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Summary of the 2021 Working Internationally Conference and session recordings available soon

The 2021 Working Internationally Conference: Shifting Landscapes, Shifting Perspectives took place online 16 – 18 March.  We will shortly make the recordings of the sessions available to ICOM UK members and anyone who booked a place at the conference.

Until the conference session recordings are available, here is a summary of the three days.  Thank you to ICOM UK Committee Members Nigel Sadler (Day 1), Christian Baars (Day 2) and Edmund Connolly (Day 3) for their hosting and summaries of each day of the conference.


Day 1: Social Justice

There has been a big shift in the last two decades into making museums representative of public opinion and finding ways to tell stories of conflicted histories and to have relevance to all the community they serve.  Today’s sessions covered the diversity of Social Justice and how museums and cultural organisations should be engaging and challenging the traditional stories and approaches taken by museums.

The first session was based on race and anti-racism. We were all impressed by Zandra Yeaman’s job title Curator of Discomfort at Glasgow Museums.  This is an attempt to address the lack of some aspects of history in the cultural spaces and issues around the story of Empire, colonialism and slavery and how the story was told in Scotland.  The first session looked at the development of engagement on the subject of Race and how museums could be more than just focusing on things such as Black History Month.

Cities (like Liverpool, Glasgow, London, Birmingham) are now looking to address this through community engagement, but this is a difficult term.  What is community and what is engagement? Most seem to be short term projects and might be seen as trying to bring more people into the museum from greater diversity.  Do we listen to the community?  Do museums speak for and to the community?  Do we need to change the power structure, rather than museums telling us what they are doing and getting the community to lead the agenda of the museum?  Can there be equity in the power dynamics?  What defines an expert?  And experts in what?

The second session by Queer Britain was on how we represent the stories of the LGBTQ+ community.  How Queer Britain’s letter project was built on community involvement – using the words, experience and emotions of individuals written in letters.

Queer Britain illustrated how projects can be developed through global research partnerships, corporate sponsors (Levi, who have built inclusion into their policies since the 1950s), local communities and individual engagement.  All these levels are important to achieve the overall aims.  It comes down to trust.  Partnering with Royal Mail (such as boxes in community post offices and a freepost address) was essential to help all and get feedback from all regardless of social background.  A meaningful representation aims to address/reduce phobias against the LGBTQ+ community.

The afternoon session started off with Just Outcomes, a film curated and produced by Barker Langham, that looked more widely at social injustice ranging from historic eugenics and its interpretation, racism, and how to portray the artistic response and items related to the civil rights movement in the USA and to modern day homelessness.  How the interpretation of objects on display has often been biased, as well as how and what items are collected.  The diversity in the subjects covered in the film showed the wide range of issues being faced by those in the museum and cultural sector.  The Museum of Homelessness, for example, put on an exhibition about how individual homeless people have been affected by the government regulation changes… it is their voice driving the exhibition.

One thing that came out of this session was the role of museums beyond a venue for an exhibition.  Can museums find ways to provide training, jobs, resources for the economically or socially disadvantaged?  Can they act as community mentors; can museums take on bigger roles in the community?  For example, the Museum of Homelessness is introducing a flat salary structure so all are equal

Many museums still want visitors/users to come to their own conclusions.  The National Museum of African American History and Culture wants to provide as much information as possible to allow visitors to formulate their own perspectives.  However, this is only possible if the collections and narratives relate to the viewer/audience.  How do we find out what museums hold in their collections that might relate more to us or that tell a different narrative?  Do we have to rely on what is on display and the narrative fed to us?  How do museum professionals personally address this?

Another thing that came across today is the use of language and the terms we use.  Sometimes used to engage, sometimes used as a weapon.  For this reason, community engagement is essential, especially at all levels of the museum structure – interpretation of the objects, exhibition planning, collecting proposals and outreach.  It is the community driving the political agendas through campaigning, and direct support of the community members, that museums need to get access to.

Wary of tick-box exercises, museums might be quick to say the right thing but much slower in the actions they take.  For example, when museums laid off people due to COVID-19 they laid off the less qualified, part-time workers (e.g. shop and café workers, cleaners) which prejudiced women, people from ethnic minorities and those on the lowest incomes.

The final session really addressed how we create diversity in the employees in the sector and how we can address inequalities.  Arts Emergency addressed the barriers to social justice.  How can we do the jobs we want to, and how do we learn about potential jobs that would engage us?  If the arts sector is elitist, how do those disadvantaged young people get involved or engage with the arts sector and what are the inequalities in the creative industries?  An important thing is confidence.  We need to mentor young people to give them confidence.  A challenge was posed to the audience – in your position, can you share your privilege and change the work culture to make your organisation fairer?

New Museum School then looked at who works in the museum sector and how museums collect, interpret and exhibit items.  It also wants museums to address the workforce and how they are treated and supported.  Museums need to reflect on diversity of all kinds in the sector.  We need to find talent based on skill and potential.  They want museums to take on new staff but not necessarily through the same old employment process.  For example, economics often restricts young people’s chances, so maybe museums need to find sponsorship for internal training programmes.  We know what needs to change and we need to find a way to do this.  This isn’t just about rights but also how a diverse workforce benefits the organisation through such things as the reinterpretation of collections, working with a wider range of community groups etc.

Vanessa Otim’s presentation gave an example of how we need to reinterpret artwork depicting black figures and how the view of others can be just as valid as historical interpretations, in this case by a graduate from the New Museum School.

An ending thought.  Something that was said this morning was that museums become preoccupied with museum issues rather than social issues.  As a sector, we need to become aware of how we address this.  This is both an individual and organisational issue.  How can we as individuals address this?


Day 2: Museums & Sustainability

This morning, the conversation between Nick Merriman, Natalie Bennett and Mary Robinson about the role museums can play in reaching net zero emissions and increasing biodiversity sparked a considerable discussion among the audience, too.  Natalie shared her observation that is there now broad agreement among scientists, politicians and the public that we need to stay below 1.5 degrees average warming if we want to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change – some of which are felt by many communities around the world already.  It is no longer being denied that the dangerous changes to the global climate are the result of human actions; hence what we do as humans affects what will happen next.

Mary expressed that she does not believe a technological approach will get us where we need to be; instead, she believes that any changes that we make need to be both top down (from governments) as well as bottom up (by communities).  This involves museums acting as thought leaders: museums need to spell out how it is, and be vocal about the situation we are facing, meaning that the message needs to be evident not in individual exhibitions, but the moment people walk into the museum.

Nick indicated that, traditionally, museums operate in broadcast mode, which includes the danger of being quite a passive approach – perhaps out of an anxiety to lose a perceived neutrality and the trust which museums have with the public.  Is it possible for museums to be activist yet apolitical?

The response from Mary was that museums should not be neutral, but not being neutral does not necessarily mean being political.  Natalie reminded us that art frequently is very political.  Museums document societal changes and this includes the changes currently happening.

The question of sponsorship of museums arose, and Natalie felt strongly that the museum sector had received a terrible deal in the past whereas some corporate organisations got a very good deal by ‘greenwashing’ their otherwise dirty activities through giving money to museums.  Mary indicated that there is now considerable leadership on environmental issues from the private sector, including some quite radical thinking on climate change, with some corporate organisations no longer serving shareholders but placing more emphasis on stakeholders.  In that sense, there are new opportunities emerging for museums to find new partners and sponsors in the private sector.

On the issue of individual action, Natalie outlined an example from a German train she rode on recently and could not see a single item of single-use plastic, but that most museum cafes still featured lots of them, and she urged museums to be braver in their decisions.  Mary explained that there are three things everyone can do: take personal responsibility for the climate crisis in their personal lives, get angry and become active and vote, and imagine the ‘new’ world we are hurrying towards.  Especially the latter point is where museums can play an important role, by working with their communities and using their skills to display a new world vision.

What we took from this session is encouragement that politicians are willing museums to be part of the solution, actually seeing museums as instrumental in mitigating the climate crisis.  Have we, as a sector, perhaps have been too cautious, too anxious about potentially upsetting our sponsors or communities, and whether sticking our necks out can actually be extremely rewarding for our communities and our planet?  Not wanting to single anyone out, one particularly positive example is perhaps the approach by the Australian Museum who are very open about their responsibilities and are active on many levels.

The second session, led by ICOM UK committee member Claire Messenger in conjunction with Nadine Panayot, who spoke to us live from Beirut, provided a deeply emotional insight into the history of the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut, especially the terrible aftermath of last year’s explosion in the port of Beirut which destroyed much of the city.  The devastation caused by the explosion resulted in the loss of many lives, and despite the destruction of hundreds of objects in the museum, Nadine explained how the human tragedy around them put the loss into perspective.

The disaster response at the museum concentrated initially on securing the building’s doors and windows, and the painstaking salvage of items fractured into many pieces.  There were audible cheers of joy when two goblets were recovered intact.  When the focus shifted to saving collections, students were an important part of a first-aid rescue team, whilst other agencies looked at repairing the buildings.  The museum received much support from the local community as well as specialist help from the international museum community.

Despite the devastation, the museum maintained a programme of events, including lectures and tours.  One major change for the museum was the recognition of the digital sphere as a distinct branch of museum events programming.

Nadine was incredibly positive in the face of disaster.  She says she recognises the many barriers for visitors entering the museum because people must first enter the campus of the university, and then the museum, and she would like to make it easier for the local community to come and see their heritage.  Nadine reminded us that cultural resources are now recognised as improving quality of life.  Natural and cultural heritage preservation is inherent in the UN Sustainable Development Goals; we have therefore no choice other than to preserve and engage, bring people together, and promote individual and collective action.

The film shown was a powerful lesson in how many different possible solutions there are within the museum community to the complex problem of climate change.

After lunch, we saw a film curated by Barker Langham about how many museums around the world are responding to climate change.  The diversity of responses was exhilarating, and they were coming in thick and fast from all continents, and as far afield as Alaska, Panama, Cape Town, Qatar, Greece, Hong Kong, Australia and Vanuatu.  Museums tell stories, and any object can tell the story of climate change; by extension, any museum can become a climate change museum.

We heard how climate change displaces people, and what the negative feedbacks are of people being displaced – a formidable negative feedback loop.  We also heard examples of sustainable architecture and museum practice.  Museums ensure that community voices are heard, and encourage visitors to take home messages about whose responsibility climate change is.  There were examples of how climate change will and does affect communities and their heritage.  Museums definitely are a diverse platform for change.

In the final session of the day, we heard from three early career professionals who discussed what developing positive change can look like in the museum sector.  Chloe, Izzy and Kate informed us of practical ways in which museums, through their own operations, can contribute to mitigating climate change, whilst also promoting sustainable living practices through their Learning programmes.

Izzy told us about her work as a climate justice activist based at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.  Museums need to make systemic changes within the institution before being able to inspire people to learn about the climate crisis – a very important point.  This means looking in detail at museum operations, resource use, energy use, and use of exhibition materials.

Kate worked on the Lambcam project which films live as they lamb at St Fagans National History Museum of Wales on the outskirts of Cardiff which is an example of participation for people who cannot travel to the museum.

Chloe, Izzy and Kate reminded us that young people are at the forefront of driving change in museums – a nice link back to this morning’s discussion on social justice.  Young people have grown up with climate change anxieties and now demand the change much louder than previous generations have done.

It was really encouraging to see that young people do not linger on blaming older generations for the mess we now find ourselves in but are actively working towards achieving the improvements we desperately need.  Their experience is that senior members of staff are receptive to suggestions for change, although some of this depends on the size of the ask – large financial investments seem to require more persuasion.

Importantly, there is no green end goal – sustainable development is about a process of continuous improvements.

So, in summary, what DO museums have to do with climate change?

The dire environmental constraints we observe today remind us the notion that continuous growth is essential to wellbeing is entirely preposterous.  There are clearly limits to growth, and museums must consider how invasive current economic models are.  Sustainable development is about doing the work to move to a more sustainable society and mitigating, if not averting, climate change.  It is comforting to talk about making the world a better place for everyone, yet success comes down to our ability to take action.

Amazingly, there seems to be wide agreement that museums must play an active role in this.  Museums have plenty of opportunities to take action – we have seen and heard many examples today, and heard some powerful, insightful and persuasive arguments why they should – and museum professionals at all levels can play their part in achieving this change.  If this means being activist then museums are activist, but it is important that our work is rooted in the needs of our local communities.  Museums really lead by example, and this is something we can all build upon. This gives us much hope for the future.


Day 3: The Future of Museums

The topic of day three was the Future of Museums.  Whilst we discussed what museums are currently doing and what they could do, we should reflect also on the learnings from the Social Justice & Sustainability conference days to ask: What should a museum do?

Museums have existed for many centuries, but we don’t really know when the first museum was – was it the Ashmolean in 17thC designed to educate the public, or do we look further back: with the procession of objects, artworks and artefacts of Ashurbanipal’s reliefs over 2000 years ago, or further still to the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, 45,000 years ago with the first known depiction of an animal in art.

Do we perhaps struggle to pinpoint this moment because we have no clear definition of a museum, so how can we truly conceive of their future?  The three examples mentioned have some similar elements: collections, public spaces and creativity, but all also revolve around an audience, whether you’re a visitor to the city of Ur or an Egyptology enthusiast in Oxford, the experience and the value of consuming culture is paramount – perhaps to look forward we should first look back?

The sessions of the day emulated this chronological approach – starting with Tonya and Skinder’s session reflecting on how the past two years will impact on our futures.  Skinder reflected on how people are central to initiating the change we want to see – it is first about building trust and the need to build empathy for us to make change and progress.

In the second session, Ana told us about the Panama Canal Museum changing its future in the now.  Ana explained how the museum seeks to break down barriers, become tuned into new dynamics and actively listening to people’s voices in a much more inclusive way in order to generate connections, learning and closeness.

The third session, a film curated by Barker Langham, we heard from Foteini Aravani, Dr Aaron Bryant, Anna Burchardt and Suzy Hakimian.  How can objects ever portray the human experience?  A very powerful and painful reminder of the enormity of the narratives we are living now: how will we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter, Sarah Everard and Pulse Nightclub?  It is for museums to decide.  We need people to realise their actions are making history.

We ended the day hearing from students who may become the sector’s future leaders.  Peiyi Lyu, Jianan Qi, Mingshi Cui and Jinyu Zhang spoke about the museum boom in China.  We heard how museums are drawing connections between people, using digital to tell the stories of repatriation contexts, and about new business ventures from merchandising to video games.  It was interesting to end on this developing notion of what is a museum that now includes people as well as collections.

Can we be open minded to new ways of doing things, confident enough to reflect on what we do right now, and self-aware enough to realise whilst what we have right now is not ideal?  Change is inevitable and it’s best we steer this ship rather than be forced on a journey we don’t want to take.

Whilst these are tempestuous times, and we may not know what a museum is, from today we seem to know what it is for: for connections, for reflects and for humanity.  Museums have always been integral to our societies and identities and will continue to be so, they just might be a little different.