Museum futures in an age of austerity

This weekend was the conference to celebrate 20 years of the MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at the IOE. It was a great opportunity to catch up with some former classmates and to meet professionals and fellow researchers who are making an innovative and inspiring impact on a sector in financial turmoil.

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of the three days, I thought it would be more useful to highlight some of the recurring themes throughout the wide range of papers given, and the three keynote speakers, which John Reeve neatly summarised on the final day. The obvious theme was austerity, and how museum and gallery professionals  are responding to this with creativity and innovation to provide new approaches to museum and education professionals with limited (or often no) funding. Advocacy was another theme, the importance of making the case, to institutions, schools, funders and the government. Another thread running through the conference was the idea of spectacle (in the form of big blockbuster exhibitions) vs engagement and meaning, which Professor Nick Stanley delved into in his keynote on the first day. In a time when many museums are hard pushed to put together blockbuster exhibitions (the definition of which was rightly problematised), curators and educators are finding ways to re-examine and re-interpret existing collections, and experimenting with different ways of approaching this, one of which was another recurring idea, that of the of artist intervention. This was underpinned by the idea of risk, and how many curators feel that artists aren’t bound by institutional standards meaning that their interpretation of collections have more room for creativity and rule-breaking, others suggested that curators may be censoring their own innovations in this sense, and that curators and artists are doing much the same thing. The final theme was about voices, particularly other voices, be it two way dialogues with museum visitors, a disruption of authority by inviting non-museum professionals a hand in curating and interpreting, or, as in my own paper, about marginalised voices finding their own ways of claiming heritage.

One of the most interesting and pleasing parts of the conference for me was finding myself in a community of fellow museum researchers, as PhDing can often be a rather isolated (and isolating) affair. I was particularly interested in the papers from other PhD students, and was really encouraged by the wide range of great research taking place. I particularly enjoyed Judith Brocklehurst and Annie Davey’s papers, as, although their research includes an element of art practice, they still got me thinking about more unique ways of approaching research. I also enjoyed Nina Trivedi from the University of Westminster, who was arguing that an exhibition catalogue has the potential to be a site in itself, and an alternative curatorial platform that allows contributors more risks that aren’t necessarily policed by the institutions as much as the exhibitions themselves.

Another paper I got a lot from was Helen Pike, events programmer from the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, where they have a Timekeeper in residence, who questioned the authority of the linear nature of time and the reliance on timelines in museums. This felt like an unquestionably queer critique of museum practice to me. You can find more about this project here.

A great three days, with lots to think about, and a perfect way to celebrate the first 20 years of the MA. Here’s to another twenty!

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