Find your fire

Nicola Sullivan, 02.03.2017
Inspirational early-careers conference set Edinburgh alight
Being brave and standing up for what you believe in were my key takeaways from Moving on Up – the Museums Association’s (MA) one-day career conference that took place at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

These values apply to museum professionals in a number of ways. They are present in the retelling of historical events such as the slave trade, championing diversity and addressing restrictive recruitment practices, gallery design and interpretation, and getting that all important first museum job.


The award-winning author Louise Welsh kicked off the event, chaired by consultant, facilitator and coach Hilary Carty, with a thought-provoking talk on whether it is possible for museums to shake off the legacy of empire by repatriating objects and looking again at how they tell stories about the history of trade and slavery.


Welsh advocated that museums should collaborate with writers and artists on such issues and embrace the gaps in the stories they tell. She explained that this kind of collaboration was evident in the Empire Café project, which she helped to set up in Glasgow in 2014. The project explored the links between Glasgow and the North Atlantic slave trade through food, poetry, historical walks, film and literature.    


Jess Turtle and Matt Turtle, co-founders of the Museum of Homelessness, showed that standing up for what you believe in isn’t always easy and shared some valuable lessons about how failure can be used as a tool for empowerment.  This inspirational session encouraged delegates to “find their fire” when suffering setbacks and process and analyse their own failures.


In a session on activism, the MA’s director Sharon Heal highlighted the importance of brave and campaigning museums in light of the changing political landscape in the US and an increase of racism and intolerance in the UK since Brexit. Heal showed delegates how to translate issues they cared about into a campaign that could be delivered by their own museum.


Peju Oshin, a freelance educator at London Transport Museum, created a storm on Twitter with her talk about tackling diversity in museums at grassroots level. Oshin said that a culture of unpaid internships was a huge barrier to entry for young black, Asian and minority-ethnic museum lovers. Tenacity, networking, persistence and a love for social media were what kick-started Oshin’s museum career.   


Other highlights included speed mentoring and breakout sessions on self-reflection, fundraising, budget management, CVs, social media and social media skills.


There was also a panel of refreshingly outspoken museum professionals. A special thanks goes to Sarah Munro, the director of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art; Stephen Allen, the head of learning and programmes at National Museums Scotland (NMS); Jilly Burns, the head of national and international partnerships at NMS; and Sara Wajid, the head of interpretation at  Birmingham Museums Trust.


The following comment from Munro encapsulated the spirit of the event: “Follow your heart. Drive a vision that you truly believe in.”