We are on day 4 of the 2020 Museums Association (MA) Conference
We would have been in Edinburgh – enjoying the conference, in person, in a beautiful city with ITP Fellows from around the world. This year though the conference is online via Zoom and the MA will be sharing talks, tours, discussions and debates all week on the theme of the World Turned Upside Down: Exploring the Future of Museums.
Museum Tour – Creswell Crags Museum & Prehistoric Gorge, Derbyshire
On the morning of the second lockdown due to COVID-19 here in England, what better way to start the day than with a tour of Creswell Crags Museum & Prehistoric Gorge in Derbyshire.
Creswell Crags is a spectacular magnesian limestone gorge that straddles the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. It is dotted with a large number of caves, fissures and rock shelters, many of which harboured secrets from our Prehistoric past. Archaeologists have been excavating these caves since the 19th Century, when the Victorians first discovered the artefacts that lay beneath the cave floors. So much material was excavated early on that many of today’s archaeologists now excavate the spoil heaps (rubbish dumps) of previous excavations to find any artefacts which were missed!
Their Museum displays a number of objects unearthed at Creswell Crags. This nationally important collection includes primitive hand tools as well as the remains of several surprising species which you might not have known were regular visitors to Britain.
The tour, guided virtually by Rebecca Morris-Buck and Jennifer Horseman, took the audience to one of their most famous caves –Church Hole cave – and behind the scenes at the museum into their stores.
In Church Hole cave we saw Ice Art art around 13000 year old engravings of animals made with flint tools using the rocks natural formations and features. One of these was a rare depiction of a long-neck bird which may represent an Ibis – not a bird now known the UK.
The museum stores – located in the gorge – introduced the audience to the palaeontology and archaeology collections kept by the museum. The collection, of finds from the caves and the gorge, helps to put the caves into context and we were able to see hippopotamus bones from an animal that would have lived in the Creswell Crags 125,000 years.
The session also introduced us to a Creswell Heritage Trust, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund in response to changing needs in museums due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Virtual Creswell Crags: reuniting the caves, collections, prehistoric art and medieval witch marks is a project to create digital resources through 3D scanning of cave interiors and key artefacts found in them using the latest digital technology in order to reach new audiences, provide future resilience and increase the collections offer to existing audiences post Covid-19. The project is in development but it was clear what a useful and engaging resource this will be.
Learning and engagement manifesto launch
Dhikshana Pering, Head of Engagement & Skills, Somerset House, Museums Association Board Member
David Anderson, Director General, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales
Sarah Smed, CEO, Danish Welfare Museum
For the first talk of day four of the Museums Association (MA) Conference 2020, the MA announced the launch of its Learning and Engagement Manifesto. 20 years ago the MA published A Common Wealth – Museums in the Learning Age. The landscape of museums and society in the UK has greatly changed since then. Technology, digital engagement and how we understand how people learn has shifted a lot in the last twenty years.
Now, Coronavirus is having a big impact on society and the way that museums connect with communities. Furthermore, the Black Lives Matter movement has raised serious questions about racism and inequality that museums need to respond to.
This new manifesto has been developed over the last 19 months by speaking with over 500 MA members. With a focus of cultural rights, social justice, and community participation, the speakers of this session discussed the importance of a manifesto like this for cultural institutions.
Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell began the talk by saying that museums are inherently cultural institutions. Kayleigh said the three aspects of the manifesto; social justice, activism and community participation, really connected with her.
While working at National Museum of the Arts in Washington DC, Kayleigh recalled the point of the museum work was breaking the obsessive mould around how objects must lead programming, objects must lead museum work. instead of objects leading museum work they were looking towards ideas and specifically, activism to lead museum work.
Now at the Anacostia Community Museum, Kayleigh has been working on a 5-year initiative on racial equity, that is centred in co-development with the community. For Kayleigh this is exciting to because it is pushing the concept of the museum as a site to build community power.
Next we heard from Sarah Smed, CEO of the Danish Welfare Museum. The museum is based in an old poor house which was built in 1872 and shut down in 1974.
Sarah says that museums can be instigators of social change. We are creating change for the museum itself and making a reflective practice we can take with us in the future, and secure our relevance within this. Sarah sees museums and as treasure chests of opportunities to create change. She says this manifesto will open the lid and we can look into all of these treasures we can do something with.
Finally we heard from David Anderson, Director General, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. David started by saying ‘Museums don’t have to be buildings, they are really a way of thinking and acting in the world.’ Museums should be a selfless institution in society, not egotistical.
For David, this manifesto is utopian. Every person has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community. How can museums with the help of this manifesto enable this? David quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states ‘Every person has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.
Having a learning and engagement manifesto gives museums a framework for action. It backs up and supports the work museum professionals are passionate about in museums and it enables museums to respond to stakeholders and audiences about their work. It challenges us to go further. It can give institutions more confidence in facing those that harangue museums for not being what they want them to be – static, traditional and reflective of privilege.
In Practice: Covid-secure learning: putting guidelines into action
This practical session on COVID-secure learning concentrates on putting guidelines into action. Over the summer and autumn, the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) engaged with the Clore learning spaces have been working with learning and education and participation colleagues in different art forms across the UK to draw together some valuable resources and help support COVID-secure learning and participatory work. This is an ongoing project, fuelled by the generosity of colleagues working to ensure that key work around education, learning and participation can carry on.
Sally has run the Clore Duffield Foundation for many years, overseeing grants to many museums and galleries, particularly to fund Clore learning spaces. In parallel to that, the foundation have gradually built up informal guidance, formalised into a publication which came out in 2015 called Space for Learning.
When COVID hit, every single one of those spaces closed and the panel immediately felt that guidance was needed about how to adapt the space for learning in a context of COVID. They have pulled together advice, guidance and promising practice from a large range of colleagues which turned into a working group and then a website with advice on different areas, alongside monthly workshops. Space for Learning is constantly changing in line with government guidelines is a work in progress – you can see sections on COVID guidance for learning spaces and this advice available as a PDF download.
A PowerPoint presentation followed which describes the things we can do in terms of museum learning spaces, in safe and secure ways and you can see the slides below.
The panel were asked, ‘What is the most important thing you learned in terms of providing COVID secure learning since the first lockdown and as we go into the second one?’ To which everyone agreed that to make things work, everyone must work together – the more we work together, the better, we can share the guidance and support each other.
The Research linked to COVID
What do we need to think about as managers?
What do we need to think about in the workplace?
What do we need to think about on outreach?
What do we need to think about on gallery?
What do we need to think about on self-directed?
What do we need to think about SEND/EY?
What do we need to consider for schools?
What’s there to help us?
Born in the 21st century: New museums doing things differently
Olivia Windham-Stewart, Co-founder, Museum of British Colonialism
Rachel Crossley, Museum Director, East End Women’s Museum
Kinsi Abdulleh, Somali Museum UK
This session explored what it means to have started a museum in the past decade. And how does practice echo or differ from older museums?
The East End Women’s Museum is a pop up museum which seeks to explore, record, and celebrate the stories of East London women. It is currently the only dedicated women’s museum in England. Rachel Crossely, the museum’s Director, said that the creation of the museum emerged from asking the question who get represented in museums? The times we live in demanded a space to focus and centre solely on the experiences of women.
The museum does not have a building, and it only has one object in its collection (its founding email!). Rachel says there is a cultural shorthand that museums have to have a building. The East End Women’s Museum aims to desegregate the idea of as museum as institution with ideas from the museum as a building.
The museum has operated as a popup for five years, but will move into a permanent building in 2021. Does a building give a museum legitimacy? The East End Women’s Museum does not want to operate in this way to engage with people. Online content, popup museums and touring exhibitions are also legitimate ways to achieve engagement.
The Museum of British Colonialism (MBC) operates with a similar ethos. Olivia Windham-Stewart, the museum’s co-founder, said the museum was created in response to a lack of something. Something was unrepresented in an already crowded landscape.
MBC aims think about new ways to operate as a museum. It also has no building or objects and it currently has no intention of obtaining a permanent collection. The principle of the museum is that anything they create should be able to be recreated or displayed anywhere in the world. They do no want to be centred in one place. MBC are challenging the idea of what a museum is by seeing a museum as process and creation rather than collection.
Finally, we also heard about the Somali Museum UK. Launched by artist Kinsi Abdulleh, Somali Museum UK has been described as a ‘living museum’ based in East London. Kinsi said the original objectives of this museum was to address issues around social justice and to share and celebrate Somali-British narratives. The focus of the museum is on relationships, with an emphasis on detoxing and reclaiming Somali history.
Kinsi explained that their museum also does not really have a collection – museums across the country already have Somali objects in their collections. Their permanent space will house an exhibition, but will also focus on educational workshops and to be a hub for the local community.