Exchanging ideas

Alistair Brown, 12.12.2018
It's vital to continue investing time and effort in working together
I've had the opportunity to take part in a couple of fascinating learning exchanges in the past few weeks.

In November, I spent a great week working at National Museums Scotland (NMS) as part of my current work on the Museums Association's (MA) Collections 2030 project. I wanted to get up close to current practice and see for myself how museums are using their collections to make a difference in the world - and thanks to the wonderful NMS partnerships team who organised my visit, I was able to spend plenty of time getting to know the museums' curators and collections services staff.

Over the course of five days, I met curators conducting ground-breaking research using natural history collections; witnessed state-of-the-art collections conservation and photography in the museum's studios; and helped to conduct collections audits and prepare the movement of fragile collections from the NMS stores in Granton to the museum on Chambers Street.

I also spent a day at Fife Cultural Trust - a partner with NMS in a Scotland-wide project to examine collections of East Asian and Egyptian material. There I encountered a rich collection being given new life by dedicated staff.
I encountered a great deal of practice which reflects the themes set out in the Collections 2030 discussion paper. In NMS's Rip It Up exhibition, I saw how a collection can be truly empowering: hundreds of visitors were enjoying the story of Scottish pop music, and some, hopefully, were inspired to be the new generation of musicians. I saw how the museum is working to make its collection relevant to a new generation by using historic material in a forthcoming exhibition that will raise questions about Scottish identity today.

And I saw how the collections are being kept up to date, with some items leaving the collection while contemporary collecting adds new elements. The week also highlighted the importance of developing and maintaining curatorial skills and knowledge across all our museums as a basis for positive partnership working.

My second recent learning experience was not as a visitor but as a host. Last week the MA welcomed a group of museum professionals from across Europe on a Learning Exchange supported by the Network of European Museum Organisations (Nemo).

The seven participants spent two days at the MA's offices in London learning about the Museums Change Lives campaign, and sharing ideas from their respective countries about how museums can play an active role in society and support communities to live healthier, better lives.

The exchange included trips to the Wellcome Collection and the worksite for the new Museum of London, which is due to open in 2023. Both museums offered fascinating insights into how the sector in the UK is working directly with communities to support social change, education and understanding of contemporary life.

These two experiences have been fascinating in their own right - but they have also shown how important it is that we get out of the office to meet others, learn new things and grow our networks. Even as resources in the sector are under pressure, we all need to continue to invest time and effort in working together.