Museums Association Conference 2020 Day 1: Exploring the Future of Museums

Today sees the start of the 2020 Museums Association (MA) Conference.

We would have been in Edinburgh – enjoying the conference, in person, in a beautiful city with ITP Fellows from around the world. This year though the conference is online via Zoom and the MA will be sharing talks, tours, discussions and debates all week on the theme of the World Turned Upside Down: Exploring the Future of Museums.

You can read more about the conference themes and see the programme here.

The MA say ‘the past year has redefined how we connect to our communities, care for collections and support our staff, freelancers and volunteers. We explore these changes and discuss how the sector can rise to the challenges we face. The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Climate Crisis have had a massive impact on society and created a critical moment for us to reflect on the future and purpose of museums.’

As we can sadly only attend the conference digitally this year, we will be sharing a daily roundup of the online sessions we attended. We hope to share some useful and insightful information we learnt at the conference, along with any resources that we could use to help us to rise to the challenges which have arisen in this incredibly turbulent year.

Museum Tour – Gairloch Museum, Ross and Cromarty

To start the conference we were able to join curator Karen Buchanan on a virtual, behind-the-scenes tour of Gairloch Museum, an independent museum in north-west Scotland.  The tour, a fantastic way to start the conference – and the day – is in Ross and Cromarty in the Highlands of Scotland and was one of the five joint winners of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 Award. The museum recently reopened after moving to a former Cold War bunker and has won acclaim for putting community at the core of its work. 

One of the displays at Gairloch Museum

The tour focussed on the move from the old museum to their new space – a process that was carefully documented by a local photographer who recorded the old museum and the creating of the new galleries and spaces. 

I think my favourite aspect of the tour was seeing – and listening to – the Gaelic listening booth where you could hear songs in the traditional language. 

Please do check-out their website for more about the museum and the story of the local area.

Gairloch Museum website

Black Lives Matter – anti-racism and museums


Hilary Carty, Executive Director, Clore Leadership


Errol Francis, Artistic Director and CEO, Culture&

Geoff Palmer, Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and a human rights activist.

The first session of the week was: Black Lives Matter, antiracism and museums. 

Hilary Carty started by sending a message of solidarity to everyone in the sector facing the added challenges due to the lockdown coming in this week, in what is already a truly challenging time in the museum sector. Hilary describes Black Lives Matter, antiracism and museums as one of the biggest museum challenges in the last ten years, affecting the whole world but with a particular poignancy in the UK due to the history of empire and slavery. 

Describing how the killing of George Floyd in the US shocked the majority of us, she states that it was, ‘not simply the act, but what the incident told us about our society and our humanity.’ The world was on lockdown and the Black Lives Matter movement ‘went viral’ as the world watched from home, horrified at what they saw. Cultural organisations responded to the movement by issuing statements of support and pledging action against racism. Many museums began to examine the legacy of empire and slavery in their collections and buildings, considering what needed to change in order to face this history. 

Hilary states, ‘As with all discussions about race, it’s an uncomfortable dialogue, where dilemmas, pain, fear, guilt, misunderstanding and misconstruction line the path. We have huge potential with this discussion to distort and detract from what otherwise would be an irrational, albeit polemic subject, so let’s go gently.’ 

Dr Errol Francis spoke next – his research focuses on post-colonial artistic responses to museums and the urgent questions around decolonisation that face the sector.  

He asks, ‘What can museums do next?’ and describes the Black Lives Matter movement and Covid-19 pandemic as inseparable, in that ‘the social and public health inequalities that have been exposed by the pandemic, high infection and mortality rates in minorities and the socially disadvantaged also reflect an apparent disregard for the value of Black lives by the criminal justice systems, both in the United States and the UK.’ 


What seemed a criminal justice issue in the US became global and then attention turned to museums, heritage organisations and public statues as people were alerted to injustices elsewhere. Focus moved to public monuments and Errol Francis asked himself:  

What have museums got to do with Black Lives Matter? What is the connection directly or indirectly between museums and the perpetration of violence, even murderous violence against Black people or more broadly the colonised subjects of empire and objects? 

Linking this specifically to The Benin Bronzes and a garment he has seen with a bullet hole in it in an ethnographic museum, Francis wondered about the morality of displaying these objects and the wider problem of cultural assets being seized violently/without consent or with the proceeds of slavery. He also asks why George Floyd’s case was linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign and highlighted by museums committed to ‘decolonisation’, yet previous acts of violence were not connected. 

From these questions, Culture& released the Black Lives Matter charter for the UK heritage sector which was drafted in consultation with museum school trainees in ‘an attempt to define decolonisation in a succinct and thorough manner’. Stressing that if ‘decolonisation were to be meaningful it must necessarily entail a series of actions that aim to redistribute power and open up the museum as a closed disputed space, as a territory to a more diverse population.’ 

Francis states that to decolonise is to transfer power but worries that the term is too often used to describe tokenistic and ineffective actions – the charter proposes a series of actions that address the diversification of the workforce at all levels and anything less than the list below, he says, is not decolonisation but a misuse of the term. 

  • Dealing with repatriation 
  • Revealing the colonial histories of objects 
  • Opening up interpretation and diverse narratives 
  • Devising public programmes that engage more inclusive audiences 
  • Protecting the lives of those in the workforce at risk from COVID-19 

The charter has received international and global attention and Culture&’s new museums school programme has so far produced 130 brilliant young talented graduates, working in various heritage organisations all over the UK. These new perspectives on heritage can be heard here on podcasts produced by those trainees. 

Going back to statues, Francis describes how members of the public have resorted to the tearing down statues because they do not feel listened to. He does not think this is the answer in all cases, but we must deal with the issues surrounding statues to reboot our culture and address the unfinished business of colonialism. He ends by saying that next we must support and rejuvenate the workforce with fresh talent to develop appealing and relevant programmes – ‘We are living through an exciting Renaissance of culture and heritage. Those who think they can turn back the clock on the scholarship and passion that inspired the Black Lives Matter campaign are simply on the wrong side of history.’ 

The last speaker is Professor Emeritus Sir Geoff Palmer who arrived in London as an immigrant from Jamaica in 1955. Sir Geoff describes George Floyd’s death as a crucifixion and says that the view that non-white people are inferior to white people persists today and is systematic in our culture. To change the minds of the public, he says that when we’re looking at our history, it is the interlinking of this that needs to be explained.  

In terms of statues and their removal, Sir Geoff was asked whether he thinks it is right or wrong – ‘no, I don’t believe statues should be taken down, they are part of Black history, so why would I want it removed? I have no emotion about those statues because my ancestors had to face slave owners and fight them. You’re telling me I can’t face a piece of metal or a bit of marble? To me, that’s what they are.’ Instead, he believes that plaques should be added to statues stating the truth of that history and to give an opportunity to the general public who may not have gone to university or may not have heard that history in school – ‘If you remove the evidence you remove the deed. Therefore as far as I am concerned, we cannot change history and we cannot change the past but we can change the consequences of the past for the better.’ 

Sir Geoff gives an example of a new plaque which has been placed on a statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh – the plaque now describes Henry Dundas in a more accurate context, explaining his role in slavery whereas previously this was not mentioned. More information on this can be seen here

Describing racism as a consequence of the past which we must address, because we are one humanity; Sir Geoff believes that the museum should be educating people and he intends to ‘clarify our history in the museums and communicate it to the community.’ 

The MA’s statement on decolonising museums can be seen here 

Power to the People: Democratising our museums

Nia Williams, Director of Learning and Public Programmes, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales 

Piotr Bienkowski, Museum Consultant 

Jon Sleigh, Arts Educator, Learning Officer and Learning Curator 

Power to the People is a framework designed to help museums understand and improve their participatory practice and community engagement.  You can download the framework here

In this workshop the speakers reflected on participatory practice in museums in the context of recent events.  The speakers used the Museum Associations ‘Power to the People’ framework – as a non-judgemental tool – to look at practice WITH communities (not to or for but WITH).  They acknowledged that community participatory practice needs to be embedded in all aspects of museum work. 

How has COVID effected participatory practice?   

Closed museums have been liberated and made us realise that it is ‘people not institutions who are carriers of culture.’ We need to reflect on the new skills learnt and emotions experienced. 

Practice has changed completely. There is an increased focus on local communities. We are looking towards seeing museums as a ‘wellness’ service. 

Re-looking at current digital offering and looking towards a more ‘blended’ form of learning. Participatory practice works well in the digital world.  It has its challenges but so did working face to face. 

The need to remember the issues around digital poverty – the costs of digital access – needs to be acknowledged and supported. 

It is important to think about how can communities reach out to museums?  How easy is it to reach institutions? 

Why should communities trust you?  We assume that co-production and participatory practice is welcome.  Is it? 

Have clearly defined parameters and guidelines. 

Ensuring learning is both ways from any engagements. 

Ensuring co-production makes a fundamental change. 

Don’t assume trust is there.  Building trust takes time and isn’t a given. 

React to what communities need and remember there is no ‘one’ community. 

How can local museum engage communities? 

Understand your museum and its assets. 

Think differently about how your museums assets can be used.

Put communities at the centre of your work so they understand ‘it matters’. 

Have lots of ‘ways in’ – ways in which communities can approach you and your museums. 

Be out in the community all the time in different ways. 

How can you support communities who feel unable to engage digitally? 

Acknowledge and understand the digital divide. 

Work with agencies to provide additional support – charities; the voluntary sector; schools. 

Tailor your digital output.  If communities can’t access large files such as films, you can simply send an image, question or quote by text message or WhatsApp. 

In Practice: Inside out – bringing collections to audiences during lockdown and beyond

This session focussed on recipients of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, run by the Museums Association.  The grants, in response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on museums, looked to support Sustaining Engagement with Collections –innovative engagement with collections at a time when physical and traditional access wasn’t possible.  

Sarah Coleman, Project Officer, Wisbech & Fenland Museum 

‘New Conversations’ – a collections research and engagement project – which looked at ways to engage with collections and bring collections to audiences during the pandemic.  The funding has enabled the Wisbech & Fenland Museum to look at how they engage with collections online, to test ideas and to deliver training.  This research will feed into a digital collections and audience engagement plan with the aim of continuing the museums strong pre-COVID relations with communities, school, businesses etc. 

Read more about the grant and the project here

David Nash, Curator, Worcestershire Museums 

‘Volunteers at Home’ – acknowledges the vital work that volunteers do and aims to put their unique talents to good use while group activities, such as volunteer programmes, wait to re-start. 

The project started asking volunteers what they missed?  Replies included (a) gaining new skills, (b) doing something useful, (c) being together and (d) being part of a team.  So how could the volunteers reconnect socially and take on a meaningful project? 

A challenge has been that digital access and IT literacy is very mixed by the fund has enabled the project to provide equipment, deliver training and host weekly two-hour meetings. 

The questions now are could this project include getting museum collections our to the volunteers?  How could vital volunteer roles be covered ‘working from home’?  Could this project be used in future for the ‘permanently/previously’ excluded and the permanently isolated? 

Learn more about this ground-breaking project here

Iain Simons, Director of Culture, National Videogame Museum

‘The Animal Crossing Diaries’ is a project collecting, curating and interpreting a video game ‘Animal Crossing’, a social simulation game.  For those who don’t know the game it can be endlessly customised and exists in ‘real time’ so is very much a personal experience.   

You can find out more here

Please do check out the museums and their projects. 

Power Up

Chair – Tony Butler, Executive Director, Derby Museums 


Lynn Dunning, Group Leader Group Leader for Arts and Culture, Barnsley Council 

Emmie Kell, CEO, Cornwall Museums Partnership 

Morag Macpherson, Head of Cultural Services, Renfrewshire Leisure 

Tony begins by saying that often we don’t recognise the power we do have in shaping the public realm and the power we have to influence thinking by decision makers. The session explores the potential for museums to reshape the civic life in towns and cities and how we do that in a post COVID context. He asks the speakers questions starting with: 

Can you explain how you got yourself into a position of influence? 

Morag Macpherson replies that for her it was a case of being in the the right place at the right time, explaining that a lot of the influence that she has been able to bring to her role has been focused around helping to shape something that was already established as a commitment of four capital projects, including the £42 million redevelopment of Paisley museum.

Morag manages the museum service, the arts team, the libraries and the venues and says there is really ambitious work going on at regional museums. She had previously worked as a manager and as a research and development lead on a maternity basis before her current role. Highlighting that it takes many years to get ‘a foot in the door’ and on the subject of influential roles, says ‘It is not necessarily a steady trajectory/you don’t get an evolving set of opportunities. Sometimes you are just right place and right time and you get that opportunity and the doors open. Other times you can feel a bit stuck and frustrated in some ways.’ 

Lynn Dunning describes how she got into a position of influence by starting out in an assistant manager role at museum and built up a career from this with a lot of determination and a clear vision – she believes that you have to be less modest and have strong advocacy, alongside strong partnerships which she says is vital. 

Emmie Kell is next – she says it is true that there are CEOs and directors who are very influential and there are others that aren’t. A job title doesn’t necessarily confer the power to influence others and she explains that she can think of many freelancers and consultants and independent operators who are very influential. Emmie spent about ten years of her career as a consultant before becoming CEO at Cornwall Museums Partnership. To be influential, she believes, is being genuinely curious and outward facing and developing networks is really important. She also mentions being helpful and constructive for others in those networks. Having something to say with clarity and conviction – that comes from being able to talk with conviction based on evidence, so you have to have a vision that you can rally people around. Most importantly, for Emmie is to be extremely clear about what your values are and you have to communicate them very clearly. 

Other advice from the panel on how to influence public policy, included; 

  • Don’t just hold relationships to yourself. 
  • Involve the decision makers in those relationships, your leader and your CEO and your cabinet member. 
  • Provide them with robust briefings and tell them what you want them to say. 
  • Go for awards. 
  • Spin every positive opportunity. 
  • Use museum accreditation. 
  • Always have your elevator pitch ready. 
  • Don’t be shy. 
  • Never waste an opportunity to tell them something really positive about you. 
  • And don’t give up. 

Museums in a post COVID world 

The discussion moved on to the important civic role that the museums have within our communities and what kind of role culture will play in the recovery of cities town centres. Emmie describes a real and increasing public appetite for museums as restorative and contemplative and safe spaces and therefore believes there is more to do to emphasise the importance of the role.  

Morag says that ‘in terms of anticipating what a post COVID world will be, obviously we are not there yet but we can anticipate that when things get back to some kind of normality, we will feel the deep shocks and traumas in different parts of society, some of which will never recover, so it is difficult to anticipate the answer.’ She does however believe that the key is how responsive and adaptive we can be in a changing landscape – one of the key strands at the heart of her organisation’s work is being useful to local communities and reassessing how best to use resources post COVID.

Museums are part of the post COVID world and will be pressured financially and the ongoing recovery situation. She agrees with Emmie that museums are places for dialogue and helping people to process the complexities around climate change and societal change and so on, and spaces for reflection. We must support people to tackle big, complex problems together. 

Lynn explains that before COVID, her team had set themselves a challenge as part of the Great Place Programme to change the region policies – culture and museums don’t feature at all in the economic plans that are made in the Sheffield city region which was a source of frustration to Lynn and to colleagues and the authorities in South Yorkshire. They went to the Mayor with these frustrations which were understood, resulting in a report published a few weeks ago, highlighting the value of culture and the role that the museums and the cultural sector can play in South Yorkshire. Post COVID, it can now very much can play into the recovery plans for the city region. Lynn describes how it is embedded into the recovery plans which shows that culture is really vital to every aspect of the regional recovery, recognising the roles that the museums have played in digital offers, help and support of vulnerable people, sending packs to care homes, to vulnerable families and investing heavily in changing the museum spaces themselves due to COVID. 

In Practice: Microsoft – The museum “digital divide”

In this session Catherine Devine from Microsoft Worldwide Education, Museums and Libraries, spoke to us about a digital divide across communities. Catherine highlights that museums are also suffering from a digital divide and puts forward solutions as to how we can overcome this gap.

Technology is no longer a luxury. It has fundamentally changed how we live and communicate. Catherine started by highlighting some surprising statistics. A 2019 survey classified 12% of the UK population (around 6.1m people) as digitally disengaged. This means that had not used the internet in 3 months or longer. Furthermore, 22% (11.9 million people) lacked the digital skills for everyday life such as using a search engine, or sending an email.

There are many reasons why a digital divide can occur:

  • Access to devices (they can be expensive)
  • Access to internet (not every part of the world has equal access to the internet)
  • Skills (unfamiliarity with technology)
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of confidence (negativity in the media about issues like online security)

A digital divide can impact a person or business in different ways, such as limiting their earnings, employability, cost of living and their time.

Catherine identifies that there is a significant gap between museums and other industries in respect to technology. Museums need to be resilient and sustainable. Technology is a strategic enabler of our missions.

Often museums will focus on the physical building, such as exhibitions and displays, and neglect technology. Museums focus digitally on bespoke visitor experiences such as virtual reality and touch screen displays. This does not go far enough as technology is fundamental to all areas of organisation, not just the visitor experience.

Technology can also be about financial sustainability. It is a key enabler of maximising diversity, equity, access and inclusion. Reaching digitally as well as physically can massively widen a museum’s audience.

A final key point that Catherine makes is that you do not need to have digital skills to understand how technology can be a key enabler of a museum’s mission. What is important is to have the ability to embrace new thinking and to be able to adapt to new ways of doing things.

In Practice: How to (digital) network like a pro

The final session of the day was delivered by Tamsin Russell of the Museums Association. In this practical session, Tamsin shared how you can develop your digital networking skills on different platforms and sharing what you can put in place to network effectively.

Tamsin explained that networking should be viewed as building relationships. A useful question to ask yourself is, what are you hoping to achieve through networking? Are you increasing your visibility? Your profile? Reputation? Are you seeking professional development? Seeking work? Are you networking on behalf of your organisation and building partnerships?

When it comes to network digitally, there are some important things to think about:

  • Your digital privacy – consider what you are prepared and not prepared to share online.
  • Digital capacity – how you use your time. Will you limit yourself to certain hours every day?
  • Poverty – your access to online spaces. Are you limited by a budget in your access to certain platforms?
  • Ethics – understand your organisation’s social media policy. What you do online stays there!!
  • Wellbeing – consider how people will respond to what you share online. Be prepared for negative feedback.

It is also useful to think about your digital footprint:

  • Digital platforms – map out what social media and other online platforms you use. This enables you to see where you are not active.
  • Digital opportunities – digital events, conferences, discussion boards, social media trends. How can you participate online?
  • Digital engagement – what does your current digital engagement look like? Are you a creator or a consumer? What do you currently do when you engage online and how does that match your objectives?
  • Digital literacy and professional development – follow people who do digital engagement well. Practice your digital engagement.