On 11 and 12 November, I attended the Museums Association Conference along with my 3 fellow HLF trainees. The experience took me out of my comfort zone at times, was depressing at others, but stretching, informative and rewarding overall.
Of the 2 keynote speeches, 3 networking events, 8 talks and seminars and 4 workshops here are snapshots of 3 of the most inspiring and/or practically useful sessions I attended …
3 panel members set out their position for two issues relevant to my own area: Why do we need specialist natural science curators and how can natural history collections help people connect with environmental sustainability issues?
For me, obviously the first topic was preaching to the converted, but the questions raised by the audience highlighted current issues with natural history collections, particularly the lack of specialists ie ‘How can collections be used without a specialist curator?’
Darren Mann (Oxford Museum of Natural History) explained why curators need to evolve from ivory tower ‘curationists’ to curators who not only care for collections, but make collections accessible and engage with visitors, students, researchers and others. Specialist curators are needed so collections aren’t lost.
Clare Brown (NatSCA) outlined what a gift a natural history collection is for discussing and promoting environmental issues and examples were provided by the panel and the audience. She encouraged actively seeking help and collaboration – with NatSCA (who can help with funding applications, for example), and with larger museums who have a responsibility to support others.
For Henry McGhie (Manchester Museum), using natural history for environmental messaging is about connecting collections to the present. A questionnaire made us wonder if our attitudes relating to nature were the same as our values. Key messages were: ‘You are not your audience’ (nature means different things to different people, and these views are equally valid) and ‘More love, less loss’ (hammering the extinction message can lead to apathy).
An audience member suggested promoting environmental sustainability was not necessarily presenting a ‘balanced’ view. It was pointed out that the Code of Ethics lays out the need to support biodiversity and sustainability. Specialists can help people to understand complex issues and provide a trusted point of reference.
Keynote speech: Ricardo Brodsky, Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile .
This was a thought-provoking speech about an institution set up for a specific purpose at a particular time, dealing with extremely difficult issues both past and present.
Given with the aid of an interpreter, he set out the context for the opening of the museum in 2010 as a national and regional reference centre, with a mission to make known the human rights violations during the military regime from 1973 to 1990. Mr Brodsky described it as the State’s expression of moral reparation, to return dignity to each victim and fulfil a duty of memory, to strengthen the national will and prevent similar events. The first precept was to establish truth – 2 commissions acknowledged massive human rights violations by the government at the time. Victims’ groups were initially critical, seeing the museum as a government-led project. (It is a private foundation set up by the state with finance awarded annually.) However, he says, people now feel included. Some visitors experience tension between records of physical reality and their subjective memories so it is critically important to have the most accurate available records. ‘To transmit a universal message requires a central reference and the opportunity to debate’. We were reminded this is an environment in which many protagonists still hold public posts.
Overcoming your fears of managing volunteers.
Curators rely on the work done by volunteers so I was keen to get an insight into how others approach this and this was one of the most practically useful sessions attended.
The benefits of recruiting volunteers were outlined – creating ties to the community, acting as ambassadors, performing tasks staff don’t have time for, providing specialist knowledge/skills and not least, providing a team for staff who may spend a lot of time on their own. The nitty-gritty of recruiting a diverse range of volunteers, setting up role descriptions, interviewing and training were discussed as well as handy hints on how to fit it all in with the day job. How Volunteer Managers work with curators was an interesting question which, unfortunately, there wasn’t time to discuss.
By combining this session with the workshop on Tips on how to professionally manage volunteers and the session Youth Justice, I comprehensively covered the benefits, practicalities and pitfalls of working with volunteers and young people.