Belfast City Hall hosted conference delegates for the opening night party. Image: VisitBritain

Highlights from last week's MA conference

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 14.11.2018
Key debates, events and announcements from Belfast 2018
The Museums Association’s (MA) 2018 annual conference, which took place in Belfast last week, highlighted some of the key priorities, debates and issues facing the sector this year.

Reflecting the conference theme of “dissent”, there was much discussion on how museums can respond to the troubled global political climate. 

“The symbolism of being here in Northern Ireland to reflect on the theme of dissent at a time of such negative and divisive public discourse has not escaped any of us,” said the MA's president, Maggie Appleton, in her AGM address. “But in these challenging, complex and uncertain times, our museums and people who work in them are responding with positivity on so many platforms.” 

Appleton outlined the impact museums are having on communities in areas such as social care, mental health, isolation and those living with dementia and autism. 

She also emphasised the importance of public funding for museums, saying: “Let’s ban the word subsidy from our lexicon; Museums are a fundamental ingredient of ensuring a healthy and prosperous society; this is about investment in the wellbeing and future of our nation.”

Appleton pointed to the vital role of museums in elevating the current public discourse. “At a time of fake news, our museums remain among the most trusted and respected organisations in society, and we are informing debate on some of the big issues of the day,” she said. 

Elsewhere, Elaine Heumann Gurian, a museum adviser who worked for many years at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the US and who lost family members to the Holocaust, spoke powerfully about the difficulty – and importance - of inviting into the museum those whose views you may hate and fear. She brought laughter to the auditorium when she described how a phonecall from hotel staff that morning had inadvertently conveyed a profound message on current societal divisions: “Only you can reset this.” 

Heumann Gurian presented conference with a “do everything” list for the next generation of museum leaders. It included instructions such as “be tenacious though polite”, “be a constant cheerleader to all around you”, and “optimism is your most important asset, so have a great time wherever possible”. 

Keynote speaker Laura Raicovich, who worked at the Queens Museum in the US until earlier this year, spoke frankly about the dissenting path she had chosen for the museum following Donald Trump’s election, and of the clashes this brought with members of the museum’s board.

The future of collections was also a huge topic for debate at this year’s conference, brought to the fore by the MA’s ongoing Collections 2030 research project. A packed session on the project highlighted the need for museums to diversify their workforce and engagement to get the most out of their collections, and the need to find a solution for managing ever-growing collections

Another packed session reviewed what has happened in the year since the Mendoza review of museums in England was published. There was frustration among delegates at the lack of change following the review – particularly in local museums who continue to see budget cuts. Attendees also urged the sector to unite to argue for a good deal in the government’s forthcoming spending review, with some of the priorities raised included advocating for a much larger Cultural Development Fund and a tourist tax. 
Elsewhere, delegates at the session on decolonising museum practice spoke about the importance of embedding funding and curatorial staff for decolonisation within museums. Speakers described important work that has been lost or dispersed over the years after one-off projects. Decolonisation needs to be long-term and “museum-wide”, the session heard, and should disrupt ways of working and the traditional power balance.  

Delegates also raised some challenging questions about the role of museums – many of which were established as colonial institutions – in decolonisation: “What if we’re the ones others want to dissent against?” 

A session on values-led practice heard honest accounts from the speakers about the challenges of holding true to your values, such as harm to career, tension with colleagues and negative business impact. These were some of the consequences of the National Trust’s LGBTQ programme last year, said John Orna-Ornstein, director of curation and experience, describing how the decision to have employees wear rainbow flagpins had attracted the ire of the Daily Mail. He said he had concluded from the experience that, in spite of the negative reaction, some things were too important not to do.

A hugely popular exhibition seminar heard Adam Koszary, digital lead for the Museum of English Rural Life, speak about how he went viral with his infamous “look at this absolute unit” tweet. He talked about why it was important for museums use social as an engagement tool, rather than just a marketing tool (he has since written up his presentation here). 

This year’s Festival of Change brought fun and provocation to the exhibition floor, with stalls where delegates could ask “is my vagina normal”, hear about the challenges of class in the museum sector, and have tea with drag queens and kings to celebrate gender non-conformity. 

A number of new policies and developments were also unveiled at conference. The MA launched Power to the People, a new framework for participatory practice, while members voted through significant changes to MA membership, including a cheaper online-only membership band. And the winners of the inaugural Museums Change Lives Awards 2018 were announced at the conference party at Ulster Museum.

If you’re keen to keep the debate going, session proposals for next year’s conference in Brighton on 3-5 October are now open – the theme is Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World.

Videos of the keynote speeches and debates that took place in the main auditorium will shortly be available on the MA website.

What was your highlight from Belfast 2018? Share it with us in the comment box below.