Reflections from Birmingham 2016

Simon Stephens, 18.11.2015
Ten things to take away from the MA's biggest ever conference
Following the recent Museums Association's (MA) Conference & Exhibition in Birmingham, here are a few thoughts about the biggest event we have ever run.

1. We all know the financial pressures that museums are under and it was good to hear Heritage Lottery Fund chairman Peter Luff give a keynote speech that included an announcement of a package of changes specifically designed to respond to the challenges faced by the sector. It will be interesting to see how far museums will benefit from these changes.

2. One of the Radical Futures sessions focused on looking for a “magic business model” that might help museums deal with the challenging funding climate they find themselves in. It will come as no surprise that delegates did not emerge with a secret code to access this model, but there were lots of good ideas about working in partnership, advocacy and fundraising.

3. The MA's AGM isn't always the most exciting part of conference, but this year it was enlivened by members approving the revised Code of Ethics, an important document that is designed to be more focused and easier to use.

4. I was astounded to hear recently that the government has estimated that by the middle of this century there will be more than 280,000 people in the UK who are aged over 100.

Changing demographics are vital for museums to think about. We had conference sessions looking at under-fives as well as new approaches to working with those with dementia, so hopefully we captured some of this.

5. There is always lots we can learn from other sectors, and this year's conference had speakers from higher education, community organisations, youth groups, homelessness charities and thinktanks. There was even a session looking at what museums can learn from football clubs but, as a Queens Park Rangers fan, this was one I avoided.

6. The number of international delegates has been steadily growing at conference and this year we had representatives from 15 countries, including Australia, Argentina and Pakistan. I was particularly struck by the contribution of Elma Hasimbegovic of the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who spoke alongside colleagues from Belfast and Coventry about how museums portray conflict.

7. The MP Workshop programme is an important part of the MA Conference & Exhibition, and this year it covered everything from digital technology and income generation to lighting and storytelling. I attended one about how an audience research project was used to create an interactive exhibition in Malawi. It was great to sit in a conference centre in Birmingham and hear about a project in in southeast Africa.

8. MA conferences give a cities a great chance to show off their cultural offer. Birmingham did not disappoint, with evening events at the Thinktank science museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Ikon gallery. There was even a specially designed conference cocktail, although I only had one, honest.

9. With a pop-up to showcase the work of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, a session on sharing and developing curatorial expertise, and various MP Workshops focusing on collections issues, there was lots at the conference and exhibition about working with artefacts.

But some people have said that there could have been more about subject specialist knowledge. Maybe something to address at next year’s conference…

10 … which I am already looking forward to. It will be in Glasgow from 7-8 November. I hope to see lots of you there and please get in touch if you have any ideas for topics or themes that we should address. I’d love to hear from you.

Comments

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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
19.11.2015, 00:18
While everyone was in the main hall listening to the chief of Arts Council England, I and about six other people had the benefit of a really good session on how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign. Lots of really good advice and experience sharing and worth hanging around until 4.30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon to hear. Big thanks to Alison Nicolson of the Bowes Museum for travelling down to Brum to risk leading a workshop in the graveyard slot of the conference.