MuseumNext Europe 2017, one week on

MuseumNext Europe ended one week ago. What has changed?

From the 26th until the 28th of June around 500 museum professionals from around the globe visited my hometown of Rotterdam to talk about museums and change making. For some, it was their first trip to Europe, some lived and worked in the Netherlands. Some had several decades of museum work behind them, some had just started working in the sector. Everyone was interested in making positive change happen.

The programme consisted of two parts: Exploration day on Monday the 26th saw delegates visit local museums and creative agencies, while Tuesday and Wednesday brought people together in conference centre De Doelen for a series of talks and workshops. One of the things I like about MuseumNext is that both the organisers and delegates share what happens at the conference generously. If you want to know what happened at the conference, check out the #museumnext hashtag on Twitter (you don’t need to have an account to do this!), read these blog posts by Mark Macleod, Ina Pruegel and Ben Templeton, and check out the MuseumNext video archive [https://www.museumnext.com/insight/]. Rather than giving you another write-up of the event, I’ll focus on the five most important things I’ve learned from MuseumNext this year.

Although I think this conference is hugely inspiring and positive, you will notice that, for me, this year’s learnings are not just about an enthusiastic, positive march forwards for the sector. Like change making itself, these learnings are a bit uncomfortable, they have sharp edges and require real work. They also make me look forward to the coming year. What will have changed by the time we meet again for MuseumNext Europe 2018? Make sure to mark June 18th-20th in your diary.

 

1. Ask questions (and take responsibility for finding answers)

One of the remarks that I have heard at every museum conference I’ve attended so far is: “It’s nice to see all these examples of museums doing exciting projects, but what can we really learn from them?” This year, I feel I can finally answer this: Look at what questions they asked and how they went about answering them. Then formulate your own questions and take responsibility for finding the answers. One of the presentations that impressed me was that of the Canadian Museum of Nature, because it showed staff at the museum were not afraid to ask important, but also uncomfortable questions. When asking themselves what the museum’s new exhibition about the Arctic should look like, staff concluded that they couldn’t talk about the Arctic as a natural environment, without highlighting the longstanding relationship between humans and nature in this region. And they didn’t stop there. They continued to ask questions about representation, power, and who gets to tell a story. I found it interesting to hear about this process from a natural history museum perspective, because so often these museums seem to defend the ‘we do science’ stance in order to avoid having to ask difficult questions about their role and position in society. In the development of the Arctic exhibition staff at the Canadian Museum of Nature worked closely together with members of indigenous communities, adopting the concept of ‘two eyed seeing’, as coined by an Inuit elder. It meant combining western and indigenous knowledge. Rather than going with the old ‘this is science and this is what the Inuit say’, which implies western knowledge is somehow superior to that of indigenous people, they gave both systems of knowing equal attention and value. For example, both Linnaean taxonomy and the categorisation of the natural world that was developed by Inuit over many centuries, were shared with visitors. This example showed that questioning your own work practices is important. But theses weren’t the only questions that were asked (and sometimes not answered) during MuseumNext.

With close to 500 museum professionals keen to make a change gathered in one space, the question ‘how can we create more inclusive museums?’ seemed to be on everyone’s lips. What I found interesting, encouraging and challenging to see this year was that not all sessions were focused on ‘fixing’ the situation. Some sessions actively challenged the still primarily white, Western middle-class conference attendees on topic such as power, privilege and white fragility. Several Museum Detox members, a collective of BAME (Black Asian, and minority ethnic) museum & heritage professionals, gave excellent and thought-provoking presentations. However, they also, rightly, sometimes refused to answer questions straight out, encouraging me and others to do our homework and take responsibility for finding answers ourselves. I think this is the first time I did not leave a conference only feeling enlightened and inspired. I also felt a bit uneasy and it took me some time to realise this was OK. I did my best to take Katherine McAlpine’s advice, which she shared during the Museum Oops! workshop about failure, and seemed useful here as well: “Just sit with that feeling for a while.”

Plenary session during MuseumNext (picture: Elodie Burrillon, http://hucopix.com/)

2. Dare to doubt

The first workshop I attended was titled ‘Beyond Doubt: How to harness doubt for more resilient leadership in turbulent times’. It was a joint presentation by Oxford University Museums and Saïd Business School about their Oxford Cultural Leaders programme. At first, I wasn’t sure if this session was for me. Although I own my own company, I don’t necessarily consider myself a ‘leader’. Leadership, in my eyes, comes with the kind of seniority that I have yet to attain, but I have read about the Cultural Leaders programme and was curious as to what I could learn. It turned out I was wrong about leadership, like I was wrong about entrepreneurship, something I associated with people trying to make money with hard-to-define skills or services. It turns out, entrepreneurship is about pursuing change and, as Shaz Hussain pointed out brilliantly with her Open Stage presentation, you don’t have to be in a senior position to be a leader.

The team from the Saïd Business School convinced us that there is a lot we can learn from CEO’s of corporate organisations. They also confronted us with the prejudices about corporate CEO’s that live among many people from the cultural sector. Research from the Saïd Business School showed that CEO’s are not, in fact, overly confident bullies (who knew?). They regularly experience doubt and use this to their advantage. Doubt prevents you from making rushed decision. It means you are willing to be self-critical and open to feedback from others. When you are able to manage doubt, you can avoid being paralysed by it. I believe daring to doubt might even help you take the responsibility for finding answers to the questions you have. Doubt might help us take risks. The bottom line is: withouth doubt, no change.

 

3. Embrace critical responses to your work

Embracing doubt and being critical of your own work practice is all well and good, but responding well to critical responses from others is quite something else. It is tempting to say that going on the defence when dealing with critical feedback is human nature, but that would imply that trying to respond in a different, more open and accepting manner, is unnatural. Granted, it might be incredibly hard, but that doesn’t mean it is against your nature. During the Museum Oops! workshop this was described as “that moment when you think the event you organised was a 9 out of 10 and somebody tells you it was a 6.” How do you deal with this?

Something else that resonated a lot with participants was the advice not to be completely emotionally invested in your work. I know this is something I tend get wrong, and my guess is I’m not the only one. The problem with deeply caring about your job is that it becomes really hard to positively engage with people who suggest you might do things differently. After all, you are trying so hard, you are putting your all into this project, exhibition or event, so how could you possibly not be getting it right? The truth is, no matter how hard you try, you will get things wrong. How are you going to respond when this happens and people tell you about it? Especially when we are working around topics such as representation and inclusion from a position of power, representing a cultural organisation, it is crucial we find honest and open ways to deal with criticism. Sometimes this might mean saying: “Thank you for your feedback, I will get back to you on this,” and just sitting with it for a while, until you know you can give a more meaningful response.

 

Those who tell you doing new things is easy are liars.

 – Katherine McAlpine

4. Make mistakes (and talk about them)

“The idea I will make mistakes terrifies me,” was the very honest response from one of the participants to the Museum Oops! workshop. I think we can all recognise this fear, yet we are all bound to make mistakes. I’ve mentioned this workshop a couple of times now, and it’s only as I’m writing this that I realise how it brought several themes together for me during the conference. Wanting to do the ‘right’ thing, wanting to make the organisation you work for just a little bit better, feeling emotionally invested and knowing the stakes are high might mean we end up doing less than we should. Real change only happens when we are comfortable taking risks, when we know we will be OK even if we make mistakes, and by being part of, or creating, a supportive network. Sharing our mistakes is an important part in this. Showing others, and yourself, you made a mistake, but you are still here; sharing experiences of responding to mistakes; sharing how much hard work, and how many mistakes, happen before you are able to give one of those glorious conference keynote speeches, these are all incredibly important things to do. Recently, I’ve found Nina Simon’s very honest posts about a big redevelopment project she’s been responsible for as a museum director, incredibly inspiring and brave. I hope, in the coming year, we will create more spaces where we can meet each other, share our mistakes and failures and feel supported to take risks.

 

5. Take action

As I said, after MuseumNext ended I felt equal parts inspired and uncomfortable, but most of all I felt the need to take what I learned and experienced during the conference and do something with it. One important thing I learned is, sometimes, if you want to make a change you have to take a step back, be quiet and listen instead of speak. When last year the white female author & activist Simone van Saarloos was invited by Atria, an institute on gender equality and women’s history in Amsterdam, to interview Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she jumped at the chance. That is, until it was brought to her attention by fellow-author Anousha Nzume that during Chimamanda’s short tour of the Netherlands, only white people would have the opportunity to talk with her. Simone stepped down and cultural historian Nancy Jouwe interviewed Chimamanda instead. It is not my intention to portray Simone Saarloos as a benevolent white woman ‘making space’, but to me it’s a reminder that sometimes, despite our best intentions to create an inclusive world, we need to ask ourselves: Am I the person who should be having this conversation?

As for taking action, I try to live by the advice of my colleague Abhay Adhikari: Think of the smallest step you can take to bring about change. It is the more poetic version of Dory’s ‘Just keep swimming’, but it has really helped me to keep revisiting the things I saw and heard at MuseumNext and to start taking small steps to make sure it has a lasting impact on my work practice. My first small step was to buy (and read!) Gloria Wekker’s book White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, and I’m hoping to write a few more blog posts in Dutch and English about some of the things I saw and heard at MuseumNext in relation to my own work practice and the Dutch museum landscape. Last May, I co-founded a monthly debate night for the cultural sector called Night Shift, kindly hosted by Het Nieuwe Instituut. We had already decided that we would reflect on MuseumNext in July and start a mini-series on representation after the summer break in September. MuseumNext has provided a lot of food for thought for this programme.

Which small step will you take?

 

feature image by Elodie Burrillon, http://hucopix.com/

Merel van der Vaart
Merel has worked in the culture & heritage sector for over 10 years, with organisations across Europe. She prefers to work on projects that build bridges between collections and people and uses digital as one of many tools to explore and create relevance, participation, radical trust and knowledge sharing. In her work, Merel combines hands-on experience with academic knowledge.

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