Dissenting Voices | MA Conference

Jessica Juckes, International Training Programme Assistant

Continuing our series of write-ups on interesting sessions attended at the 2017 Museums Association conference in Manchester, you will hear below from three museums that give a platform to ‘dissenting voices’. This conference session gave an introduction to some of the themes and concepts that will be highlighted in the 2018 MA conference, which is going to focus on Dissent: Inspiring Hope – Embracing Change and will be held in Belfast in November 2018. As such, it is interesting to think about this trend in museum thinking for the coming year.

We can look forward to a 2018 conference on museums’ roles in challenging traditional thinking, fostering radical ideas, encouraging activism and promoting positive social change. The conference will also examine how dissenting museums can really be, and whether dissent does always lead to positive change. You can read more about the 2018 conference theme here.

Dissenting Voices, MA Conference Session 2017

Speakers discuss dissent, the theme of next year’s Museums Association Conference in Belfast. They look at the power of dissenting voices in society and how museums should reflect them. They also discuss how museums can be dissenters themselves.

Sara Wajid – Head of Interpretation, Birmingham Museums
Ronan McConnell – Acting Education Officer, Derry City & Strabane District Council
Matt Turtle – Co-Founder, Museum of Homelessness
Jenny Mabbott – Head of Collections and Engagement, People’s History Museum

Sara Wajid – Birmingham Museums

Museums are going through an experimental time in terms of presenting multiple voices in a divided society.
We are more trusted than the media regarding representation.

Who amongst us feels like a dissenter within their organisation?
The idea of ‘dissenting voices’ also encompasses speaking out regarding the treatment or recruitment of the workforce.

Matt Turtle – Museum of Homelessness

The Museum of Homelessness is the first of its kind in the UK.
It doesn’t have its own building – it pops up in difference spaces and places.
Homelessness in the UK has increased 134% in six years.

Slide 1

We have to acknowledge that we are coming from the starting point of wanting power. Once you admit you want power, you can start to make change.
Matthew Bolton – Citizens UK: ‘Work starts to feel like tactics and tools, rather than a programme.’

The Museum of Homelessness offers a platform for artists who don’t have access to the mainstream.
We programmed the State of the Nation weekender for Tate Exchange at Tate Modern in April 2017. This is now touring to Tate Liverpool for a one-week programme, 22 – 28 January 2018.

The Museum has a small but growing collection of objects and archival records drawn from various organisations, individuals and through its projects.
Objects are collected with the verbatim testimony. An example is a paper swan made by a Yarl’s Wood (Immigration Removal Centre) detainee, using an Asbo (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) form, with a testimony regarding indefinite detention times in the UK.

Slide 2

Whose dissenting voices are we presenting?
We have a constant commitment to devolving power.

Munro, E. (2014) Doing emotion work in museums: reconceptualising the role of community engagement practitioners. Museum and Society, 12 (1), pp.44-60
Bernadette Lynch – particularly notion of ‘participation-lite’

Ronan McConnell – Tower Museum, Derry, Northern Ireland

Speeches, Strikes and Struggles
Speeches, Strikes and Struggles is a community and schools based project to increase access to rare collections. The project is funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Collection Trust and includes:
-Digitising collections
-Creating learning resources
-Creating an online platform
-Organising a major exhibition
-Organising an international seminar on conflict

The title sums up three collections within the Tower Museum that have a lot to tell us about the difficult social history of Londonderry, representing some of the most dissenting voices in Northern Ireland. [Click on the link above to see the online catalogue/archive of the collections and its themes]

Bridget Bond Collection (1969-1979)
Bridget Bond was Secretary of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and its nucleus: all the letters written to the Association were addressed to her. This gives a different story to the usual pictures we see of male political activists standing on soapboxes.
Collection themes: civil disobedience, community development, Derry Women’s Aid, anti-internment, police and army brutality, housing inequalities, Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
Gerry Lynch Collection (1969-1988):
Gerry was a prominent member of the socialist movement in Northern Ireland. The collection includes newspapers, booklets, memorabilia and documents.
Collection themes: strike action, socialist ideology, empowering communities, labour and trade union movement in Northern Ireland.
Peter Moloney Collection:
Peter Moloney is a Project Manager based in London who has amassed one of the largest private collections of memorabilia charting the history of Ireland and the Troubles. Mr Moloney lectures on the Northern Ireland Troubles, and has spoken widely in the UK, Europe and the US. His collection to be used as part of a healing and reconciliation process.
The collection includes photos of both Loyalist and Republican parades, along with banners and posters, and a collection of photographs documenting wall murals.

We regularly hold talks on subjects such as media censorship, policy and army brutality.

Slide 3

You have to be incredibly careful with interpretation and display in the Northern Irish context – which colours you pick, whether you’re using Irish terminology and so on.

The Ulster Museum (National Museums Northern Ireland) held a well-received and popular exhibition called Art of the Troubles in 2014. [See an online highlights tour from the NMNI here]

Jenny Mabbott – People’s History Museum, Manchester

Dissent is ‘the holding or expressing of opinions of variance with those commonly or officially held’.

The People’s History Museum is the UK’s national museum of democracy and its slogan is ‘Ideas Worth Fighting For’.

It is interesting to think about dissent and diversity among the workforce: at the People’s History Museum, only one out of 30 staff voted ‘leave’ in the UK’s recent EU Referendum. I attended a conference that ran over the week of the Brexit vote, and some delegates had decided not to attend because of the added political edge that the conference would be given at that moment.

We hold monthly ‘Have your Say’ sessions at the People’s History Museum, which are discussions on political talking points drawing links to the museum collection. We try not to set topics for these, instead responding to current events. For example, recent discussions have included the Grenfell Tower fire and the Catalonian independence referendum.

It is important to think about audiences though: when the same people are always attending these sessions, is it really dissenting?