MA16 Conference Notes

Museums Australasia 2016 Conference or MA16: Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities – was the first joint conference between Museums Australia and Museums Aotearoa.  Crossing cultures and disciplines, the conference program covered events, tours and activities with a strong emphasis on the cultures of the Asia-Pacific region.  The Twitter hashtag for the event 15-19 May was #MA16.
News Flash for the 2017 Conferences: on 18 June Stella Duffy, of ‘the author selected finish Ngaio Marsh’s last book’ fame, also founder and Co-Director of the ‘Fun Palace Campaign’: “Everyone an Artist, Everyone a Scientist …” announced to Kim Hill that she would be attending these Museum Conferences in 2017 on Radio NZ’s Saturday Morning show!  Listen to the podcast here.
For both countries, I suspect the sheer size of the conference at ~550 delegates was impressive and altered the dynamics of our usual single-country fare…

NZMS, delegates, and key themes

Alison and I attended from NZMS and made every effort to get to many sessions and events as we could while networking and exhibiting.  Funding, community engagement and strategies for inclusivity were resonant themes for me – all highly relevant to the conference theme of “Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities”.  Community engagement had elements of technology, a particular interest of mine, but with respect to the strong Pacific influence and Australasian theme, I found discussions around indigenous knowledge fascinating – in particular, the continuing slippage between the Western museum model and indigenous practice in relation to culturally important objects and taonga. There were many stories of the way elders and museum staff worked together to represent the rich storehouse of knowledge that wasn’t always sought in the past in relation to exhibitions and records, and likewise the responsibility of an institution to respect source communities and be prepared to learn.
I had the most fun with my one formal contribution – being on the panel for the Emerging Museum Professional Career Café… It was great to see Australian and NZ museum staff – young in their careers – reaching out to more seasoned folk working in the sector… I was particularly proud to be included as the only non-museologist nonetheless and enjoyed the opportunity to share about some of the business aspects I’ve experienced working across the sector over many years.  More on EMP activities later.

Community engagement & connectedness

Yes, indeed it’s a real theme for NZMS as well thanks to our home-grown software ‘Recollect’ oft separating itself from Museum Catalogue/Exhibition Software precisely because of its community engagement functionality.  And beyond that, it’s the nature of the work we do that I get to meet people all over the country who are characterised by a strong connection to a particular community of interest and a desire to preserve and share their community’s archives.  One particularly enjoyable take home for me was my colleague Alison Barnett’s love of the sector and her engagement with those in it – she positively shined at MA16 (when I wasn’t pushing into the front of the photo)!
In 2012 Alison published her Master’s Thesis on the relationship between regional museums and originating communities in the development of local cultural identity, and she continues to be involved in the sector; Museums Aotearoa is one of the highlights of her year.

Valuing what Museums do: where funding and sustainability collide?

Community engagement was explored by many speakers and panels and covered digital transformation – of collections, of communicating, of engagement/interaction, of research and study, and for me, the great juxtaposition was lining up the disparity between sustainability and funding… The latter being so ad hoc and philanthropic in nature, versus the former needing a long-term focus and the application of ‘business as usual’.  A ‘call to arms’ was issued by one keynote, futurist Elizabeth Merritt, who talked about the Ten Thousand Year Museum; how far into the distance does your vision and mission extend? What will be relevant, important, and significant in the future and, even if you can find a way to preserve and present today’s objects and ideas, how to ensure the message is communicated across epochs.  She was an inspiration on many levels, challenging the sector to step back and review first principles by reconsidering the purpose and potential of the museum construct.  Closer to the day-to-day, resourcing was an implicit obstacle for many.  One of my personal frustrations is the challenge facing so many GLAM sector organisations who develop long-term (read: sustainable) programs of digitisation work but find themselves hamstrung by funding managers – often in Local or Central Government –  who don’t value the community service these institutions provide …  as I write project funding for the cultural sector is under more threat than ever with Creative NZ’s announcements of reduced Lotteries.
This was really brought home on the last day of the Conference when Cultural Heritage Minister Maggie Barry rather surreptitiously acknowledged the need to ‘encourage philanthropy’ in the museum sector (mental note – the present Government genuinely loves what museums do for our communities – but doesn’t want to underwrite it – you might say it takes museums for granted (pun intended)!!! )
Several speakers noted that Museums need to be highly adaptive so that they can respond to their stakeholder communities in relevant and meaningful ways.  Citing Merritt: “museums are very good at ‘informal learning’ which teaches the sorts of skills that are increasingly recognised as vital for our future workforce, such as curiosity, critical thinking and how to work collaboratively.”

Awards, Recognition and the Emerging Museum Professional

ServiceIQ NZ Museum Awards finalists were announced in a terrific ceremony at a reception at the Aotea Centre on Wednesday 18 May – which happens to be International Museum Day.  Recognising achievements on both sides of the Tasman categories for awards included Regional Art; Regional Social History; Regional Taonga Maori; Science and Technology; Metropolitan Art; Metropolitan Social History; Metropolitan Taonga Maori; Best Museum Visitor Experience; Most Innovative Public Programme; Best Museum Project.
Here’s a list of the 33 kiwi finalists – and we offer our hearty congratulations to all of them.
Kiwi winners announced here.    Aussie winners announced here.
Speaking of recognition and awards, the success; the rise and rise of the Emerging Museums Professionals (EMP) group in NZ was a palpable feature of the Conference and has everyone in awe of this group’s achievements.  The original conceiver Michelle Sim (of the Air Force Museum, Christchurch) was recognised for her leadership at this joint conference, and I spoke to many Australian attendees who were mightily impressed with where this had come from and reached in such a short space of time.  Alison attended and thoroughly enjoyed the pre-conference EMP workshop, culminating in the EMP AGM and then followed by Museum’s Aotearoa’s AGM, where Museum Aotearoa’s Chair Roy Clare spoke in praise of the incredible influence the EMP group has already had.  The tangible respect for this group was further recognised when he ‘bookended the conference’ at the poroaki, or (conference) close, by urging more senior museum sector leaders to step aside and let the youth with their fresh ideas and outlooks through…
EMP have launched an eJournal titled ‘Tauhere | Connections’, which echoes the bicultural nature and practice of the museum sector in Aotearoa New Zealand.  It also reflects an important aspect of developing a career in the museum sector – making connections, forging relationships, building networks, connecting with visitors to our museums and with each other.  Check it out; it’s got some terrific articles: http://www.tauhere.org/

What about the future for Museums?

I experienced many challenging questions at this conference and one from friend and colleague Michael Edson, who was quoted by Australian museologist Paul Bowers as saying that if Smithsonian’s mission started today, they’d go digital not build museums. Or put another way, if you had $1.4b/yr for “the increase & diffusion of knowledge” would you spend it on 28 museums?  I think my answer remains that we want places to visit physically and intellectually – or as I tweeted: “I want both digital and physical spaces (overlapped too!) … I think there are lots who share my view #IWantItAll”.  But in the context of hunger for funding, and in the modern age, is this realistic?  I think it’s provocative, and intellectually challenging, to explore this notion.
Some of the themes of the conference reminded me of the Frieze Magazine article from December last year when Sam Thorne sought the views of 10 Museum Curators worldwide for their view of the ‘Future of the Museum” – in 25 years’ time (not quite the 10 millennia Merritt would have us consider!).  How’s this for resonance: “Museums have always been as concerned with prediction as with preservation.  In caring for the past and the present, they must also stake a claim on what will matter in the future.”  – https://www.frieze.com/article/what-is-the-future-of-the-museum – Museums Aotearoa Executive Director Phillipa Tocker reinforces this point with a quote to the media:  “To collect, preserve and protect will always be at the core of what we do but the way we make our content available and the way we interact with our communities is evolving all the time.”
And given the nature of the ‘on-demand economy’, the Centre for the future of Museums has a guest blog from 19 May about the role of museums therein.  I wonder if the author, Thomas Fisher, was following the #MA16 tweet-stream: “… implies a new social role for museums as not just the place for us to see works on display, but also a place to instil the habits of mind that will help us adjust to the rapid economic, environmental, and demographic changes occurring all around us. It may sound like heresy to some, but the works in museums – and museums themselves – in this light become a means to an end rather than an end themselves.”
In closing, the opportunity to discuss new ideas and to meet so many interesting people encourages creative thinking, and the organisers are to be congratulated on a job well done.  We can digest and share our thoughts… & look forward to reporting back at Museums & Galleries Australia Conference in Brisbane 14-17 May 2017; and at the Museums Aotearoa Conference hosted by Te Manawa in Palmerston North, also likely in May 2017.   And note the Newsflash at the top of this blog that recent OBE winner and ‘Fun Palace Campaign’ Co-Director Stella Duffy has signalled she will be there – brilliant!
It’s clear to me the merging of both Conferences this year stimulated a greater breadth of conversation, for example – in the way we handle biculturalism and the approaches to community engagement.  So for 2017 here’s hoping the conversation continues to flow across Australasia.

Andy Fenton
Managing Director, NZMS

Future of cultural sector future on conference agenda

MEDIA RELEASE: Museums Aotearoa
18 May 2016
Forget matching museum programmes to the school curriculum and focus instead on inspiring curiosity in kids and teaching critical thinking. That’s one of the ideas from a keynote speaker at this week’s MA16 Museums Australasia Conference in Auckland.
Museums Aotearoa Executive Director Phillipa Tocker says MA16 – the first joint conference with Museums Australia – has brought together experts from around the world to share ideas about what is working well in the cultural sector and to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.
“To collect, preserve and protect will always be at the core of what we do but the way we make our content available and the way we interact with our communities is evolving all the time,” she says.

Community involvement

Advances in technology continue to be adopted to create new and exciting experiences in museums and galleries. However, Tocker says, personal interactions and community involvement in exhibitions have been at the centre of some of the most innovative recent programmes.
“We have seen some very original and successful public programmes in the past year that have centred on a hands-on, community-driven approach where the museum or gallery is inviting the public in as a co-curator and asking people to bring their own ideas to the space,” Tocker says.
MA16 keynote speaker Elizabeth Merritt, the founding director of American Association of Museums programme and Center for the Future of Museums, says the future of the sector should be about building on its strengths, and examining and challenging traditional thinking that may no longer be relevant.

Curiosity, critical thinking and collaboration

For example, Merritt says, museums are very good at “informal learning”, which teaches the sorts of skills that are increasingly recognised as vital for our future workforce, such as curiosity, critical thinking and how to work collaboratively.
“Constraints of funding and politics and tradition, and a focus on tests and facts, make it hard for schools to teach these skills but museums can knock it out of the park,” Merritt says.
For that reason, museums shouldn’t get too caught up on matching their school programmes to the national curriculum. Instead, they should use their content and collections to get kids curious, encourage them to ask questions and “learn how to learn”.

Funding a critical issue

A challenge likely to be debated at MA16 is looming cuts to funding in a sector already operating with typically tight budgets. A decline in revenue for the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board means Creative New Zealand will have less to share with the sector, and it has warned applicants to budget for a 10% drop in funding.
“Funding is a critical issue right now,” Tocker says. “Museums and galleries in this country rely to a huge extent on lotteries grants, philanthropic funding, and all those other sorts of funding that are not public core government funding.”
Tocker says the nature of funding in New Zealand makes it very hard to plan.
“It’s a huge challenge when the funding is not constant or reliable and when it’s dependent on things like Lotteries’ income where the drivers for that are completely outside the cultural sector.”
Despite the tight budgets, Tocker says New Zealand can be very proud of the quality of the exhibitions and programmes on offer around the country. The best of the best will be announced at this year’s New Zealand Museum Awards later this week.
MA16, the Museums Australasia 2016 conference, is running in Auckland from 16-18 May. It is the first joint conference of Museums Aotearoa, and Museums Australia and the theme is Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities.