The conversation

Brian Crowley; Sharon Heal, Issue 118/12, 01.12.2018
What did we learn about dissent at the Museums Association Conference?
Dear Sharon:

What I learned most about dissent was that it can take a variety of forms. It’s not necessarily about making a “grand gesture”; in fact, such actions can often be counter-productive and further alienate and divide an already fractured community. I was struck by Elaine Heumann Gurian’s inspirational closing remarks, in which she made an argument in favour of the quiet power of museums.

They can have a profound effect by simply standing by their traditional values of equality, accessibility, intellectual rigour and fairness. Museums need to stand firm and anchor society to those values, particularly when malign forces seek to manipulate people’s fears and prejudices.

Best wishes, Brian

Dear Brian:

Some of us were nervous about dissent as a theme, but looking at the history of Ireland and of the Museums Association gave me courage. Thanks for telling me that the MA’s past- president Count George Plunkett was active in the Easter Rising and was locked up in Kilmainham Gaol for his actions.

His story epitomises the idea of dissent and holding true to your values. He lost his job as the director of the National Museum of Ireland as a result, but as Gurian said in her “Do Everything” list: “Say no to stuff that violates your core and always be prepared to leave your job over the stuff that matters.”

Best wishes, Sharon

Dear Sharon:

The resonance between the theme and location worked well. Post-Brexit, many UK museums are operating in a divided social and political landscape, so the contributions from colleagues in Northern Ireland offered some insight into how museums can operate in a society where politics is charged and divisive. In particular, I appreciated their insistence that people’s lives should not be defined by the dominant narrative of political conflict.

Emphasising other aspects of life, beyond what is reported in the headlines, can be an important act of dissent. One of my favourite lines from the conference came from musician Brian Young, who said that Belfast punks in the 1970s were rebelling against both the political status quo, and the band Status Quo.

Best wishes, Brian


Dear Brian:

Museums can encourage new ways of seeing the world and I hope our conference did that too; many delegates hadn’t been to Belfast before and I know lots were bowled over by the warmth of the welcome and rich cultural heritage. A highlight for me was the international array of delegates and speakers; we have to think beyond our narrow borders in order to see and explore what is possible. I enjoyed hearing from Américo Castilla about training a new generation of museum activists in Argentina.

Best wishes, Sharon

Dear Sharon:

A conference’s success depends on the delegates: how they engage with the topic, the connections they make, and the conversations they have at the event and when they return to their institutions. Dissent was a subject that resonated with the sector. One delegate said people were even discussing the theme at coffee and over lunch.

Interestingly, I found listening to speakers I disagreed with was energising because it forced me to re-examine my values and beliefs. The conference reinforced how many inspiring people work in the museum sector and I left Belfast wanting to be better and braver in my own practice.

Best wishes, Brian


Dear Brian:

Engagement with the delegates and everyone who attended is a critical success factor. And it’s what we take away and ultimately implement that counts. Dissent was a strong theme and people seemed to find it relatable.

I hope the conference gave us all confidence to challenge and speak out on the issues that we feel passionate about and, more importantly, to listen to the views of others.

Best wishes, Sharon

Brian Crowley is the collections curator of Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, and was a member of the conference panel for Belfast 2018

Sharon Heal is the director of the Museums Association

Comments