Dispatch from Museums Australia Conference 2012

Posted on September 27, 2012

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I am writing to you from a quiet dawn moment of sleeplessness whilst at the Museums Australia Conference in Adelaide, South Australia.

This is my first mainstream museum conference, and also my first Australian museum conference. Until now, I have been closeted safely within the confines of the museum technology community, and have been more exposed to American museumers and the stories of their experiences than those of my local sector.

Attending has been eye opening and challenging on different levels. I am learning a lot, and becoming very aware of some major gaps in my  knowledge about the sector in Australia. It has only really whilst being here that I’ve really started to consider the complexity of the funding structure that includes federal, state and local government organisations. Despite an awareness on some level that there were these different levels of support with different concerns and mandates, it had not really hit home how much that stratafication shapes what is possible and achievable within the sector. It is something I will have to think much further on.

I can see this complexity emerge most readily in conversations I’ve had about the role, purpose and future of Museums Australia itself. For all is not well in the world of this sector body. There are signs that it is an institution in crisis, with dropping membership numbers and fewer attendees at the conference. On Tuesday the organisation held a meeting to discuss its future, painting a fairly grim picture about the uncertainty of the organisation’s direction, path and, more than anything, relevance.

At that meeting, I spoke up about the fact that I had barely joined the organisation myself, and had only done so for the conference. I addressed that question of relevance of this seemingly slow-moving organisation that feels (to me) so removed from the robust and valued discussions I have about the sector in other spaces. I don’t know whether it was out of place for me to speak up, but I was one of only a very small number of people in the room who appeared to be an emerging professional, and so I felt the need to do so.

What I spoke to was my experience that there doesn’t seem to be the same mechanisms for discussion, for really pulling apart what the sector is doing right now in context of the changing social and economic climate as I have experienced elsewhere – whether at the conference, or as part of the network more generally. Although I am really enjoying this conference, and getting huge benefits from the insight into different areas of the sector, and about the complexities of working within the Australian government structure, there seems to be comparatively little room for joint problem solving or actually trying to nut out what the changes in our world mean for the sector here. The conference has been largely filled with show-and-tell papers, many of which are hugely interesting, but don’t necessarily provide people with either practical skills or the space in which to think through issues confronting them with colleagues. Now, that stuff of course happens in the conversations around bars and dinners, over meals, but this lacks the robustness of debate that can happen when professionals with different experiences are plonked down with microphones and a good facilitator and actually invited to talk about real problems.

Yesterday I did what may have been a professional misstep, and what was certainly a gamble, and ditched my prepared speech in order to just talk about my concerns that we still really don’t understand the point of (many) online collections, beyond the idea of “access” (obviously picking up from Koven’s work in this area). My original talk was stronger than the one I actually presented, and would likely have made my point more eloquently… but in going freeform, there became some room for debate and discussion (and heated temperatures – my session chair did not agree with me on some issues).

A frequent concern that I carry is whether I have the right to speak up about the sector at all. What right do I have to do so? What happens if the noise I make proves to be a diversion away from the issues of real importance; a terrible nag that ignores the things that matter because I am too blinded by my own interests. We all have our own biases, and it is certainly not correct that simply being noisy about an issue means you have something meaningful to say. I ask questions about the things that I cannot or do not understand, and it’s great to get answers. But that doesn’t mean these are the things the sector should be talking about.

This is also why there need to be strong mechanisms for debate; for calling someone out on a bad idea or working out why something cannot or will not work. A comment that someone senior in the field made to me this week was that “People are terribly polite in this sector.” I think he was right. It’s actually one of the lovely and charming things about working in museums, that museum people very much do want to work for the good of the community, and they carry an awareness that causing offense unnecessarily is something to be avoided (it’s an issue people grapple with so often in exhibition curation etc). But politeness can also be a problem, surely, if it prevents people from speaking up when something is rotten in the town of Denmark.

We need more people to join in the debate, and we need to encourage the people from small institutions to speak to their challenges as well as their successes, because without it we cannot even know if we are trying to address the things that matter. It is important not to be blinded by that which is shiny and present (or easy) at the expense of that which matters.

What do you think? What are the most pressing issues facing the Australian museum and gallery sector?

I should say at this point that I am only here at MASA2012 thanks to receiving a partial bursary from the MA Museum Studies National Network.

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