Written by Claire Messenger, Manager, International Training Programme

International exchange: Reimagining the museum of the future  

Museums across the globe had to face the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic over the past 18 months. In conversation with Elaine Heumann Gurian, Museum Consultant, a panel of international museum leaders shared their experience and knowledge to suggest examples of new opportunities and advances over long-standing unresolved problems in museums today.

Elaine started this session asking if too many museums had reopened after lockdown without much change (apart from COVID precautions in place).  Had the sector congratulated itself too much and evaluated too little and how can we ‘walk the walk of thoughtful change’.

The speakers each looked at where we SHOULD be going and amidst a sea of well-meaning rhetoric about change in the sector, the panel explored where authentic examples of change give cause for optimism and how can we use these examples to multiply the museum justice we are all hoping for.

Jette Sandahl, Chair of the European Museum Forum, spoke about three institutions supporting restitution through inspirational projects.

http://www.europeanmuseumforum.info/

RESIST! The Art of Resistance is currently on display at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne, Germany.  RESIST! highlights 500 years of anti-colonial resistance in the Global South, exploring colonial oppression and its continued effects. The exhibition is a tribute to the women, men and children who resisted colonisation in many different ways and whose stories are rarely told or heard – even today.

https://museenkoeln.de/rautenstrauch-joest-museum/RESIST-The-Art-of-Resistance

The Pitt Rivers Museum was recognised for their project of institutional self-reflection to liberate objects from the language of colonialism looking anew at how they were collected, documented, interpreted and narrated.

Founded in 1884, the Pitt Rivers Museum houses more than 500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world, and from all periods of human existence. Within these are exceptional objects of ritual significance, and objects made for tourists or trade.

The Museum, while loved and regarded by many is also a contested space that calls for innovative curation to engage with the more difficult aspects of its history; a place where many histories collide and where objects from Britain’s colonial past sit side by side with more recent (and much older) ones. Curating that space and those collections is a challenge that the Pitt Rivers embraces.

https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/

Vermisst in Benin: an artistic intervention by Emeka Ogboh was the third project proposed by Jette.

Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s “missing poster” campaign aims to shed light on the restitution of Benin sculptures looted by the British troops back in 1897 that are currently on display across museums in Europe and North America. His posters are currently installed publicly across bus stop ads and facades in Dresden, Germany and nearby towns portraying images of the Benin bronzes from Dresden’s Museum für Völkerkunde with the text “Missing in Benin.”

https://www.skd.museum/en/besucherservice/press/2021/vermisst-in-benin-an-artistic-intervention-by-emeka-ogboh/

Melanie Adams, Director, Anacostia Community Museum.

Founded as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and opened in 1967, the Anacostia Community Museum was envisioned by S. Dillon Ripley, then-Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, as an outreach effort by the Smithsonian to the local African American community.

https://anacostia.si.edu/About

Melanie looked at the issue of how to measure success when you no longer have visitors coming through the door.  During COVID the museum needed to look beyond attendance numbers and look at how museums can become a community resource.  They listened to their community and looked around the sector to see what could and should be done.  At Baltimore Museum of Industry they had set-up a vaccination centre and installed an outdoor exhibition in their carpark.  While at Wisconsin Historical Society, staff contextualised public health measures and helped support the testing needs and mapped COVID community hotspots.

Anacostia Community Museum is in a low-income area that struggles with food inequality so they placed fridges in their carpark which they stacked with meals which have helped and supported over 85,000 people in need.  They also set up an outdoor exhibition called ‘Men of change; taking it to the streets where the community selected their own influencers and change-makers. https://anacostia.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/Men-of-Change-Taking-it-to-the-Streets-6533

The question was still how to measure the success of theses COVID projects but perhaps the best gauge will be time!!

Zak Mensah, Joint CEO, Birmingham Museums

Birmingham Museums has 9 extraordinary venues that provide a fascinating glimpse into Birmingham’s rich and vibrant past and showcase world class museum collections.

https://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/

During COVID Zak has worked to the principle of ‘how can I help?’ and felt there was previously too little focus on wellbeing and making BMT a better place for everyone to work. He spoke about how there can be a fear of new things and that if you change yourself, you change the world.  The leadership structure at Birmingham Museum now focusses on a ‘teams’ approach, trying to rebuild processes and skills sets to support staff.

He noted that traditional recruitment procedures mean museums always have the same outcomes – that workforces lack an essential multi-cultural dimension.

Melanie recognised that she liked Zak’s idea of looking internally in museums and that sometimes we are so anxious to push out content that we forget how much stronger we will be from looking inwards.

Margo Neale, Head: Centre for Indigenous Knowledges, Senior Indigenous Curator and Adviser to the Director, National Museum of Australia.

The National Museum of Australia brings to life the rich and diverse stories of Australia through compelling objects, ideas and events. They focus on Indigenous histories and cultures, European settlement and their interaction with the environment.

https://www.nma.gov.au/

Margo discussed the National Museum of Australia’s Songlines; Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition – an Aboriginal-led exhibition that took visitors on a journey along the epic Seven Sisters Dreaming tracks, through art, Indigenous voices and innovative multimedia and other immersive displays.

https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/songlines

This exhibition demonstrated the museum changing in three ways.

  1. Consumer becomes curator.
  2. The community drives the museum.
  3. Willing to go to new places without a map!!

Each of the panel were asked about ‘push-back’ against their museum’s projects, plans and ideas.

Margo felt there was no push-back to her project – in fact there is a real hunger in the cultural sector for indigenous work and input.  However, museums do have to learn to work on these kind of projects – to be prepared to ‘go with the flow’; that schedules and timelines don’t go to plan and most importantly to talk….and talk…..and talk!!

Zak said that progressives think about new and adventurous ways to solve a problem.  Asked if there was push-back to new ideas he said that generally there was very little but that everyone says they are up for change but sometimes, not when it impacts them directly.

Jette spoke about how museums need to ‘make peace’ with push-back.  Doing racial things in museums WILL result in push-back – often from inside the institution.  Polarisation comes from within our own communities and understanding why people push-back will help, potentially, to avoid it.

Meanwhile, Melanie noted that push-back can be counteracted with results but how to measure success when projects are not based on classic museum projects and programmes.  How can you measure a museums impact on the community?

Session takeways!!

  • The more we learn from each other the wider our pallet.
  • There are different roads to reach a goal but all the roads are good.
  • How are you taking care of your staff when you want to push change?
  • Museums are asking communities to support them but museums need to support communities.
  • Everyday ask ‘how can you help?’
  • During a pandemic if you have days when you don’t achieve much, don’t worry, that’s normal.