Museums Association Conference 2020 Day 2: Activist Museums & the Impact of COVID on Museums

We are on day two 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.

Each day we will sharing a roundup of the online sessions we have attended. To see our experience of day 1 of the conference click here.

Museum Tour – City Art Centre, Edinburgh

Tuesday’s programme kicked off with Susie Cavill’s wonderful tour of City Art Centre in Edinburgh – we did get to ‘go’ to the city after all! Susie is on a placement at the gallery as part of the Next Step Initiative, which aims to boost representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in Scottish museums. She starts by saying how working from home just isn’t the same as physically being in the building and explains that many cultural institutions in Edinburgh have had to stay closed due to their small size – she misses them but the City Art Centre is back open. The virtual walk-through features current exhibitions and Susie chats to staff and visitors about how they, and the venue have been adapting to the new Covid-age environment.

A member of staff from visitor services explains that obviously there is now a limit on the amount of people they can take in to the museum spaces – subtitles are used as everyone is wearing a mask – they’ve had a little bit of time to settle in after a month of being back, and to get their heads around the changing times. There is a new cleaning routine – everything from floors to lift buttons are cleaned between the timed visitor slots and learning how to read visitor expressions through a mask is something the team is becoming used to.

The second exhibition, Bright Shadows: Scottish Art in the 1920s is timed to mark 100 years since the dawn of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. The exhibition showcases over 35 artworks selected from the City Art Centre’s own collection of fine art, including oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, etchings and sculptures. David explains that it is a bright, positive exhibition but also post war, so links in to the current crisis and ways in which we can recover.

David Patterson, Curatorial and Conservation Manager explains how they were planning the summer exhibition for 2-3 years which then had to be postponed due to COVID. In their place, two new exhibitions have been welcomed by visitors. City Art Centre at 40 celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Centre, displaying objects which have been seen before – familiar to the public and lifting the spirits of visitors, according to feedback.

The highlight of the tour was the viewpoint of children who were visiting the exhibitions. When asked how they felt about being in the galleries, one responded by saying, ‘Feels so weird because we weren’t able to do any of this before. And also we’ve got it to ourselves, it’s quite special.’

How activist can an activist museum really be?


Katy Ashton, Director, People’s History Museum


Pip Diment, Acting Head of Exhibitions and Programmes, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Janine Eason, Director of Engagement, Birmingham Museums Trust

Helen Thackray, Programme Manager, People’s History Museum

Katy Ashton begins the session by saying that prior to 2020, museum activism was an important topic for discussion as it is key for many organisations, but 2020 has highlighted this and brought it into focus. Katy has worked in museums for over 20 years, running the People’s History Museum for over 10 – the idea of activism strikes her both personally and professionally. Having always worked in learning, her focus is mainly on social justice and social change and is fortunate to be much supported and very much embraced by governments, organisations, structures and management as well. Her reference point is the Museum Activism book by Janes and Sandell, highlighting globally, the current discussion and the debate about the roles for museums, as a force for good and as activists in civil society.

Questions around activism

Do our museums have the potential to address inequalities and injustices in an environment crisis?

Should we act on the potential?

Is it our role?

If we agree, how confident is the sector and are we, as professionals feeling about doing that?

Questions to the audience, as they are exploring the concept of an activist museum – what does activism mean to you?

What are the kinds of things you would like to have a conversation about?

What is the experience in the museum that you work for and your experience in the sector?

For Janine Eason, activism is about taking action or including, enabling or supporting others to take action as well. To make positive change for society or for the environment. It is a change for social or environmental good. For her, being an activist is not really about protesting, or those visible demonstrations – rather, it is about any activity that makes a change for greater social justice or greater environmental sustainability. She believes activism in museums can be broad – it can be about hosting community action and community demonstrations; it can include protesting through displays of art, fashion, music or photography or it could be about working with activists to change galleries. From Janine’s point of view, decolonisation is activism and she feels that museums have special roles here because they are about the past and the present as well as the future and have collections which can help visitors to learn about and to question the past, empowering them to take action for social good.

Helen Thackray talks about the difference between protest and activism and for her, protest tends to be more of a singular act and it is about trying to stop something or saying that something is wrong – it is very much about creating an impact whereas activism is broader and more fluid. She believes activism is about intent, rather than success and although not all acts focused on creating social change are successful, it does not mean that this is not activism. Pip sees activism as being about equality, social justice and responsibility to the communities whose collections and knowledge we care for in museums – ‘There are many ways of being an activist as an organisation or individual – you can speak a truth and challenge a status quo in a meeting or raise a topic for discussion or educate yourself in making small change in your use of language or protest. Not everything must be a challenge. You may be happy to support someone else’s campaign. Allies are vital in activism. Being a little bit of an expert and passionate, I speak out. But this is not everyone’s way.’

Pip believes there is room for all in activism, so play to your strengths – if you are introverted then read, learn, speak to people one to one as your knowledge, consideration and learning are super skills. She describes how activism can cover so many areas now – it can be universal or it can be something in your museum, locality or country. She goes on to say that as a strong advocate for Black Lives Matter, she believes that white privilege is real and something to consider in all we do, with anti-racism being to only way to combat racism.

  • As an activist, it important to educate yourself whatever the topic.
  • You don’t need to be an expert.
  • Museums are not neutral – we have a responsibility to our communities to create truths, to create space and platforms for those who are traditionally without agency.
  • Activism does not have to be impressive to be worthwhile.
  • Activism is incremental, every change adds up and has merit.
  • Activism is not all about protest – what it is really about, is what we do to bring about change, to educate ourselves and others in ways of working and accommodate new ways of thinking.

Museum practice and social change are pertinent issues and each panel member gave examples of projects linked to this, which included:

Dippy on Tour: A Natural History Adventure, National Museum Cardiff – Dippy, the Natural History Museum’s iconic Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton, came to Cardiff for an exhibition focusing on climate crisis and sustainability. Prior to his arrival there were banner making workshops, the steps of the museum were used as a platform for speeches and a climate protest was started. Work was carried out with young people and the museum collaborated with Extinction Rebellion. The museum saw this as an opportunity for people to see their work on climate crisis and to provide an opportunity for people to speak out.

The People’s History Museum collection is about democracy, activism and protest and in 2019 they developed the programme: The Past, Present & Future of Protest, marking a bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre, one of the first mass demonstrations in the fight for working people to have the right to vote. You can read more about the project here.

Birmingham Revolutions Exhibition opened last year at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which is an exhibition that shows some of the many different ways in which people have protested in Birmingham over the last 250 years. This might be around art, music, or protest banners, fashion and in a whole range of different subject matters. The exhibition developed by a mixed collaboration group we worked with consisting of activists and academics and you can read about it in more detail here.

Health check: the impact of Covid on regional museums


Claire Browne, Programme Manager, Museum Development East Midlands and Chair of MDN


Eleanor McGrath, Head of Grants, Art Fund

Sarah Hartshorne, Programme Officer, Museum Development East Midlands

Jennie Pitceathly, MDN Coordinator

This session explored how small and medium-sized museums across the UK, ineligible for large government or other public grant programmes, have fared during the pandemic.

The Museum Development Network (MDN) have been trying to understand the short and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on these museums.

The MDN support a wide range of diverse and innovative museums. From independent museums, volunteer-led museums, local authority and university museums. Year-round they provide support to these museums in the form of training, providing grants, sharing best practice, and devising targeted and tailored development programmes for specific museums.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, MDN has provided support to these smaller and regional museums. They have published a reopening checklist and guidance document to help museums to reopen safely to the public. Both publications can be found on the learning page of their website.

In partnership with Art Fund, MDN have provided £280,000 in grants to support museums in their recovery. The funding will reach museums across the UK who have not yet received emergency public funding from the government.

The Museum Development Network have also devised an Organisational Health Check. This is a self-assessment tool designed as an indicator to help museum’s to identify their current best practice. It can help museums to understand where they have areas of development and feed into forward planning. This has been a useful tool during the pandemic to help identify the best route to a museum’s recovery.