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Museum Ideas 2016

10 October 16 -- jsuess
Jessica Suess, Digital Partnership Manager, Oxford University Museums

Last week the OUM Partnership Team took an office trip to the Science Museum in London for Museum Ideas, hoping to learn from some of the great work from colleagues across the sector. Find out details about the conference here.

For me, the talks on the day were of mixed interest - some things were right at the cutting edge and really reflected what you can do when you stretch your boundaries; other activities felt more 'run of the mill' and reflected on things that many museums, including ours, do day to day. If nothing else those talks can remind us that some activities that have become our bread and butter actually have a really big impact, and that is why we do them.

For this blog post I thought I would pick three talks that were highlights for me.

1. Jia Jia Fei, Director of Digital, Jewish Museum, New York - Less is More: Digital with a Lean Team

Jia Jia talked about her move from the Guggenheim, that has a significant digital team, to the Jewish Museum, New York, where initially she was the team, before she was joined by two colleagues. Jia Jia talked about how this change in scale highlighted that you can't necessarily do it all, and that museums don't need to do it all - they don't need to have 10 different apps or be on every social media platform, they need to find what works for them and their audiences, and focus their energy where it matters.

A particular highlight for me was when Jia Jia said ' the only app I use when I visit a museum is Instagram' - many of us know that this is the case and few but the most dedicated download our bespoke museum apps (that said, check out the awesome app that we have just launched for the Museum of the History of Science - Pocket Curator).

Also, the ongoing Twitter conversation as we looked at the differing sizes of the Guggenheim and Jewish Museum digital teams, asked how big our own teams are, and ask whether we can even answer that question clearly as people with digital responsibilities are rarely limited to a single team, and it is usually just one of their many responsibilities.

2. Dan Hicks, Associate Professor of Archaeology, University of Oxford, Curator, Pitt Rivers Museum - The Future of Museums, Past and Present

Perhaps I'm bias, but coming back after lunch it was compelling to hear Dan Hicks talk about the different visions that museum folk have had of what museums should be over the past few centuries, and how that vision is currently in a state of change that is reflected in our changing practice. Dan shared the 1970s vision for the Pitt Rivers Museum as a mammoth installation a bit further down the street from where it currently is that would finally 'place in proper order' the eclectic collections of the museums, and would be served by its own 'climate-tron'. Fortunately some sensible person vetoed this plan...

3. Tobias Lumb, Head of Public Programmes, National Railway Museum, York - Taking Tea on Top of Gladstone: Learning from Creative, Collaborative and Community Theatre on a Big Scale

This presentation inspired me with the scale, audacity, and impact of the project. York Theatre needed to close for a period of refurbishment, but wanted to continue to engage their audience during that period, so they partnered with the museum as a venue - but it was so much more than that. They decided to show the Railway Children to tie in with the theme of the museum, and it is a popular show bound to make money, but then they also decided to do something more creative. Drawing inspiration from the collections they wrote a new play based around the historical figures that established the railway in the area called 'In Fog and Falling Snow'. They then worked with over 400 community volunteers to put on the production, half as actors, the other half behind the scenes. Then they really embedded the show in the venue, using the historic trains on site as sets. The first act was broken into half a dozen scenes of the same length that could be watched in any order and were delivered in situ around the museum, with audiences segmented and rotating around the scenes. The second act was performed in a temporary theatre developed for the purpose on site.

The play sounds like it was wonderful, and the community engagement hugely rewarding for all involved. More than that, Tobias mentioned that evaluation showed that while most of the audience to the show had previously engage with the theatre company, it brought in a significant new audience for the museum. That is great, often we do these exciting projects but fail to gain new audiences, and rather just provide great new opportunities to our existing ones - so just wonderful to hear about their success with new audiences. 

Finally, a silly personal highlight for the OUMP team - for the first time we paid for some conference advertising, putting details of Oxford Cultural Leaders in both the conference pack and the latest edition of Museum ID magazine. It is going to be an awesome course, so check it out.

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