Auckland, May 2016

Take-home messages from Museums Australasia 2016 keynotes

It’s now two months since the inaugural Museums Australasia conference in Auckland, which I was lucky enough to attend while still working at the Otago Museum. After the Emerging Museum Professionals day, three days of conferencing and half a day of checking out some Auckland-style interpretation, I came away filled with ideas and possibilities.

Some of the most thought-provoking questions and statements came from keynote speakers such as Moana Jackson, Courtney Johnston and Boon Hui Tan. Here, in no particular order, I’ll round up some of the things that really stuck with me from the keynotes.

Moana Jackson
Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou
Co-founder and Director: Ngā Kaiwhakamarama i Ngā Ture, Māori Legal Service

Hearing from someone who actually worked on drafting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples blew my mind. Moana was a considered and engaging speaker with lots of important points to make.

He described museums as “how the past and future lives in the present”, and called on these institutions to properly acknowledge and respect different ways of imagining and remembering. He defined curation as a “naming of names” and stressed how important it is that indigenous people are – and feel that they are – part of this. In my opinion, his most affecting point was related to all the stories that are not told, the “silenced stories”, and the massive role museums have in getting those stories out there.

David Garneau
Associate Professor of Visual Arts, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

I really liked how David defined museums as “co-managed spaces of collaboration and cohabitation”. That’s the ideal, as opposed to in some colonial museums where the emphasis may be more on building and maintaining what he referred to as “the hoard”.

I agree with his assertion that stories don’t have boundaries and that it’s important for museums, galleries, libraries and so on to use their voices to introduce their visitors to the issues of the day. That idea of cultural institutions as ‘safe spaces for unsafe ideas’ (something a number of people said in one way or another over the conference) is a powerful one and could go a long way to drawing out some of the stories that, as a society, we need to be discussing.

Dr Dawn Casey
Descendant of the Tagalaka clan
Former Director of the National Museum of Australia, the WA Museum and the Powerhouse Museum

Social responsibility was also a thread of Dr Casey’s keynote, in which she spoke of museums as “not for themselves; for the common good”. She called for this to be a hands-on process, with institutions openly and actively tackling and providing leadership on social issues.

She also challenged the GLAM sector to examine their internal processes for working with communities, to bring these groups into the core of the institution. Perhaps this is one way to address what she described as a failure in the sector to diversity boards, staff and visitors.

Boon Hui Tan
Vice-President, Global Arts and Cultural Programs and Director of the Asian Society Museum, New York City
Former Assistant Chief Executive (Museums and Programs), National Heritage Board, Singapore
Former Director, Singapore Art Museum

Boon Hui’s presentation was one of my favourites, in no small part because he was just such a likeable and passionate speaker. The’local to global’ paradigm makes a lot of sense to me, and seems like it would work well for GLAM institutions in many countries around the world.

He described the global space as “the shared space between various locals” and pointed out the importance of identifying elements in the local before reaching further – so, finding out our own stories first before looking to the stories of others. He encouraged museums to not be afraid of their region, to embrace local stories and to look to their region as a “staging post to discover the surrounding world”.

Elizabeth Merritt
Founding Director, Centre for the Future of Museums
Vice President, Strategic Foresight at the American Alliance of Museums

Elizabeth posed a lot of questions in her keynote, many of which demanded much further thought. As a museum futurist, her job is to help the rest of us “imagine potential futures for museums”. Among her questions were the following: how far ahead do you look; how do we communicate to distant futures; where should museums in it for the long haul be physically located?

One thing I particularly liked about her presentation was the use of case studies to illustrate some of the future thinking already going on out there. My favourite was Katie Paterson’s Future Library. She’s planted 100 trees, and in 100 years they’ll be chopped down to print books exclusively published as part of this project. That includes a Margaret Atwood novel, and all many of us will ever know about it is its title, ‘Scribbler Moon’.

You can find more from the Center for the Future of Museums on Twitter or on their blog.

Courtney Johnston
Director of the Dowse Art Gallery and Petone Settlers Museum

The first keynote of the Emerging Museum Professionals mini-conference day, and probably my favourite of the whole week, came from Courtney. One of the key take-home messages for me related to social media. She posited that it’s not about what you can get, but what you can give or contribute to your communities. In my opinion, that sums up nicely how cultural institutions (and plenty of companies) should approach social media.

She discussed the standard leadership model – the lone leader style model – and asked how this might be changed to make it more satisfying for everyone involved. A more cooperative model was suggested, with a focus on connectedness, collaboration and change.

One a slightly lighter, but no less important note, she gave her top tips for succeeding as an emerging professional in the New Zealand Museum sector. Learning was a massive theme, from te reo Māori (which NZ citizens and residents can do for free here) to giving a good personal introduction to how to not check your email at night or on weekends.

You can read more from Courtney on her blog or follow her on Twitter.

On my last day at the Otago Museum, I was able to present this information to a group of Museum staff and EMPs from around Dunedin. That was great, largely because it was so rewarding to share some of my personal highlights from the conference with engaged folks who were unable to attend.

I’m not sure where I’ll be at next year when the conference rolls around. Starting out my new life as a freelancer (and occasional temp) is incredibly exciting, and already fulfilling, but it does mean that I have to be a bit more circumspect with my funds. That said, I do hope I make it to sunny Palmerston North for at least some of the next MA conference, which will hopefully continue in the same energetic and engaging vein as this year’s Museums Australasia gathering.


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