Museums Aotearoa Conference 2017

It’s nice to reflect on Conference attendance, in writing and sharing conference inspirations we not only acknowledge and appreciate the time and effort the Presenters put into their work but create the impetus to generate change.
The conference theme was working for greater inclusion – this was immediately manifest with a heartwarming Powhiri, where we had the equivalent of oral history in action in all three of New Zealand’s ‘official’ languages: English; Māori and New Zealand Sign Language accompanied by pictures reinforcing the history behind, and welcome from, local iwi Rangitāne and their Te Rangimarie marae, Rangiotū.
Increasing Access to Arts Greater inclusion?  According to the last census 1 in 4 Kiwis have a disability that affects their daily lives, half of them have more than one!  How can we include them better?  Well you can learn about the places and people in your region here at the Arts Access site.  It was nice to hear Museums Wellington acknowledged for their efforts on accessibility and inclusiveness by Arts Access Aotearoa.  Rebecca Ford, MA Volunteer, observed that “increased accessibility and inclusiveness create a fantastic museum experience for fully able visitors too”, which many of the audience were clearly in agreement with.
“Community at the heart of culture”
The opening keynote speaker was Stella Duffy, Ngaio Marsh award winner for Best Crime Novel and one of three architects of the Fun Palaces initiative.  Originally from Tokoroa, Stella conceived Fun Palaces with three friends.  The idea behind Fun Palaces, that everyone is a genius, artist and scientist, really resonated with me, particularly when Stella noted “We have been paying lip service by thinking we have been including all in culture….. for decades!!”  Her point was we can do more, including letting the people in to help with that culture creation.  Of participants in Fun Palaces UK last year ~12% were Museum and Art Centres, in contrast Libraries and Archives represented an impressive 58%.  As cultural centre’s, museums must and can work harder in culture creation.  A dozen or so Kiwi institutions took part last year in Fun Palaces weekend, this is something we could do well in New Zealand – so, please, talk to your communities and arrange something very small, or BIG, for Fun Palaces weekend on the 7th & 8th of October 2017!

I spoke with Stella a lot during the conference – WE ALL DID!  Stella made it very clear when she keynotes a conference she likes to immerse herself in it and get to know the stakeholders, communicate face to face, and via social media channels.  She’s strident, considerate, opinionated, informed and intelligent – I’d be happy to hear more from her in the cultural heritage community space.

It would be great to hear of a Kiwi Fun Palace experience at our National Digital Forum this year – I hope someone speaks to this as we can tweet up a storm with our own experiences too.  Fun Palaces, it seems aims to represent access (& preservation) in the cultural digital heritage space and it would be delightful to hear ways NDF members are creating a Fun Palace in their communities.
Handling inclusiveness through controversy
We no doubt recall the furore in 2016 when the Kermadec sanctuary legislation was delayed after failed negotiations over Maori rights.  Well we heard another side of the debate showing how dialogue can lead to progress from Ngāti Kurī, Manaaki Whenua (Landcare Research) and Auckland Museum presenters.  The Museum, the local iwi & the research institution have long held dialogue over Rangitāhua (Kermadec Islds) & Manawatawhi (Three Kings Islds).  The Ngāti Kurī rohe is overtly a biodiversity bonanza and I was inspired by the passion on show from all three organisations – especially scientist Dr Peter Bellingham’s passion for the area, it’s fascinating flora/fauna – where google is simply not helpful – a clear need to explore more!  I thought Auckland Museum’s David Reeves aptly summed up the relationship between Iwi and Museums beautifully when he observed, museums are never at the centre of things but merely contribute to or act as part of the conversation.

The second keynote speaker, Glenn Iseger-Pilkington of the South Australian Museum spoke with great humility and insightfulness.  Of Dutch and Aboriginal descent he and his forebears since 1950’s have not felt represented due to Museums tendencies to celebrate strong cultures, and side step indigenous cultures. This tendency has led to feelings of exploitation and a culture being ‘artefacted’ – for which the irony did not escape me.

Glenn is an impressive individual who more than most I know was probably destined to work in the Museum sector: he struck me as a person who thinks a lot – productively – mostly for the betterment of his communities.  He certainly elicited a response from Stella and others when he cited his interest in “curating WITH community, not FOR them”.
I always love the pitopito korero sessions – to me they represent how we tend to communicate nowadays – lots of fast information/stories/metaphors to build information in shareable form (sadly it’s all too often it’s click-bait!).  Some gorgeous snippets worth sharing for those who have read this far include:
Mobile miniature Museums
Taking the museum to the people, creating stories through “Museum in a box” initiative by Pru Pim from Te Manawa where she takes an object(s) to people in rest homes for them to see AND share their stories (inclusion, community);
What if you can’t listen?
Captions and #NZSL significantly benefits the experience of hearing impaired in Museums. See for more information.
The coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase which can make signage interesting for visitors!  A new word for me thank you Natalie.
Outreach opportunities?
The potential for online exhibitions to inspire an audience who might not be ‘physical thresholders’ as presented by Lucy Hammonds and Lauren Gutsall of Dunedin Public Art gallery.
Take the Museum to the Marae
Invigorating iwi through art and museum – iwi lead sharing of stories.  Thank you Eloise Wallace e hoa.  It’s not about the physical structure, it’s about facilitating balance of Museum Practice & Tikanga: He tangata!
Your People
I agree with Rowan Miller – front of house staff are likely the best possible investment a museum will make.
Factoid – Eketahuna
Eketahuna means to run aground on a boulder bank (Makakahi river) – thereafter ‘portage’ to Manawatu or Ruamahanga Rivers (thank you Bridget Wellwood).
“Where have all the scientists gone?”
Mike Dickison lamented the lack of science and research in muesology. Tusk Culture shared Elspeth Hocking’s thoughts on the subject.
My 6 could be your 9
Philip Patston was an inspiration: a creative and social entrepreneur he ran a couple of workshops and presentations and reinforced to me that my ‘6’ could be your ‘9’ if you stood opposite me.  He reminds us we all have the opportunity to move from fear to love by removing the labels that tie us down.  Please take just FOUR MINUTES please to view his video, the core message of which is to encourage people to engage in social change and for individuals to accept diversity and who we really are.  It’s called “As Love Draws Near”.
The Gala Event
A highlight of the Museums Conference is always the Awards night.  It’s great to hear about the wealth of fantastic initiatives going on nationwide in Museums large and small.  Learn more here.  Finalists and winners here.Phillipa Tocker, Museums Aotearoa Executive Director articulated this well when she said
“this breadth and diversity reflects our changing society and the innovative ways that museums and galleries are working with all our communities.”
A round of applause must be given for award winning satirist, documentary maker, writer, stage and screen director, failed gardener, and amateur historian Te Radar. Te Radar is clearly stirred by New Zealand’s past and MC’d the gala event with expert knowledge… here’s a clue why…
In closing
Convenor Jane Leggett’s commented on the Museologist’s:
“unique role caring for our peoples’ taonga and shared histories and experiences, thus their responsibility to remove barriers to participation and build stronger relationships with individuals and communities who have experienced limited access to their collections, sites and resources for physical, geographical, technological or social reasons.”
And the conference set out to provide us opportunities to advance towards our goal of museums and galleries being waka eke noa – vessels on which we can all travel together.  Well we did indeed examine the barriers, and devised new ways of working together to dismantle them, and learned from each other on this kaupapa.

For me the Presenters made the event, but full marks to Museum’s Aotearoa administrator’s, the local organisers and the programme committee for their excellent work in bringing together a thread of excellent presenters who not only stuck to theme, but somehow (spiritually?) seemed to pass the baton of inclusion across the three days of the Conference and the peripheral events.

Many of the presenters were Emerging Museum Professionals who we have seen grow in strength and in sector contribution these past four years – they certainly were EMPathetic museophiles (smirk!) and this year had their own weekend hui titled ‘Huakina’ meaning ‘open’ – relating to the wider MA conference theme of inclusion.  I love the energy and vibrancy they bring to Conference and thank them as well.  The programme format – with lots of lightning talks and panels meant we experienced many presenters give their insight on inclusion.
As for the ultimate rejoinder to the conference theme?  It worked!  I really did feel that all who attended were made to feel part of the MA17 whānau.  And for that it seems fitting to end on a 1980’s quote from hosts Te Manawa’s incredibly popular Topp Twins Exhibition which caught my eye:
“We didn’t want any more rights than anyone; we just wanted the same rights as everyone.”
For further images from the Museums Aotearoa Conference see their facebook.
– Andy Fenton