As part of MAT's brief to support professional development two bursaries of $2,000 (towards the travel and registration costs) to attend the MuseumsAustralasia National Conference in New Zealand (15-19 May 2016) were awarded to Veronica Macno (Roving Curator) and Geoff Dobson (Burnie Regional Art Gallery). Here are their reports.
I would like to acknowledge the generous support I received with a MA2016 National Conference Bursary to attend the Museums Australasia 2016 Conference: Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities from 15 – 19 May 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand. I would also like to acknowledge the support given to me by my employer, Arts Tasmania, enabling me to attend the Conference as part of my professional development.
The main objectives of attending the conference were to: to engage with museum professionals; further develop and broaden my own museum professional development and to experience some aspects of the arts and cultural heritage sector in Auckland.
Key Note Speakers
Moana Jackson Ngăti Kahungunu Ngăti Porou: Moana Jackson’s keynote address set the scene for the Conference with his focus on monuments, museums and memory and how and why they interact. In particular his thoughts about museums as monuments and how stories and/or histories are often partially or incorrectly presented resonated with me throughout the Conference. The main take home messages that stuck with me were that there are many stories to be told, many voices to be heard and that every story told as the history of their country is an Indigenous story.
David Garneau Métis: In referencing his own Indigenous community, one of the most thought provoking aspects of David Garneau’s keynote address was the notion of how important (or more accurately absolutely imperative) it is to present stories and /or histories from the point of view of the locals living in the community. That is, much of the knowledge and understanding of the cultural material of a community is held by the people within the community and that this should be shared with the museum sector professionals and presented as authentic, balanced and inclusive stories/histories.
Dawn Casey:Dawn’s notion in her keynote address that museums should strive to be a social agent for social change and should continue to do so was an important point to raise in the context of the Conference title: Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities.
I found Elizabeth to be one of the most engaging and energetic keynote speakers of the Conference with ideas and theories that I found most relevant to me as a museum professional and as a Roving Curator working with the small museum sector in Tasmania. In particular I found the juxtaposition of Elizabeth’s thinking about the future of museums (as illustrated by the Center for the Future of Museums) in relation to how important it is to consider how much and what we collect today, examining what is the value and benefit of collections to the community and policy making for collections, re: deaccession, issues of storage and conservation highly relevant.
Boon Hui Tan: Boon Hui Tan’s keynote address spoke about the local global aspect very succinctly and linked the two notions of think and act locally to attract global interest and attention. In particular his discussion about local collections staying local but making connections with other local communities resonated with me as a museum professional in Tasmania and as part of the broader museum sector in Australia. His point about specialising in the local was a theme that had been spoken about in some of the other keynote addresses and how it is important to listen to and value the local knowledge and how this can attract global interest and attention.
plenary: A Plenary session was presented by a number of prominent speakers (Robert R Janes, Daryl Karp, Elizabeth Merritt, Albert Refiti, Lisa Reihana and Peter White) and provided numerous provocations which I found both interesting and useful as a museum professional and as a Roving Curator working with the small museum sector in Tasmania: “what is your public value to the community”, “rethink and deconstruct who we recruit as employees in the museum sector to address diversity for visitors and what is presented in our museums”, “museums should be less concerned with education and become places people love and engage with” and “important to present a balanced viewpoint of First Peoples in museums”.
parallel sessions: My choices for the parallel sessions were all useful, informative and relevant to me as museum professional and some in particular were useful to my role as a Roving Curator working with the small museum sector in Tasmania. Some of my choices included: the public value of museums, collections and strategy, new ways of story telling, visitor research for exhibition development and does consensus stifle innovation. A couple of the highlights of the parallel sessions for me was the site visit to the collection store of MOTAT and the new ways of story telling session, which included five different papers. Wendy Lugg’s Mapping Memory – an online exhibition was a project that I thought could be relevant in my role as a Roving Curator, either for our annual 10 Objects – 10 Stories: celebrating community collections exhibition or for some of the groups we work with? Wendy’s exhibition project had both a physical presence and then developed for an online profile.
Benefits and Outcomes
There were numerous benefits and outcomes, including the opportunity to network with a wide range of museum, art and other related professionals, be inspired by current, new and innovative theories and ideas, the opportunity to visit some of Auckland’s best cultural organisations, such as the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Auckland Art Gallery. However, most importantly I gained a number of useful and practical ideas through presentations, workshops and conference participants that can and will be put into practice in my role as a museum professional and as a Roving Curator working with the small museum sector in Tasmania.
Firstly, I am grateful to have received a Museum’s Australia bursary, administered through the Tasmania Branch, enabling me to attend the Museums Australasia 2016 joint conference in Auckland. The Burnie City Council fully supports professional development opportunities for staff, such as attending conferences and summits, but due to limited financial and personnel resources it is difficult to attend all the key conferences that relate to the core functions of the Burnie Arts & Function Centre (BAFC) and Burnie Regional Art Gallery (BRAG). My position, as the Director of BAFC/BRAG, is required to take an active interest and interact with multiple sectors, including: function and events; performing arts; visual arts and cultural heritage sectors. Therefore it was of great benefit to engage with a broad, trans-Tasman network.
To my embarrassment I had not attended a Museum’s Australia conference in the past. In 2014 I was travelling on a Churchill Fellowship at the time the conference was being held in Launceston. Admittedly, in the past my perception of Museums Australia had been misguided. I had previously assumed the organisation was purely acting for the museum and cultural collecting sector. I had not fully appreciated the cross-over and cross disciplinary content relating to the public gallery sector (I also note the wording on the back of the 2016 Conference Booklet, Museums Galleries Australia National Conference 2017).
I believe it is important to place in to context the situation of BAFC/BRAG as I left for Auckland. The Centre was facing significant budget cuts and setbacks in-line with the new financial year 2016/17. Hence, while I was at the conference my mind was drifting to the pending restructure of the Centre, including redundancies, loss of hours, amendments to opening hours, and major cuts in local government funding. From my perspective the conference title of Facing the Future could not have been a more appropriate.
I can only report on my own observations of the conference. From the outset, I immediately felt the integration and appreciation of colonial and Maori culture was exceptional. I don’t recall one speaker from New Zealand who did not address the audience in the indigenous language, regardless of whether it was prior to the start of a keynote or smaller breakout session.
It was this heightened level inclusiveness that set the tone for the overall conference, a feeling of goodwill, welcoming and pride permeated the three major days of the conference.
It was fascinating to hear an opening keynote address from someone operating outside the museum and gallery sector. Because of his achievements in New Zealand and his respected International career, Moana Jackson’s keynote was received with a certain amount of awe in the room. His comments about museums as monuments, linked with the importance of relating effective and correct information, framed discussions for the proceeding days. Jackson tasked directors and curators to balance reporting culture and history for the now, while honouring the past appropriately, considering the past may have multiple understandings and contexts.
It was an interesting choice by the conference organisers to open with two keynote speakers. I felt there were some contractions between the two, but essentially David Garneau, who shared the opening keynote segment with Jackson, reinforced Jackson’s position. Garneau provided a case study, referring to his own indigenous community, referencing objects and their importance to communities. His thoughtful comments about sublimation, in the context of the Manitou Stone – a sacred meteorite, no doubt resonated with many in the room who manage important pre-colonial collections.
I cannot recall which of the two opening keynotes referred to Captain Cook’s Bark Shield, mentioning that as an object it would not exist if it was not collected, and therefore it is the story and not the object that is ‘titled’ and ‘labelled’. This story highlighting any object is subject to perspective.
Garneau’s closing comments about curating towards conciliation as opposed to reconciliation was as much a provocation as any heard throughout the duration of the conference. The actual provocations for the conference were posed by six prominent arts and culture leaders, including one by Robert Janes via recorded message. Janes presented a global approach, encouraging the cultural sector to instruct global policy. Janes mentioned that the museum, as the entity, shouldn’t be frightened to ‘upset its perceived neutrality’.
The futurist Elizabeth Merritt featured heavily throughout the conference as a presenter, panellist and provocateur. I perhaps followed her in the program as I enjoyed listening to her viewpoints and theories. She opened day two with one of her many questions, ‘what is the value proposition of your collections’. She linked this question with accessibility and the collection’s benefit to the community over time. Her theories provided useful tools for critical programming analysis. I did find her proposition ‘how to we become relevant to audiences now’, interesting seeing she is the Founding Director of the Centre for the Future of Museums. Perhaps part of my enjoyment came from the theatrics of her presentation on day two, which included a science fiction-esque soundscape that took me quite some time to understand was actually part of her presentation.
As the conference and conversations developed, I began to contemplate the proposed merger of the Burnie Regional Museum and Burnie Regional Art Gallery. These thoughts were influenced by one of the reoccurring questions of the conference, the question of which story to tell. I reflected on the Early Burnie permanent exhibition on display at the Museum and the lack of local aboriginal content in the Gallery’s permanent collection. It might be dismissive to mention, but the story currently being told by the Museum and Galley is mostly, if not entirely, colonial history. Another unsurprising undercurrent of the conference was collection management. I did attend several sessions under the Collections and Strategy heading. This did not serve me well. It only raised my anxiety about the current state of the Gallery’s collection. One of the more entertaining sessions, titled Slay the Dragon, did help to lesson my anxiety somewhat due to the presenters humour and novel approach. Slay the Dragon posed the idea of closing the gallery for several weeks to simply re-catalogue, digitise d update the Gallery’s current database in a consolidated period of time - likened to a Toyota assembly line.
The conference also provided me with the stimulus to rethink the Gallery’s approach to programming. The Gallery does have a significant amount of space for a regional gallery, and there is the opportunity for a permanent hang or collection gallery. The development of which should increase the Gallery’s reach by creating relevant creative learning and public programs.
My note pad is filled with many great anecdotes from the conference: what can we do to make people stay for longer; what is our social story of going to the museum; how to tell unsafe stories in safe places; welcome to the museum, do we really mean it; everything starts with the customer. My favourite anecdote would have to have come from Emma Burns, Curator of Natural Science, Otago Museum, who simply said we all have to ‘think harder’. My note pad has evidence of things written down in the dark, tables and graphs scribbled during keynotes, too numerous to recount.
Did I come away from the Museum’s Australasia Joint Conference thinking ‘Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities’? In truth, not entirely. My mind was preoccupied with the pending end of financial year restructure of BAFC/BRAG and anticipating the angst that would surely follow. However, the content of the conference devised to think ‘Local’ was invaluable and entirely appropriate for Burnie Regional Art Gallery and Museum.
As mentioned afore, it was delight to attend the conference and only possible due to the financial assistance from Museum’s Australia, Tasmania branch office.