Change is coming, whether we like it or not. In a time of political and cultural upheaval, against a backdrop of impending environmental crisis, this was one of the messages that stood out at the Museums Association (MA) Conference & Exhibition in Brighton last month.
The theme of the conference was Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World – a big topic that aimed to reflect the troubled times in which we live and examine how museums can stay relevant at this pivotal moment.
Taking place just a week after millions of people across the globe took to the streets to call for urgent climate action, environmental sustainability was the headline issue. “It’s not just about individual or organisational actions,” says MA director Sharon Heal. “We’ve got to do something as a whole sector. You can green your institution, but you also have to think about how you influence public discourse on sustainability.”
Many museums are already doing important work in this area. During the conference, Leeds Museums and Galleries was awarded the Museums Change Lives Award for Environmental Sustainability for its Beavers to Weavers exhibition, which showed the constructions animals build using only what they need from their habitat.
The museum’s collections manager, Yvonne Hardman, says: “I’d like to see more work to facilitate shared learning between organisations, to really get to grips with some of the practical changes we all need to make, and for this to be recognised by funders.”
But there was debate over how effective the sector can be as a voice for the environment when it continues to take sponsorship from the fossil-fuels industry. There was strong support for divestment among the delegates, who cheered keynote speaker Clayton-Thomas Müller, a Canadian campaigner for indigenous and environmental rights, as he identified the climate crisis as the civil-rights issue of our time.
He spoke about how the actions of young climate strikers would be a tipping point in the environmental movement, and urged museums not to end up on the “wrong side of history”.
It’s a conversation that will run and run, and next year, the MA will draft new ethical guidance on sponsorship.
Decolonial practice – interrogating and reframing the often-suppressed and erased history of slavery, empire and racism in museums and their collections – was another talking point. Discussions included a thought-provoking call by Meera Sabaratnam, a lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, for museums to pivot from a representation of “object” to “subject”.
Rachael Minott, the curator of anthropology at the Horniman Museum, says: “The standout session on decolonial practice was the discussion on building relationships with African museums. It was a nuanced, cutting, humorous and intelligent look at the decolonial debate, but one that shifted the centre away from the UK and into African practitioners’ hands.
“These discussions will move forward only if we are the platform for discussions and projects, where those who are asking for change, who have been excluded and believe they would benefit from change to our practice, are the ones who hold the conversation.”
Minott, who is an MA board member, is leading the association’s working group on decolonisation, which aims to create a set of guidelines for museums. There was also a session on the future of learning and engagement at the conference.
Dhikshana Pering, an MA board member and young people’s producer for Brent, the London Borough of Culture 2020, is leading the creation of the MA’s manifesto for learning and engagement, which will be published soon.
“We talked about challenging issues but instead of just talking, we were practical about what we need to do,” Pering says. “People were questioning their own practice.”
• Next year’s MA Conference & Exhibition is in Edinburgh on 5-7 November 2020