Conference session highlights - Museums Association

Conference 2021: Brave New World

We’re delighted to announce some of the sessions planned for our 2021 MA Conference, a hybrid event which will take place both online and at the ACC Liverpool. Browse the highlights below for a taste of what’s in store when you join us in November.

The ethics of contemporary collecting

Recent events have led to a resurgence in contemporary collecting projects, many addressing complex and nuanced subjects.

This workshop gives delegates the chance to get to grips with some of the major ethical issues, including collecting trauma; collecting safely from social justice movements; collecting in climate emergency; collecting born‐digital ethically; and collecting hateful/harmful material. Group discussions interrogate each of these issues.

Ellie Miles, a documentary curator at London Transport Museum, is among the speakers.

Covid‐19 as a catalyst for change – reflections from funders

This session brings together funders such as the Art Fund and John Ellerman to explore their responses to funding museums and cultural institutions during the Covid‐19 pandemic. They reflect on whether creativity, resourcefulness and responsiveness drove their thinking at the time and what they might do differently now with the benefit of hindsight.

Panellists consider what more must be done on the road to recovery and renewal, and share what they are prioritising now as part of their response to this brave new world. Speakers include Dorothée Irving, Head of Grants, John Ellerman Foundation.

“You came to our country and didn’t turn black”

The title references those who came to Australia but did not observe the laws of the land and turn “black”, or turn back, when they found the land occupied. As the world of the colonisers falls apart, the pandemic demands change.

In Australia, Aboriginal communities from remote regions, despite the “western” view of them as materially impoverished, survived the pandemic without incident. Why? Because they retreated to the safety net of Country and reconnected with age‐old values about how to care for Country and each other, in concert with nature.

These teachings are explored in the ground‐breaking, community‐led exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters which, after breaking records at the National Museum Australia and the Western Australian Museum Boola Bardip, goes global in 2021.

Speakers include Professor Margo Neale, the Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges, and Alec Coles, Chief Executive Officer, Western Australian Museum.

Museums Save Lives

Thanks to the Covid crisis, the UK’s medical museums have never been more relevant to people’s lives. Almost literally overnight, medical museums became immersed in history in the making.

Whether directly serving urgently needed medical education, collecting Covid, hosting public vaccination centres and clinical trials or working to create potentially life‐saving trusted information channels for anxious and sceptical communities, medical museums find themselves on a new front line.

A panel drawn from medical museums who have risen to the challenge explores questions such as how museums can be a useful antidote to fake news; how we can provide a home for dissenting voices; how we can meaningfully support frontline workers and how medical museums can provide an honest and enduring critique of how society rose to the challenge of Covid.

Chaired by Nat Edwards, Chief Executive, Thackray Museum of Medicine. Speakers are Caroline Hamson, Heritage Manager, the Anaesthesia Museum; Dean Paton, Chief Executive, Big Heritage; and Frances Reed, Events and Exhibitions Coordinator, Royal College of Nursing.

We are all complicit in systemic oppression: what can a museum worker do?

Teresa Cisneros and Selene Burn from the Wellcome Collection share their experiences of working to achieve the organisation’s commitment to embed access, diversity and inclusion across the museum.

They focus on enabling staff to learn to become more inclusive and to embed a critically reflective practice by creating opportunities for everyone to develop a deep understanding of access, diversity and inclusion.

They will share what it is like to work in this way with a specific focus on the Social Justice Curriculum, a significant personal, professional and collective mandatory learning journey for staff, with modules focusing on anti‐racism and anti‐ableism developed with external professionals.

The Intentions of Collections

Curator E‐J Scott leads a discussion on the growth of community collecting. The sessions asks what can be collected, by whom, to go on show under the banner of “museum”? Is starting a museum a privilege to be enjoyed equally, by all? And who is taking charge of – if indeed, it would be ethical to do so – managing the profound social responsibility museums carry as institutions that shape knowledge?

Through a New Lens: Are Sites of Conscience Everywhere in the UK?

An exploration on the meaning and potential of UK sites of conscience. Speakers discuss the role of museums in developing positive memory practices relating to situations of historical violence, inequalities, oppression and suffering, in pursuit of equal justice in the present.

It asks what responsibility museums have to build more equitable futures and what skills are needed to engage in inclusive and equitable justice‐building. The session is led by Linda Norris of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

Towards collections with feelings

How can museums open up our collections not only to engage new audiences but to rethink what and how we collect? How can audiences help us redefine the museum object? And how can we engage our audiences not with our collections but make them part of our collections?

This session argues that museum collections are missing feelings, dreams, hope, love, hate and heartbreaks. Speakers share how they are addressing this. Speakers include Foteini Aravani, a Curator at the Museum of London.

Brave New World? When cars are burning on your street, what use are museums?

Elizabeth Crooke, Professor of Museum Studies at Ulster University, leads a discussion about the role of museums in Northern Ireland at a time of political upheaval and the ongoing fallout from Brexit and the Covid crisis. Speakers discuss how the sector can pull together to achieve the shared goal of building a resilient society that can navigate challenge peacefully.

The Classless Museum

Museum as Muck brings together the leading academic voices and game-changers on socioeconomic diversity in the cultural and creative industries to discuss the provocation “what would a classless museum look like?”

The session examines the barriers that need to be overcome and asks if we are ready for a classless museum. It also inspires practical and positive action with examples of real change happening in the wider cultural sector, and addresses strategies to get organisation‐wide buy‐in to tackle oppressive systems within our museums.

Decolonisation Guidance Working Group launch

Over the past two years, the Museums Association’s Decolonisation Guidance Working Group has been collaborating to produce advice for the sector on this critical area of museum practice. Join members of the working group to explore the thinking, advice and practical steps that shape this new guidance.

Cop26 and the MA’s climate campaign

The Museums Association is campaigning for museums to be more environmentally sustainable and address the climate crisis. The session will look at museums’ role in raising awareness, changing behaviour and championing change with our communities.

Ethics in action

Museums are in an important position of trust in relation to their audiences, local communities, donors, source communities, partner organisations, sponsors and funders. But they must make sound ethical judgements in all areas of work in order to maintain this trust. This session shares examples of ethics in action and how it can support museums and their work with the public.

In +  Visible

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act which made it illegal for employers and service providers to discriminate against someone on the basis of disability; and yet disabled people are still chronically under-represented in the museum workforce and on boards. 

Although a growing number of museums across the UK have sought to tell stories linked to disability through their collections and displays, the lives, contributions and perspectives of disabled people are still under-represented across the sector.

As a side effect of the pandemic, we have seen a shift towards flexible working patterns and a growth in online events – changes which have highlighted the potential for museums to be more accessible as both employers and as public spaces – but there is mounting concern that these gains are temporary and that more radical change is needed.

This session will bring together a panel of experts to explore what needs to be done to create genuine and lasting equity for disabled staff and audiences.

Other session highlights

Other conference sessions will look what the post-Covid museum looks like; the MA’s Learning and Engagement Manifesto; addressing equality, diversity and inclusion in museums; supporting communities during Covid; the future of the museum workforce; museum leadership; and future trends in digital technology in museums.