The first session of day two was the now familiar Directors in Conversation panel. Four museums directors from across the UK and Ireland discussed the conference theme and how it applies to their organisations. These included Hilary McGrady, a native of Northern Ireland and recently appointed as Director General of the National Trust. It was very interesting to hear from individuals in such a prominent position discuss how their organisation can embed participatory practice and dissent in their work. Hilary made the excellent point that our sector needs to learn from others about how to measure impact, particularly the environmental sector.
An incisive question from the floor about the ongoing outsourcing of some museum activities, particularly at National museums, did feel like a genuine and fitting act of dissent. The panel responded eloquently, yet the issue needs more consideration- why work so hard to connect with communities if you’re acting to keep your own workforce at arm’s length?
There is currently much discussion among museums about the concept of decolonisation. The vast majority of our institutions are dripping with colonial symbolism and connections, which act as a barrier to a large proportion of the public. A session addressing the subject included Rachael Minott and Hannah Graham, two of the team at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery who delivered The Past is Now– a brilliant exhibition addressing the city’s (and the museum’s) relationship with the British Empire- referred to in day one’s introduction by Sara Wajid. The exhibition was a great success, while clearly being a sometimes painful experience for the co-curators.
Miranda Lowe, a senior curator at the Natural History Museum, stuck with the theme of seemingly small actions having big effects by describing the black heritage tours she instigated at the museum. These tours were based on research Miranda had published in 2007 on slavery and the natural world. A question from the floor also mentioned the Mayor’s Commission on African and Asian Heritage, published in 2005 but still hugely pertinent.
Among the headspace that was taken up with the weighty subject of decolonisation and equality, it was momentarily surprising to be reminded that it is now a year since the Mendoza Review of museums was published. The report was launched at last year’s MA conference in Manchester, and the same panel that attended that launch returned this year to review its recommendations and progress since. The discussion was inevitably dominated by funding. The report didn’t recommend asking for more money- Mendoza says that it wouldn’t have been given even if it had. Laura Pye, director of National Museums Liverpool, was most vociferous in her point that local authority funding is in crisis. With local government outside the remit of DCMS, the conversation was futile without different people in the room. The crisis remains, and the report does not solve it.
Mendoza did make the sound point that the constant changes in government over the past year now mean that the cabinet has three former culture ministers in other positions. He pointed to the speech recently given by Matt Hancock (this week’s health secretary) in which he championed social prescribing. This knowledge of the culture sector in other departments could prove advantageous once the chaos of Brexit has been negotiated.
The final keynote was given by the brilliant Belfast writer Glenn Patterson. After a long day of considered debate about fundamental parts of our work, it was wonderful to hear such an eloquent articulation of Belfast’s culture. Glenn spoke about his own upbringing in the city, taking in references to the pioneering social reformer Mary Ann McCracken, George Best (of course) and Belfast’s late 1970s punk scene. These references all added up to paint a picture of how Belfast became the city it is today. It was an eloquent (and very funny) reminder of the power of storytelling, which is the business we’re all in.
The conference was closed by the same panel of museum dissenters that had welcomed us two days ago. Elaine Heumann Gurian was clearly the star of the whole conference- one of many inspiring statements being that “we should pay attention to the power of subtlety and silence as a dissenting tool”. Many of her papers are free to download from her website- it is a treasure trove of wisdom.
This power of small steps was echoed by Paddy Gilmore, who also highlighted a recurring question- how do we deal with people who don’t agree with us? His answer, inspired by many of the speakers, was to do so with humanity and dignity.
It came to Sara Wajid to be, as she put it, ‘the only one standing between you and your bad museum wine’. She reiterated another recurring theme- that we need to know our own history. We have a lot of the answers we’re seeking already, the only missing element is the will to act. It is now up to those of us in attendance to put these two days of eloquent words into action.
Curator, Newstead Abbey
Project Curator, National Justice Museum
Board Member, Museums Association
MA website www.museumsassociation.org
NI war memorial www.niwarmemorial.org
Elaine Heumann Gurian www.egurian.com/omnium-gatherum
Museum Detox museumdetox.com
ACE Changemakers programme www.artscouncil.org.uk/fund/changemakers
The Museum Will Not be Decolonised mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised
Art Space Sanctuary www.artspacesanctuary.org
Decade of Centenaries toolkit www.community-relations.org.uk/decade-centenaries
Glasgow Women’s Library Equality in Progress report womenslibrary.org.uk/discover-our-projects/equality-in-progress/eipreport/
Gendering Museums survey genderingmuseums.com/survey
Museums Change Lives Awards www.museumsassociation.org/news/08112018-mcl-awards
Slavery and the Natural World report www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/slavery-and-the-natural-world.html
Mayor’s Commission on African and Asian Heritage www.academia.edu/421539/Delivering_Shared_Heritage_Report_Mayors_Commission_on_African_and_Asian_Heritage
The Mendoza Review of museums www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-mendoza-review-an-independent-review-of-museums-in-england
The Vagina Museum www.vaginamuseum.co.uk