Diolch, Cardiff!

Alistair Brown, 13.10.2014
How was conference for you?
After the rush of the MA conference I have been sorting through the session notes, business cards and badges that make up a physical record of the last few days.

Among other things I thought I might find the material there that would help me to sum up the experience.

But no amount of notes could reflect my main impression of the Cardiff conference – the emotional kick of seeing so many people talk so passionately about the transformative work that they are doing in museums.

If anyone at conference doubted the ability of museums to change lives, they needed only to hear Antônio Vieira’s astounding tale of setting up the Museu da Maré in a gangland favela in Rio de Janeiro to be persuaded otherwise.

His ongoing struggle to help give the favela’s residents a sense of place, of history and of self-confidence was truly compelling. There is still much work to do in supporting his museum, which is threatened with closure within three months.

Closer to home – but no less affecting – was Mat Fraser’s keynote performance of Cabinet of Curiosities: How Disability Was Kept in a Box on Friday morning.

Part lecture, part punk gig, part show and tell, Fraser took us on a whirlwind tour of museums’ collective failure to reflect disabled experiences and lives throughout history.

The display of a straitjacket from the National Museums Wales’ collection and the video of a disabled child being forced to wear gas-powered arms were a shocking reminder of stories that have been written out of history.

In bringing the performance to conference, Fraser set out a powerful challenge to museums to rethink their collections and displays from a disabled perspective.

The other sessions that I attended at conference seemed energised by an agenda centred on social justice and resilience.

While the appetite for radicalism is greater in some areas than others, many were keen to showcase the initiatives that were helping them to change lives while keeping the doors open.

Highlights for me were the work on co-production being done at Luton Museums, and the work of the People’s History Museum in covering contemporary political campaigns in a sensitive way.

Finally, the pop-up museums from Experience Barnsley, and Cardiff Story Museum with National Museum Wales were fantastic additions to the conference set-up, and seemed to be getting lots of attention from both delegates and the public. They were certainly a great way of bringing everyone together.

Were you at conference this year, or watching online? What were your highlights?


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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
19.10.2014, 00:38
One of the strengths of Cardiff 2014 was the really strong turn out from Wales. It is not very often that you see lots of museum people from south, mid and north Wales all in the same place at the same time. Whoever came up with the idea of offering a helping hand, either the MA, CyMAL or the Welsh Museums Fed should take the credit.
Zara Matthews
MA Member
Local Heritage Officer, Market Harborough Library and Harborough Museum
16.10.2014, 17:09
Conference was amazing, Cardiff was amazing. Beautiful wonderful Cardiff that changes me every time. I wasn't expecting such an emotional experience at conference, though I guess the clue was in the title: Museums Change Lives. It was powerful, moving and inspiring. I was slightly frustrated at times when I couldn't get into rooms to attend some of the sessions, though everything I attended was worth the effort.
Often thought provoking and challenging Mat Fraser was the stand out session, challenging certainly, also positive and showed how we can change and do things better. I am planning what to do next with his message in at the forefront of my mind. The whole concept and future of the Museu da Maré left me reeling, and feeling very lucky indeed.
It was however the closing speeches that floored me, when Martin performed his superb poem celebrating the conference and reminding us we are together; it was his final comments that took my breath away "you are valued". I don't remember anyone saying that before.
Julie Hawksworth
MA Member
Visitor Services Officer, Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery
15.10.2014, 13:34
So Museums Change Lives? This was the theme for the Museums Association Conference in Cardiff earlier this month. The Museums Change Lives policy addresses the MA’s vision for the social impact of museums. This is not something I personally needed convincing off. I’ve always been an advocate for the social impact of museums, and have spent a lot of my career so far exploring and investigating ways in which museums can benefit, enrich, and strengthen, the communities which they serve. So it to me, it seemed a bit of an obvious topic to have at conference.

So what was I hoping to get out of it all? Well, having recently been awarded Associateship of the Museums Association, I was able to receive my award alongside fellow AMA and FMAs, which was fantastic. It was great to share our experiences, and celebrate our achievements within the heritage sector.

However as well as celebrating, I was intrigued to address the social justice agenda, and see how other museums and heritage organisations were engaging with the debate. I also wanted ideas about how museums balance the difficult job of impact versus budget cuts - an area we are all unfortunately too familiar with.

I wasn’t disappointed. Conference was lively, challenging, and really hard work, as we all wanted to pack in as much as possible! The highlight for me was the real focus on people, our visitors, and the experience that they have in our museums. Putting the public at the heart of what we do was apparent throughout conference. The session ‘First Impressions’ was a fantastic start to the first full day, and we discussed the benefits of embedding visitor experience throughout our organisations. We talked of training and developing a diverse and talented workforce, that would be truly representative of contemporary audiences, as well as the importance and value of front of house staff in delivering a fantastic service for visitors. A big thank you to James Etherington and Rachel Mackay for creating and delivering this session.

In terms of balancing impact in challenging financial circumstances, there were some great sessions and workshops on creating resilient and sustainable museums. We explored new areas of funding, staff development and training, collaborative and partnership working, and many ways of sharing knowledge, expertise, and services. Inspiring stuff!

So, for me in summary then, the MA’s 2014 conference theme, Museums Change Lives, was an opportunity for us all to get back to basics. Yes it might be obvious to most of us, and indeed even one of the main reasons that we chose to work in museums. But particularly during difficult times, it can be a good thing to get back to basics, to really think about what we are doing, and why we are doing it. We face more challenging financial times ahead, but with good leadership, commitment and enthusiasm, I feel confident and excited about the future of museums in the UK.
Julie Hawksworth (AMA) October 2014
Alistair Brown
MA Member
Policy Officer, Museums Association
16.10.2014, 17:01
Thanks for your take on conference, and congratulations on your AMA!

I think that having one over-arching theme worked really well this year. It gave a sense of continuity throughout the keynotes, while leaving room in the sessions to discuss the various challenges facing the sector - particularly funding and partnership working.

And while MCL may have seemed obvious - you say you've been doing it for years - I think this was a chance to further embed the idea into everyday museums practice. There's still lots to learn from one another. It was also a chance to shout about some of the sector's achievements to the wider world. It was great, for example, to hear the Ken Skates from the Welsh Government endorse the programme.

Hope to see you at the next one!
Joe Wilson
MA Member
14.10.2014, 12:50
I couldn't afford to attend the Conference this year but I had a really inspiring time at the Exhibition none the less. Especially impressed with PEEL Interactive and Colchester Castle, and Sing London and Antenna Lab's Talking Statues.

I wrote about them here http://ithinkoficarus.com/2014/10/14/the-reality-of-possibility/
Zoe Spencer
MA Member
Marketing Officer, Museums Association
17.10.2014, 15:19
Thanks for the feedback Joe. It's great to see the exhibition being described as 'inspiring' - that is exactly what we aim for - both for delegates and visitors to the event.

The exhibition is an equally important side of the event that complements the conference programme and offers visitors the chance to access free content, network and meet suppliers, and it goes from strength to strength each year.