Museums Association Conference 2020 Day 5: Decolonisation, Climate Change, Reopening Museums & Digital Collections

We have reached the final day 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.

This will be our final daily roundup of the online sessions we attended at this year’s conference. We hope you have enjoyed this series and found some of the information useful. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for a few more blogs about the MA Conference which will explore some more of the sessions in more detail.

See our previous blogs in this series below:
MA Conference Day 1 click here
MA Conference Day 2 click here.
MA Conference Day 3 click here.
MA Conference Day 4 click here.

Museum Tour – Ulster Museum

This year the award went to Reimagine Remake ReplayMaking Waves at Ulster MuseumThe winner of the Best Museums Change Lives Project Award 2020, Reimagine Remake Replay (RRR) is a ground-breaking initiative connecting 16 to 25-year-olds to heritage through digital innovation. The tour took viewers to Ulster Museum and looked back on Making Waves, an RRR event that was held at the museum in 2019. Ulster Museum is part of National Museums Northern Ireland and ITP fellows who were there for their partner placements will be particularly pleased to hear of this achievement. 

Reimagine Remake Replay connects young people and heritage through creative media and the latest technologies, working with three national and three regional museums. Their series of events and programmes are participant led and the young people involved do everything from marketing to event managing. We heard from Youth Ambassador Niamh Kelly, who spoke passionately about her position which she started after taking part in one of the programmes. She tells us about how the initiative gives young people a chance to be co-curators of their own heritage and to be truly represented, making sure they are included in museum spaces. Alongside Niamh, the other two members of the team are Emma McAleer and Clodagh Lavelle – as a small group, they collaborate with activists, artists and museums on their projects. 

During the lockdown, they had to adapt and move things online with their first online mental health arts festival and social media takeovers, being examples of the way in which RRR are continuing to support young people who are particularly affected mentally and financially by the COVID crisis. 

Making Waves was a 6-week course empowering young people to plan, programme and deliver a late night event at the Ulster Museum inspired by the museum’s summer exhibition ‘The Art of Selling songs – Music graphics from the V&A,’ which explores the history of graphic design in the music industry. The event featured an eclectic mix of music themed activities including a 90s ‘Trance Tunnel’, merchandise making, music-themed drawing games, a Spotify trail, Virtual Reality games, ‘Mix the City’ and performances from Harpist Sarah McVeigh, DJ KwaMe Daniels and signer-songwriter ROE. 

The online tour we saw today was with partner museum, Ulster Museum and gave us an insight into the spaces where RRR have held some of their events. We saw images and videos from interactive, surrealist drawing-based events held in the atrium, the ‘elements gallery’ which is a space for a nationwide initiative based on music and we met Rachel Campbell-Palmer, director of Belfast’s ‘The Black Box’. The event planning sessions in Making Waves began under the guidance of Rachael and Nerve Centre and Ulster Museum also provided support and assistance along the way. We were then transported to the ‘tech lab’ – an open, inclusive place for young people to explore technology and interpret collections. 

The session ends with the team telling the audience that collaboration is the key to really enhancing visitor experience in museums – we certainly saw some excellent examples of this in the tour and video – a well-deserved award and fantastic, innovative initiative! 

What do we mean by decolonise?


Errol Francis, Artistic Director and CEO, Culture& 


Miranda Lowe, Principal Curator, Crustacea, Natural History Museum 

Meera Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, SOAS 

The debate about what we mean by ‘decolonisation’ is critical to our practice and yesterday this panel reflected on the term and how this year it has become more critical than ever due to events around Black Lives Matter. This global protest about human rights has brought focus on to museums and heritage.  

People have engaged in direct action against statues and debates began within the museum sector concerning collections linked to colonialism and slavery. 

This was followed by another event – a letter from the Secretary of State for Culture to the National Museums, was sent stating that the Government did not agree with statues being moved or people responding to the activism that we have seen this summer. Errol Francis frames the debate as ‘critical and important to our practice.’ He is of Jamaican Heritage – Jamaica was a colony of Britain for 400 years and for him, the word ‘decolonise’ means two things. 

  • To give up power, it has to involve the question of power. Who exercises it? Who has the rights to exercise power in certain fields? 
  • Territory. How do questions of territory and space and power play out in Museums?  

Thoughts from the panel included: 

  • Decolonisation in museums – the museum is a concept and a colonial invention in terms of how they work and the idea of collecting from around the world is something from the 19th century. 
  • Objects – they are about power and property. 
  • Mastery, who is in charge of the objects? 
  • Who can speak about and represent the objects? 
  • Decolonising museums = how we treat objects and how we objectify what museums can contain. 
  • Thinking being a dialogue between subjects, rather than subjects and objects. 
  • Can a museum be multivocal? 
  • Can it be democratic? 
  • Can it be inclusive in that broad sense? 
  • What kind of categories and labels do we use? 
  • What prominence do we give to objects and how they are organised? 
  • Who is in the museum? 
  • Who curates?  
  • Who is in the space? 

Miranda gave her perspective on decolonisation, relating to the collections she works with at NHM and as someone with Afro-Caribbean heritage. The collections mean more to her than just documenting because of the places she had seen and who they were collected by. She believes it is interesting to tell people more, in order to share this experience and put your whole self into telling the story. She says, ‘I’m a curator doing this job, I bring my whole heritage, my thoughts and my ideas.’ She continues that she is also a member of the public and part of the Black community – she wants to share the knowledge, information of what she has access due to working in a museum. 

Miranda’s thoughts on decolonising museums 

Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s death has brought more focus onto decolonisation in the museum sector, but it has been around for a long time and people have been working on this for some time. 

Miranda wants people to come to the museum and say what they have to say and to impart their knowledge and be a part of it because this whole history is everybody’s history. 

Classifying objects – there is scope in terms of bringing external voices and wanting to put multiple narratives into the databases. 

You need the lived experience of others to make you see what is actually missing. 

Be open to hearing different perspectives on things to help inform the work that you do. 

Be inquisitive. 

Demystifying things. 

Decolonising is about creating space for those that were once othered, humanising the once dehumanised, and sharing the power. 

Meera’s thoughts on so-called ‘global museums’ 

Objects must be treated with respect and the communities and histories that they are linked to must also be treated with respect, creating a shared space. 

The space does not have to be confrontational. 

She can understand why museums want to retain globality or universality but they must ask about the terms in which they are doing that. 

Dr Errol Francis’ presentation discussing decolonising the database, here

Miranda will be giving the keynote (alongside her co-author in that NatSCA paper, Subhadra Das) at an online conference focusing on decolonising natural history museums which you can find here

Marenka Thompson – Odlum’s work for the Pitt Rivers Museum on ‘Labelling Matters’ can be seen here

In relation to this, today’s session on Slavery, colonialism and the public realm was chaired by Gillian Findlay (@gillianf1973), Curatorial & Engagement Manager, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh. Gillian highlighted Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) new independent steering group that will recommend how Scotland’s existing and future museum collections can better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of Scotland’s colonial and slavery history. The steering group welcomes Sir Geoff Palmer, OBE, as chair and is sponsored by the Scottish Government and coordinated by MGS, as part of Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums: Addressing Our Colonial Legacy, a project to explore how the history of Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire, colonialism, and transatlantic slavery, can be told by Scotland’s museums. See more about the steering group here

Related links: 

You can read about the changes being made by The Hunterian in Glasgow here

Work by Glasgow University on Slavery and related topics can be found here

International Slavery Museum – National Museums Liverpool 

Walking Tours were mentioned as a fantastic way to see statues in a whole new way. 

Subhadra Das and Liam Wiseman spoke about decolonisation at a seminar run by Colchester + Ipswich Museums on Wednesday which you can view here

Reopening the doors


Liam Wiseman, Relationship Manager, Museums, Arts Council England 


Robin Hanley, Assistant Head of Museums (Head of Service Delivery), Norfolk Museums Service 

Nicola Kalinsky, Director, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts 

Clea Warner, General Manager – Highlands & Islands, National Trust for Scotland 

Reopening our museums, a subject at the forefront for many museums and galleries, looked at the challenges being faced by museums, galleries and heritage sites as venues have had to quickly find ways to comply with new rules and restrictions while at the same time trying to reassure the public that their visits will be safe and secure.  

This useful and practical session, chaired by Liam Wiseman, Relationship Manager, Museums at Arts Council England who started by asking each of the speakers what had been the main challenges that the museums and organisations faced during the original lockdown? 

Robin Hanley, Assistant Head of Museums (Head of Service Delivery), Norfolk Museums Service (one or wonderful UK Partners) explained how, as a service, with ten museum sites, two collections study centres and a working farm, their initial priorities had to be the security and premises checks across all of the sites.  Perhaps, more unusually for most museums and sites, they also had to ensure their livestock were fed and watered!!!  And of course, these procedures had to put in COVID-secure way. 

They also need to look at the impact of the loss of income from admission charges and how they could continue to more ahead with the project at Norwich Castle which is undergoing a major £40 million National Lottery Heritage Fund funded re-development 

As part of a county council, they were able to switch a large number of staff to support and other county council activities – supporting vulnerable people, food diversity and inclusion, etc.   

Nicola Kalinsky, Director, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, first introduced us to the Institute as a small art gallery and concert hall based on the campus of the University of  Birmingham. They have a designated collection of Western art, owned by an independent trust, with around 60,000 visitors a year.  They have a small team, 25 employees and are normally open 365 days a year. 

The immediate challenge for the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, was the speed that the lockdown happened and how, despite emergency planning, the unexpected nature of the crisis.  The key to their successful lockdown was the personal relationships that they had across the university – with colleagues in estates and security.  These relationships meant that during lockdown staff were able to have access to their building to check their collection every day, continue with regular maintenance and reopen quite smoothly.   

Their biggest challenge was staff communications as they we were not prepared to work remotely.  They have to source equipment and put a communications plan in place very quickly, but working on adrenaline, and with great staff, hardwork and resilience, they were able to move forward. 

They also faced financial challenges.  Although there is no admission charge, their income from commercial events, has been impacted by around 12%. 

Clea Warner, General Manager – Highlands & Islands, National Trust for Scotland acknowledged that their greatest challenges were the speed of the lockdown and the need to quickly protect the heritage assets in their care.  National Trust of Scotland (NTS) has over 100 incredibly diverse sites – from large wild landscapes to islands to collections to historic houses, castle, these are all very diverse and different places that had different requirements in the immediate time after lockdown.  They had to ensure animals on the estates were fed and that lifeline services for the islands, aerodromes and harbours, were still able to function. 

NTS used the furlough scheme and at one point about 70% of staff were on furlough (special leave).  This meant the few staff still working had a lot to do and those core, essential tasks needed to be carefully planned but they also needed to consider the mental health and isolation of those on furlough and ensure communications worked well.  

What have been the new ways of working that museums and cultural organisations have had to embrace during the lockdown period?  

Nicola explained that before the pandemic, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts was slow about digital and they didn’t have the expertise in-house.  However their learning and engagement programme created Barber Home where the Barber team shared ideas with audiences to explore in their own homes.  This enabled the Barber to remain ‘open’ as a place for people to engage with creativity and learning and provided an opportunity for the institute to work collaboratively with artists and partners during this time. 

Here Robin spoke about ensuring staff had the skills and the technical abilities to perform essential, lockdown tasks.  Their staff already had Microsoft Teams and had done resilience training so they had a firm foundation and colleagues were able to communicate effective but some staff needed to develop those digital skills.  This has encouraged the council to think long-term about smarter working initiatives around staff who want to work, improving work/life balance and working efficiently. 

Clea responded from a slightly different perspective as they have a lot of space – particularly outdoor space – which even during lockdown the public wanted to access and use even more. This put pressure on the outdoor spaces in terms of use and how they were managed but inspired the Trust to make more, digitally, of their special sites and islands that visitors couldn’t reach like St Kilda 

Clea particularly acknowledged the toll on people, how they missed each other – not just workforce but the volunteer force too and how that had needed to be addressed. 

What have been the challenges, and the opportunities, since you have been able to reopen? 

Robin had already talked about how some of the staff had move to support the work of the County Council during lockdown so those staff needed to come back for re-opening to happen.  Staff also needed to understand the new language of COVID and how to assess risk both for staff and visitors, but they were fortunate to be able to call on the Council for help and support. 

With ten very diverse museums across Norfolk, they need to think carefully about process of opening again to the public taking each site as a separate entity that needed its own process and procedures.  With resources limited – due to reduced visitor numbers – some hard choices had to made.  They initiated a ‘soft’, then phased, then ticketed re-opening which allow for learning during the process. 

But visitor reaction has been very positive – they have felt safe and really appreciated they museums being open again. 

Clea explained that it had taken a lot of time to reopen their properties – to make sure they had best practice in place.  They wanted to make sure that their safe systems of work were robust with new signage, the sanitisation, the one-way flows, and additional hygiene.  They also wanted to make sure their staff and visitors felt comfortable, so they didn’t want to rush to reopen.  

People have really wanted to be outside and enjoy the countryside. There has been some challenges with littering and people lighting fires but their ranger teams have been wonderful at engaging with people and educate them.    

Nicola agreed that they too had taken their time to reopen and of course, had to consider the Universities procedures and priorities and well as the guidelines coming from government.  This worked well as they could learn from other museums that had opened before them. 

Sharing some of the positive things about the process Nicola acknowledged how helpful and collegiate everyone has been in the sector, helping each other and sharing information.  She also highlighted how their visitor services were much more engaged with the visitors, engaging with them when they arrived at the front door. 

From a visitor perspective she noted that people are spending a lot longer in the gallery, ninety minutes to two hours, that they have welcomed 50% more ‘first time visitors’ and that feedback has been fantastic! 

NMDC good practice sector specific guidance

In Practice: Creating engaging videos on a budget


Devon Turner, Communications Manager, GEM


Emily Nelson, Learning and Access Officer, Leeds Museums and Galleries

Kate Noble, Senior Research Associate: Museum Learning, Fitzwilliam Museum

Hannah Sweetapple, Learning and Engagement Officer, Egypt Centre, Swansea

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for museums to reach their audiences online. In this sessions we heard from three institutions that have been creating films in order to reach their traditional audiences and connect with new ones.

The focus of this practical session was creating video content on a small budget. You do not need expensive cameras, editing software of the digital know-how to create effective videos to share online. The session showed a pre-recorded video with lots of useful and simple tips. This video was uploaded to YouTube and can be viewed below.

Please accept marketing-cookies to watch this video.

Here are some useful key points that came up during the session:

  • Filming in landscape is better for uploading on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
  • Emily Nelson from Leeds Museums and Galleries does not use editing software when creating her videos. Instead she films all her short 2-minute videos in one take. The difficulty of filming in one take has nothing to do your digital ability. It is more about planning, preparation and practicing what you are going to say. 
  • All the speakers stressed the importance of using subtitles in your videos. This is important for accessibility. is a free online tool for creating subtitles for your videos. Kapwing can generate the subtitles for you automatically or you can fill in the subtitles yourself. The speakers recommend creating the captions yourself because the auto-generator can makes mistakes.
  • Keep it simple, keep it short: especially if you are making educational videos for schools or young children.
  • Use a clear and consistent format. Use the same text font in your videos, for example.
  • Check the lighting in your video, make sure each shot is orientated in the same way. You do not want clips switching between portrait and landscape mode!
  • Be creative and make use of what is already available and accessible.  
  • There is no one way of doing things. Experiment with what works best for you with the resources and budget you have.  

Museum responses to the climate emergency


Nick Merriman, Chief Executive, Horniman Museum and Gardens 


Clare Matterson, Director of Public Engagement, The Natural History Museum 

Henry McGhie, Founder, Curating Tomorrow 

Alison Tickell, Chief Executive, Julie’s Bicycle 

This was the only session in the MA Conference devoted to the climate and the ecological emergency that we find ourselves in. Nick Merriman starts by saying museums have a special role in dealing with the climate and the ecological emergency because of our ‘long-term perspective’ and the trust that the public invests in museums to be objective and balanced in what we say and do. 

Nick considers that museums have not been so good, so far, at sharing the work that they are all doing about this important issue. The session aimed to get an overview of what is going on in museums and the heritage sector, in terms of climate change and to share ways of doing and things. 

Clare Matterson begins by talking about the Natural History Museum’s journey talk about the journey – behind the scenes at the museum, there are 300 scientists working on all things across environmental issues, in the Earth Sciences and in the Life Sciences departments and this research reaches around 20 million people across the world. Clare talks about how the institution is known for dinosaurs, yet has an incredible collection about the natural world at a time when the natural world is in crisis.

When she joined, the Natural History Museum (NHM) started a year-long strategy, questioning everything via a collaborative process across the institution and involving trustees. She describes this as sometimes being difficult as some people wanted to push further and others were nervous about what role the museum had in the climate crisis. In January this year, they arrived at an exciting place – NHM launched the strategy and as part of that launch, said that the world faced a planetary emergency – this was a very big deal for the museum due to them making such a strong statement, alongside other institutions. From their point of view, there is massive biodiversity loss and the need to worry about that has increased and action had to be taken now. They asked themselves, does this make us an activist museum? 

The NHM’s vision – a future where people and planet thrive. 

What is NHM’s role within that big vision? 

The museum’s answer was that if this was through science and engagement, everything they do must be on a path to enable people, whether they are policymakers or members of the public – they had to be able to act and speak up on behalf of the planet. They devised an engagement model based on their understanding of people’s behaviours and attitudes towards their role in nature. One of the key values they felt mattered the most was diversity, as without diversity or inclusion, we can’t have a planet where ALL people thrive alongside it.  

COVID and with Black Lives Matter highlighted inequality further this year, becoming more relevant in context of museums and for NHM, their strategy. In terms of this, Clare mentioned what kinds of questions were being asked: 

  • How do you use the past to help shape a future? 
  • How do we talk about the stories and the narratives that engage, instead of only facts? 
  • How do we stop just showing things and how do we involve people? 
  • How do we give people choices? 
  • How do we, as an institution across all that we do, develop and show our own sustainability credentials? 

You can see some of this work on the NHM’s website including a number of programmes linked to climate change such as the Urban Nature Project and a whole series of other programmes planned. More information on strategies can be seen here

Henry McGhie talked about the Bremerhaven Declaration – in September this year, at a conference in Germany the role of museums was explored (in the broad sense) in addressing the climate crisis. The conference brought together curators, educators, artists, researchers – both in person (with social distancing) and over the internet – to progress their shared activity. Ten points were built upon that were put together by a group of museum and climate people last year, and were the synthesis of the key lessons we have learned about addressing climate change in museums (including science centres and exhibition centres) over the last few years. 

William states that ‘we can continue on the unsustainable path of the past and present or forge a new path to a sustainable future.’ He believes that museums can play a distinctive role in supporting the Paris Agreement, an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, through supporting public education and by reducing their own footprints. He goes on to say that people are often unaware that the role of museums in terms of climate change, is already recognised in relation to the Paris Agreement. 

The global consultation mentioned previously came up with ten key lessons learned by museums between 2016 and 19, regarding climate change: 

(1) The importance of acting now: there is no time to waste. 

(2) The importance of confident and competent staff. 

(3) The great importance of reliable, up-to-date information and science, including basic information on climate change. 

(4) The great importance of a focus on solutions, not problems. 

(5) The importance of making climate change and climate action personal and relevant, as well as understanding the big picture. 

(6) The importance of acknowledging people’s emotions and feelings. 

(7) The importance of community, and empowering people to participate fully in society. 

(8) The importance of engaging everyone. 

(9) The importance of co-ordination and collaboration between museums and partners. 

(10) The need for support from governments, government agencies and funders. 

Henry highlights that effective climate education is not just about facts, it has to be about motivation, attitudes and values and also practical skills and things that people can do. There is currently a competition called Reimagining Museums who are looking for opportunities for museums and others to work with, which Henry mentions. 

Alison Tickell from Julie’s Bicycle believes that rethinking is imperative after a climate emergency was called last year – the pandemic accelerated what has been an inevitability – it is important to acknowledge an opportunity to recover differently. Alison asks what may this look like and explains Julie’s Bicycle’s development of creative climate practice. The principles are a collaboration of working together, connecting with ourselves, with our communities, with our institutions and sectors and trying to explore and understand what it takes to reinvent, reimagine and to transition into a sustainable, thriving world through our work. 

Key themes: 

  • Art 
  • Work 
  • Duration 
  • Exhibitions  
  • Breathing into spaces and creating new museum narratives 

Alison believes you should never underestimate the organisations that embody changes that we need to see – there are makers, designers, innovators and many museums that are doing this. COVID-19 has really revealed some incredibly exciting social new practice such as the capturing of pollution. In the movement, everything matters – very small actions, campaigns, financial choices, conversations, connections, resetting – they need to speak of cultural values that cherish and care. 

During the session, there was an audience poll asking the viewer what the most important area of work in relation to the climate content and you can see the results below. 

Links to related content below:

In Practice: Managing social history collections in a digital age


Verity Smith, Freelance Curator, Consultant & Writer, and Chair of Social History Curators Group


Emma Harper, Curator, Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service

Gabrielle Heffernan, Curatorial Manager, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust

Helen Taylor, Collections Manager, Black Country Living Museum

One of the final sessions from the Museums Association Conference 2020 explored how curators are working with digital collections, particularly social history.

Emma Harper of Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service started by admitting that until 2020, their museum’s collections policy was focused on physical objects. There is no mention of the digital which is now inseparable from our everyday lives.

In the summer of this year Welwyn Hatfield Museum Service put out a call to the community for objects relating to their experience of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. Following that the museum was keen to collect experiences from the local community of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Expecting to receive physical objects, instead they received digital photographs taken of the BLM protests.

What did the museum need to consider for a digital acquisition?

  • How to catalogue them.
  • How they will be stored and the locations recorded
  • What file formats will be collected
  • What digital preservation will be in place
  • File naming
  • Rights management.

Emma explains that while all this can seem overwhelming, the digital is not that different from the physical. The museum has created a handout to accompany their talk for the MA Conference. It includes useful tips and resources to collecting digitally. Also some important things to consider for digital collections, including:

  • FORMAT For a born digital photograph, TIFF is the best, JPEGS can degrade over multiple saves but doesn’t mean you can’t collect them you just need to be aware of this.
  • CONDITION Before physical objects enter our collections store we check their condition, check for pests and if necessary, quarantine them. In the same way born digital items should be scanned for viruses and malware to make sure there are no unwanted surprises in the collection
  • PROVENANCE Use those early discussions with depositors to gather information about the digital object, listing the files and their content as well as provenance and associated rights management

More can found at the handout document here.

Helen Taylor talked about an oral history project they have done at the Black Country Living Museum since 2017. The museum had done oral histories before but they were more traditional histories with a tape recorder done on a cassette. The museum have digitised these tapes and made accessible. A new round of oral
histories have been collected for a project called Forging Ahead.

The museum wanted to capture people’s experiences in the Black
Country from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Oral History project forms a foundation for that. Helen explained that in terms digital records this was the first kind of digital record they had taken as a museum. It was now territory for them.

Helen finished by highlighting that it is important when you are doing a digital project that the processes and the equipment is accessible and easy to use for a lot of people. It is not just collections teams that work on oral history, people like researchers do too.

Do you digital collections hold the same value as objects?

Helen says that in terms of value I would say that digital records are as valuable as physical objects. For example, could museums one day become repositories for Facebook pages? In terms of content it is the same as a scrap book you would get from the
1920s or 30s in terms of what people think or feel.

Gabrielle Heffernan from Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust agreed and points out that there are ways digital can do things which physical cannot. For example with intangible heritage, technology can record moments, movements and heritage which could not be displayed in a museum if not for digital formats.