Moving on up
The Museums Association seminar held on 6th February 2014 was a very good opportunity for museum professionals in the early stages of their career to understand how to move on up, as the title of this one-day conference suggested.
We all gathered at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, coming from museums spread all over the UK. Oxford, by the way, was very well represented with 5 delegates (from the Ashmolean and the Pitt Rivers) out of about 140 attendees, despite the difficulties connected with a long journey.
After a warm welcome from the chair by Rebecca Atkinson (Museums Association, Online Publications Editor), we immediately started the work of the seminar. As we were divided ourselves among several tables (19, if I remember well), each group analysed a different issue challenging us all such as lack of experience, lack of information and the competitive environment. All these topics, and our responses, fed onto the walls of the hall, as a reminder. The debate at each table was facilitated by a senior professional who stimulated the already vibrant discussion and triggered our investigation.
This was followed by a short presentation by Richard Wilson on how people can foster a positive change in themselves, which honestly didn’t impress me much because in my opinion it basically repeated some trendy general statements of these times, such as the need to be adaptive, flexible and to get as much information as we can.
More interesting for me were the considerations raised by David Fleming (National Museums Liverpool, Director), Maggie Appleton (Luton Culture, Chief Executive) and Rowan Brown (National Mining Museum Scotland, Director) about what makes a radical workforce. Although their approaches were (too) similar, all starting with a philological analysis of the word ‘radical’ (perhaps more co-ordination among them would have been advisable), they really sparked the audience, inviting us to be creative, open minded, brave, imaginative, more involving, more accessible, more democratic, more social. We even attended the birth of a new abbreviation, APEPECK. To be honest, I doubt it will become really popular for the masses, but for us it was fundamental to set some key words regarding a modern museum workforce: Attitude, Partnership, Enlightened, Politics, Entrepreneurialism, Communication, Knowledge. Further arguments put out at my table were the importance of doing innovation with a specific purpose (and not just for the sake of it), the need to constantly push our boundaries, stay relevant, consolidate our projects and find the right balance between keeping our audience, drawing more different people towards us and being innovative.
After such a shake up of the museum sector, we landed on the sea of tranquillity with the ‘kind’ keynote by Tom Andrews, all about kindness and balancing dreams, reality and relax in a very soft and polite way. His basic concept was to encourage us to make a real difference in the world around us without tearing apart things and people but, to the contrary, bringing them together and uniting them. So, rather than a revolution, a soft evolution, that is to say rigour, research and discipline but also relax, space for ourselves and time to think.
In a perfect alternation of pace, we then moved to our first participatory workshop of the day on how to pitch ourselves. Hilary McGowan, a pragmatic lady who works with museums and heritage organisations, gave us a very dynamic framework on how to promote us in the most effective way in few minutes, or even in a matter of seconds. Practical examples were given and we also had the possibility to practice this, as in a real ‘hands on’ experience.
This led to the question time session when Kate Brindley (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Director), Graham Boxer (Imperial War Museum North, Director) and Katy Archer (People’s History Museum, Director) faced a number of enquiries raised from the audience, all showing a great desire to help us and provide us with useful advice. They told us about the most significant moments and stages in their personal professional stories, and although at moments they tended to repeat some obvious and common suggestions (such as the importance of being ourselves and to sell ourselves), more importantly they made crystal clear crucial milestones: interpreting our job as a mission, reminding us that we are all doing it for other people and encouraging us to believe in the power of art, history and culture to change lives.
After the lunch break, we listened to Kristin Hussey (Hunterian Museum, Assistant Curator) and Terry Dendy (Documentation and Audit Assistant, National Maritime Museum) who delivered a keynote on self-branding in the sector and how to live the social media highlife and not get fired. Funny, friendly, ironic, witty, smart and fast-paced, just as only the Greater London museums environment can be. Reading and, why not, leaving a comment on their blog online is recommended. Their strength? Certainly the fact that they are only London-centric. Their (probable) weakness? I’m afraid it is the same.
Then, before a well deserved coffee break, we had our second participatory workshop on how to lead when we’re not in charge, by Liz Hide (Museums Officer, University of Cambridge Museums). This was a truly inspirational moment as we were provided with key tools to help us start to think critically about what would make us take part, what we could lead and how.
After that, Richard Sandell (Professor Museum Studies, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester) coordinated speed mentoring sessions between 16 senior professionals and delegates, with 80 slots of nine minutes each. There was also the opportunity to sign up to Continuing Professional Development workshops on CV writing, interviewing skills and establishing a mentoring relationship, respectively managed by James Etherington (Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, Visitor Services Team Manager), Tamsin Russell (National Museums Scotland, Organisational Development Projects Manager) and Charlotte Holmes (Museums Association, Museum Development Officer).
Our third and last participatory workshop was another engaging and stimulating moment of the day, led by the already mentioned Tamsin Russell, who helped us in mapping our career and plotting the coordinates of our journey through this exciting sector.
This intensive and interesting day drew then to a close with a reflection at each table on what we had learnt and a final keynote delivered by David Anderson (Museums Association, President; National Museum Wales, Director) who pushed us to make a real difference because if we can make it, then we should, and to always stand up for true democratic and inclusive values.
To conclude, this ‘Moving on up’ seminar was a really valuable experience which I am glad to have joined. I certainly came back home to Oxford enriched, inspired and delighted by such a well organised, practical, helpful, engaging and dynamic day in my life. Thank you to the Museums Association for putting up all this and thank you to the Oxford ASPIRE who helped me in making my journey possible.