Conference Call - Museums Association

Conference Call

Ratan Vaswani looks at some of the important debates that will be tackled at this month's Museums Association conference in Bournemouth
Ratan Vaswani
Arek Hersh survived Auschwitz. At the Museums Association's annual conference this month, he bears witness. He will participate in a discussion on how museums should record people's memories of the Holocaust.

Hersh will be joined by keynote speaker Yehudit Inbar, the director of the museums division of Yad Vashem, a Jerusalem-based organisation that documents the history of Jewish people during the Holocaust.

Why, how and what museums should remember on behalf of society has long been debated in professional arenas. The debates are now enlivened by increased political interest in shaping collective memory. The deputy prime minister John Prescott is chairing a government
advisory group on the commemoration next year of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery. But the government's focus is a concern.

It wants us to remember the moment Britain led the world in ending slavery, but to forget the centuries in which it fuelled and grew rich from it.

How museums address the remembrance of slavery will be the subject of a conference session. Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, will speak at the conference and, as 2007 approaches, it will be interesting to see if she has the courage to tackle the thorny issues of apologies and reparations.

Conference speakers include key figures from national and local government. Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, will describe the central role of culture in making the city one of Britain's best examples of regeneration. The politicians' presence at the conference shows that political support for museums can be courted.

Like it or not, though, such support is increasingly dependent on the ability to demonstrate value in concrete monetary terms. John Holden, the head of culture at thinktank Demos, joins a panel to examine Bolton's intriguing model for rigorous economic valuation of museums, libraries and archives.

This and other sessions within the 'local agenda' strand will look at how museums can help citizens not only make sense of fast-changing communities and local surroundings, but also improve them by attracting investment.

Chasing money is usually a primary - and too often a sole - concern of museum managers. Ken Robinson, the chairman of the Visitor Attractions Forum, will give a keynote speech introducing a cluster of sessions examining the theme of 'the entrepreneurial museum'.

Museums have been criticised both for crass commercialism and for their reluctance to engage with the reality of having to generate their own income. Sandy Nairne, the director of London's National Portrait Gallery, will help us navigate these tricky waters. In his keynote presentation, he will refer not to commerce but to enterprise, which does not need to be incompatible with traditional museum values.

What many museum professionals lack is training to marry enterprise with other values. There's too little coverage on museum studies courses of ancillary activities such as retailing, copyright management and venue hire that can support and enhance the educational role of the museum.

New financial realities will be one aspect of the changed environment in which future professionals operate. Another will be dramatic technological change in storage and display, not just of museum objects but of the personal material that visitors increasingly bring through the door on their digital devices.

Walking through museums, you quite often see visitors capturing images of objects on their phones. We should find ways in which museums can exploit these new means for relating collections to personal identities. At the myartspace session, the use of mobile phones to curate personal exhibitions will be discussed and demonstrated.

Deciding what should be kept and how it should be shown on a personal device has analogies with curatorial activity in museums. It's an avenue we should explore to connect with newer, younger audiences about what communities and societies value, preserve and exhibit. The interplay of personal record with social document and collective memory is fast evolving.

Our recollection of last year's London tube bombings is forever coloured by instantly broadcast mobile phone footage shot by survivors. Inevitably, one day soon, it will be used in a museum exhibition or incorporated into installation art.

The impact of new media is one of the many ways in which institutional presentation of memory and history is at a crossroads. Others include museums reassessing how their collections were amassed and acknowledging associations acquired by individual objects as social awareness and museum practice change.

An exciting and increasingly popular approach is 'hidden histories' but its consequences have yet to be investigated in enough depth. Once a portrait of an 18th-century Bristol sugar merchant is shown in an exhibition on slavery can it be seen thereafter as just art?

Every individual's personal recollection, every 'objective' historical account and every museum narrative is full of gaps and contradictions and often says more about current concerns than the messy realities of what actually happened.

What curatorship is, whether of personal material or of a museum collection, is making sense of the mess by finding and isolating patterns, meanings and stories. Curatorship is interpretation. Interpretations always differ and lead to argument. Arguing our case and hearing those of others is essential if our museums and professional lives are to develop. It's what the conference is all about.

Ratan Vaswani is the head of events at the Museums Association

Museums Association annual conference and exhibition,
23-25 October 2006,

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