Thursday, 24 August 2017

Bursary Report 2017 #2

Erin Wilson one of our Bursary winners
From with caption
Supplied: Devonport Regional Gallery, Robinson Collection

The Museums Australia (Tasmania) Committee offered its members the opportunity to apply for a bursary to attend the The Museums Galleries Australia National Conference 2017. Erin Wilson, Devonport Regional Gallery and Amy Bartlett, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery were the two recipients. This is Erin's report. 

The Museums and Galleries Australia National Conference 2017 was greatly beneficial to my role as Curator at Devonport Regional Gallery, and I believe the insights I gained through the conference will also greatly benefit my co-workers at both the DRG and also the Bass Strait Maritime Centre as they are shared. I personally found the Regional and Remote Day to be the most beneficial part of the conference, through the insights of the international keynote speaker, reflections in concurrent sessions from other regional galleries and museums, and the networking opportunities and informal discussions with staff from other regional galleries.

In regard to the sessions, I found keynote speaker from Kids in Museums, Dea Birkett’s presentation an insightful look at how institutions such as DRG might make small but significant changes, to increase engagement with those that consider themselves ‘non art audiences’. Though Kids in Museums is specifically aimed at families, I felt several strategies discussed could aid increased visitation at DRG more generally, particularly as the emphasis was on low or no cost, replicable strategies. Strategies which could be implemented at DRG include; focusing on comfort (physical and emotional) as much as collections; focus on sharing stories; and approaching ‘hard to reach audiences’ in their own spaces, before expecting them to visit the gallery. Dea’s discussion of ‘Takeover Day’ in which young people are given significant decision making roles in institutions on an allocated day, is also replicable in my role, particularly in relation to our Droogs young members. Currently, the Droogs have little involvement with the collection/curatorial side of the gallery (their activities primarily focus on events and street art projects). Replicating ‘Takeover Day’ at DRG could assist in moving these young members into the heart of the gallery, allowing them to develop their skills and confidence, while providing the Gallery an opportunity to demonstrate our trust in these young members. In addition, I found Dea’s emphasis on the fact that there are no ‘hard to reach’ audiences, only ‘hard to reach’ museums, resonated with me in relation to the DRG, and how we may alter our approach to ‘non visitors’.

Two further sessions on Regional and Remote Day were particularly relevant to me in my role at DRG. Ian Tully from Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery discussed projects undertaken by his institution in rural communities facing economic hardship (in this case, artist residencies on farms in times of drought). Ian discussed the need to recognise hospitality as a key part of regional/rural life; and that even when people are not directly interested in art, social events constructed around galleries will often be welcomed – particularly if community members are invited to attend by friends/family, rather than the institution. Ian also discussed the need to consider legacy as a measure of success (rather than just attendance) as well as considering attendance in relation to per capita. I feel these thoughts are particularly relevant to upcoming projects I am working on using the Robinson Collection of photographic negatives, in which an ongoing, in-depth engagement from a small number of community members may be considered equally as valuable as large visitation numbers for an exhibition.

Further on R&R Day, Padraic Fisher from the National Wool Museum spoke about Reminiscence Cottage, their program for people with dementia. This was invaluable for me, as I have not had any experience working with people with dementia, however, it is expected that the Robinson Collection will be used for programs with people in Aged Care facilities in Devonport into the future. This talk included the use of photographs as prompts for discussions of the past; focusing on conversation and social engagement rather than ‘extracting memory’; the importance of non-verbal means to respond as well as verbal; and introducing photographs as stories for participants to add on to. These were all valuable insights that will allow me to best work with the Robinson Collection in this context.

On following days, I found the concurrent session Exhibition Design – Storytelling in Practice to be very beneficial. The panellists in this session discussed both subliminal design and the power of storytelling in design; found interpretation; the power of moving people’s bodies within spaces to move their attention; and the concept of designing in people (ie. Front desk staff and guides) in relation to experience and storytelling. The discussion of how much energy is wasted on orientation and environment (for example, looking for toilets/wondering about the entry fee) was also valuable, as this energy is expended and then not able to be focused on the exhibition. Working in a small gallery without exhibition design staff, and as we continue to plan for our relocation in 2018 to a new gallery building, I found this discussion around exhibition design, and building design and signage more generally, extremely useful.

I also attended several sessions throughout the conference which in varying ways discussed new technologies, access and the digitisation of collections. While I found the majority of the technologies, programs and strategies discussed were more focused on the larger state institutions (beyond the resources of small, regional galleries) I still found it interesting and useful to get an insight into the way these new technologies are being used to increase access to collections. While many of these technologies are out of reach, the values of increasing access, active participation, knowledge generation by audiences and interactivity are shared by smaller regional institutions, and I will continue to consider how these values can be achieved on a more modest scale at DRG into the future.

Finally, a tour and talk on the Museum of Brisbane’s exhibition ‘100% Brisbane’ was invaluable in relation to a Robinson Collection project I am undertaking in 2017/18 with the DRG’s Robinson Collection of over 20,000 photographic negatives. I have recently begun a project designed to collect ‘living history’ in the form of community members’ stories about Devonport, to be presented alongside the photographic collection in a 2018 exhibition. The 100% Brisbane exhibition collected and told the stories of 180 participants from the community, and this session gave me many insights which will aid my project. For example; people have to be able to see themselves in museums in order to embrace them; controversial ideas should not be edited or avoided, as society is complex; the importance of capturing ‘living memory’; stories should not be limited to a history of place – rather they’re an opportunity for dialogue and exchange; every story is authentic, even if not ‘factual’; the importance of open-ended questions in order to enhance interviews; and the power of spoken word – through voice recordings in exhibitions, as well as written text and visuals. Two other key issues were raised that I will take on board for my own project – the importance of including ways for audiences to continue to express their stories post-visit (through website, social media etc) and recognising the importance of maintaining contact with participants – remembering they are people, not exhibits. The insight into the way the 100% Brisbane project was undertaken, and the lessons they learned and shared, will allow me to conduct my own upcoming Robinson project in Devonport with a greater sensitivity and appreciation for how multi-faceted the project may become.

Overall, I found the Museums and Galleries Australia Conference 2017 to be an invaluable opportunity for networking, gaining insights into institutions, practice and projects similar to those I am undertaking, and gaining inspiration from a broad range of unique projects being undertaken by both larger, state institutions and other regional galleries throughout New Zealand and Australia.

-Erin Wilson

Curator, Devonport Regional Gallery

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