2018 MA Conference highlights from Becca

Rebecca Horton, International Training Programme Coordinator

From Wednesday 7 – Friday 9 November 2018 I attended the annual UK Museum Association Conference on the theme of Dissent: inspiring hope, embracing change and have selected three sessions to report on. The introductory blurb and speakers of each session can be found below. For more information about each session please scroll further down…

Belfast Uncovered

Discover the challenging context in which arts and cultural organisations operate in Belfast. This session highlights radical and innovative practice by arts organisations and includes a conversation about how they can work more closely with museums to push the boundaries of risk. It also suggests new types of practice for others working in similar challenging situations, who are restricted by issues such as cultural conservatism and underfunding.


Hannah Crowdy, Head of Curatorial, National Museums Northern Ireland


Kim Mawhinney, Senior Curator of Art, National Museums Northern Ireland

Ruth McCarthy, Creative Director, Outburst Arts

Adam Turkington, Partner, Seedhead Arts

Directors in conversations

Four museum directors discuss their organisations and the future of the museums.


Jenny Stewart, Publicist and Communications Consultant


Hilary McGrady, Director-General, National Trust

Lynn Scarff, Director, National Museum of Ireland

Kim Streets, Chief Executive, Museums Sheffield

Kathryn Thomson, Chief Executive Officer and Director, National Museums Northern Ireland

Values-led practice in troubled times

Taking a stand on contested topics still attracts criticism that is often expressed with considerable ire and ferocity. This session draws on a rich body of values-led practice to explore the ways in which practitioners can navigate the controversies and challenges that socially engaged practice brings and defend and hold true to their values in the face of strident criticism.


Janneke Geene, Head of Special Collections, Manchester Metropolitan University


Hilary Carty, Director, Clore Leadership Programme

John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Curation & Experience, National Trust

Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

Belfast Uncovered

Belfast is a city and people still feeling the affects of recent conflict in Northern Ireland. Speakers of the session described Belfast as a place which is complicated, complex and messy to work in. They described life in Belfast as frustrating but agreed that it is a pivotal time to live and work in, as a city currently attempting to forge a new identity.


Ruth McCarthy and Adam Turkington spoke about their experience working independently in the cultural sector and collaborating with national museums. They both felt a sense of comradery with others who worked in the arts but Adam stressed that for the general public in Northern Ireland, culture is perceived as divisive. Adam and Ruth agreed that people from Northern Ireland believe that investment in culture is politically motivated and therefore cultural projects reflect the beliefs of particular parties, rather than representing the interests of a cultural institutions local community. Kim Mawhinney spoke about the problematic use of ‘National’ at National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI); the word is divisive for many and NMNI must do better at making the variety of old and new communities in Belfast feel represented and welcome at their institutions.

Suggestions to make this happen included:

  • From Ruth McCarthy: museum staff to be open, warm and welcoming to independent project leaders coming in with new ideas for your institutions. When Ruth first went to NMNI with an idea for a project she said she felt anxious to share her thoughts but the museum allowed her to set the agenda and she was delighted that her voice was heard and represented
  • From Adan Turkington: museum projects should at their heart aim to give people a sense of identity in a physical location
  • From Kim Mawhinney: museums should do special things for special parts of the community to introduce them to your institution. Do not assume all people feel naturally comfortable coming to the museum or think it is a place for them

The speakers also commented on their hopes for the cultural sector in Belfast in the next 5 – 10 years:

  • From Ruth McCarthy: museums should find more people who are willing to take chances and seek positive and useful change
  • From Adan Turkington: public money is not enough and can be controlling, museums need to get better at finding alternative sources of income in order to do more for more people. Take risks!
  • From Kim Mawhinney: museums should concentrate on their branding and sell themselves – we are here for good and play a key role in society, e.g. recent articles about doctors prescribing visits to museums and art galleries to improve health and well-being


Directors in conversations

This panel discussion was open and honest and answers cut straight to the point, looking inward to find solutions. Directors agreed that museums should be:

  • asking difficult questions and sharing an array of answers
  • showcasing previous and current discussions important to the local community
  • relevant to users
  • active in the community


The discussion led to debate about whether museums should be neutral institutions or take ownership of their community, institutional or staff values? Ultimately it was felt that a museum should uphold the values of their organisation but must be a place where constructive debate can take place, therefore a balance must be struck between providing opportunities to ask difficult questions, being relevant to users and holding true to your own an your organisation’s values.

Funding was a second big issue discussed on a few different levels. As in the Belfast Uncovered panel discussion directors felt that their museums needed to steer away from relying of public money in order to seek funding which will better get audiences invested in their culture. It is hoped that by seeking funding from a variety of different sources, new and cutting edge project will appeal to a variety of audiences.

The subject of public sector institutions using private companies for services including catering and maintenance also arose. The directors felt that museums are businesses and must make savvy business choices which in the current climate results in some level of privatisation. It was however acknowledged that working with different terms on employment under one roof can be challenging when trying to create a cohesive team.

Values-led practice in troubled times

Hilary Carty introduced the panel discussion by explaining that all institutions should have values which all staff should work and life by. John Orna-Ornstein shared his experiences at the National Trust which tested his own values and values of the institution.

In 2017 the National Trust created a programme of events to commemorate the bi-centenary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality through the Sexual Offences Act. A short film was released about Felbrigg Hall, Gardens and Estate owner Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer as a gay man, and staff and volunteers were asked to wear rainbow coloured lanyards, as a symbol of support for LGBTQ communities. At Kingston Lacy it was planned that an LGBTQ would be flown. However, many felt that the short film wrongly ‘outed’  Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer and others refused to wear the lanyards and were offended at being asked. At Kingston Lacy, the key to door where the flag was kept was stolen along with the flag itself. National Trust members cancelled their membership as a direct result of the above. Below you can see just some of the reactions of the press to the events.



Daily Mail


The Guardian


The Independent


John Orna-Ornstein spoke at the conference of the difficult decisions the National Trust had to make to the array of reactions, decisions were influenced by an attempt to strike the balance between organisation, personal, colleague and visitor values. Many felt that the organisation had been too political in their support of LGBTQ communities and the bi-centenary involvement. Ultimately the decision to ask staff and volunteers to wear rainbow lanyards was revoked but the LGBTQ flag was flown above Kingston Lacy.