Friday, 11 December 2015

Giving Tuesday at the Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Historic Fort Normandeau

Tuesday, December 1st is known as Giving Tuesday and is the opening day of the giving season; a time to celebrate and encourage activities that support charities and non-profits. This Giving Tuesday, we wanted to highlight some of the great work Alberta museums are doing in their communities, and to encourage support for these institutions through the Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility. We spent the day in Red Deer getting to know the 2015 recipient of the Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility: the KerryWood Nature Centre and Historic Fort Normandeau

A little background before we get into our adventures: The Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility supports and furthers the work of museums that are solving community issues and promoting health and well-being through programs that affect real social and environmental change. Recipients are awarded $3000 to put towards investigating why their programs are so successful and modelling these successes for other museums in Alberta through a one-day workshop. As the third recipient of the Janes Award, Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Historic Fort Normandeau will host a workshop  in the spring of 2016 to share their experiences with other museum professionals.
Accepting the Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility at the Alberta Museums Association 2015 Conference
We arrived at the Nature Centre in the morning ready to explore. Our hosts Jim Robertson, Executive Director and Todd Nivens, Program Coordinator did not disappoint, providing a day of discovery, learning, and sharing that we shared on Twitter under the hashtags #GivingTuesdayCA and #MuseumsEngage.
Welcome to the Kerry Wood Nature Centre
The Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Historic Fort Normandeau are located on the banks of the Red Deer River. Historic Fort Normandeau is just to the west of the Red Deer at the point where First Nations, Metis, and Europeans gathered to cross the river before the railway between Calgary and Edmonton was completed. The Kerry Wood Nature Centre is on the eastern edge of Red Deer between the river and the Gaetz Lake Bird Sanctuary. Fort Normandeau is closed in the winter, but we got a great summary from Jim and Todd of the reconciliation and cultural renewal work being done with local First Nations and Metis, and we are excited to experience the site in the spring.

The Centre’s enthusiasm for and involvement with the community was evident in every conversation we had. Discussions of past projects flowed into plans for future development as we met with a number of the Centre’s partners.

The City of Red Deer’s Environmental Services Department  described the City’s Environmental Master Plan and the support the Nature Centre provides in promoting programs that encourage citizens to reduce waste, increase energy and efficiency, and be more environmentally conscious overall. One of the most exciting (and topical!) collaborations was the Christmas Light Exchange. Residents of Red Deer were encouraged to bring their old strings of incandescent outdoor lights to the Nature Centre to be recycled and, in return, receive a new string of energy efficient LED lights. Between 2009 and 2014, the program collected enough strings of lights to run the reclaimed copper wire from Red Deer to Vancouver, a distance of nearly 1100 km. Even more impressive is the fact that the program is no longer in operation – because it is no longer needed! After five years, nearly all the incandescent lights in the city have been replaced with efficient LED lights.  
CARE Offices
At the Central Alberta Refugee Effort (CARE) we learned about the development of camping and literacy programs that introduce new Canadians to nature and outdoor recreation. A literacy pilot project at the Centre offers space for English language classes. Running at the same time is a nature-based childcare program, so children can enjoy three hours of hands-on, exploratory learning in the outdoors while their parents attend class. Families can attend introduction to camping programs that teach the basics of pitching a tent, building fires, and other survival skills, and then apply these skills during a weekend trip to a nearby provincial park. Both CARE and the Centre were obviously passionate about the importance of nature education, and the important role it plays in helping people adjust to a new country and community – and proud, just as we are, of showing off our beautiful, wild province. 

Climbing in the Imagination Grove's natural playground.
As we crossed the city and learned new stories from each partner, it became very clear that every project and plan is rooted in the needs of the Red Deer community. From roving interpreters in Red Deer’s parks, to outdoor children’s programming, the Nature Centre works to remove the physical and psychological barriers to nature and promote a deeper understanding of our place in the environment in the past, present, and future.
Finding music in the Harmony Garden
Before heading back to Edmonton we took some time to explore. We banged out tunes on the musical equipment in the Kiwanis Harmony Garden, climbed trees in Imagination Grove, read a story on the Gaetz Lake path, and crawled through tunnels in the galleries. Inside the galleries, there are wooden books about the environment and Red Deer’s many environmentalists, a subtle homage to the books that made Kerry Wood a famous author. The only technology is a bicycle connected to a video screen that tours Red Deer’s river valley parks as you pedal. 

Exploring the Red Deer River park system in all weather.

We really got into the new exhibits
In the coming months, we will be working with Jim and Todd to plan a workshop in June to model how the Centre created, nurtured, and maintained these connections in its community. Keep an eye on for details on this hands-on workshop – all we can tell you for now is that you should be prepared to get outside, get dirty, and quite possibly get your feet wet!

Lauren Wheeler, Program Lead
Katrina Peredun, Communications Lead

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Robert R Janes Award for Social Responsibility and Giving Tuesday

“Imagine a day dedicated to giving back … around the world, across Canada and in your own community! Just as Black Friday kicks off the holiday shopping season, Giving Tuesday is the opening day of the giving season.”

This year, while museums across Alberta work with their communities to create programs that give back and promote social and environmental awareness, the Alberta Museums Association (AMA) will be participating in Giving Tuesday to raise awareness and support for the Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility. The Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility is an annual award that recognizes, supports, and furthers the work of museums that are solving community issues and promoting health and well-being. The Award was made possible through an initial donation from Dr. Janes, who continues to provide funding to the Award, and relies on additional community funding to continue directly supporting museums that are true contributors to the social, cultural, and educational fabric of Alberta. Award recipients are museums that do things differently and demonstrate leadership by building museums as true community spaces that affect our environmental and social landscapes.

Recipients of the Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility receive $3,000 to investigate their drivers for success, scale up their activities, and host a workshop designed to model their lessons and successes for other institutions. The 2014 recipient, Fort Calgary, used the funds to examine the impact of their community garden on their neighbours in the inner city and demonstrate how the garden encourages stronger relationships with their community. Funds were also used to host a one-day workshop that explored what community engagement and social responsibility mean to the Fort and to their long standing partner, Suncor Energy Foundation.

The 2015 recipient, Historic Fort Normandeau and the Kerry Wood Nature Centre in Red Deer, will host a workshop in the spring of 2016 to share their environmental sustainability and socially responsible work. As part of the AMA’s Giving Tuesday initiative, AMA staff will spend Tuesday, December 1, 2015 at the Centre lending a hand with this work and learning how it is integrated into the day to day life of the Centre. Follow the AMA @AlbertaMuseums and through the #GivingTuesdayCA and #MuseumsEngage hashtags as we explore the Centre’s important work, and the impact it has on the Red Deer community.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Community Engagement Learning Opportunity

The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement is hosting a three day workshop, Community Engagement: The Next Generation, on the latest tools, techniques, and technology for community engagement. A leading voice and practitioner of community engagement in Canada and internationally, the Tamarack Institute has worked closely with the AMA to develop and implement the Community Engagement Initiative.

The workshop takes place November 24 - 26, 2015 in Edmonton and is being presented by Tamarack’s Paul Born, Louise Mehlihan, and Rachel Gainer.

Tamarack believes this new generation of community engagement is profound.  It requires a new way of thinking about audiences, available resources, and interactive engagement. 
At Community Engagement: The Next Generation, delegates will:
  •   Explore the latest engagement techniques
  •    Interact with transformative technology
  •     Learn to apply proven techniques to initiate and maintain engagement

The workshop will focus on the latest engagement techniques and technology that will transform how to engage with clients, customers, funders, and partners. Through dialogue with leaders in the field of engagement and social change, delegates will enhance their capacity to effectively hear the voices of those they serve and learn key strategies to mobilize them towards a collective impact. 
Participants will explore and learn to apply:
  •       A toolkit for Community Engagement practices
  •      Proven techniques that companies have been using for years to increase customer loyalty
  •       Systems change theory and the role engagement plays in building movements for change
  •      Engagement technologies and the amazing power these have given us to listen to and communicate effectively with large groups of people

AMA members, and those with an interest in community engagement, are encouraged to attend this event. Discounts are available for colleagues who enroll together. To learn more or to register, please visit the Community Engagement event page.

For more information, contact

Interested in the workshop but cannot attend?  Follow the conversation on twitter through @AlbertaMuseums and  #EngageYEG.

Monday, 2 November 2015

How Did Our Garden Grow? Fort Calgary's Community Garden in 2015

Fort Calgary, the 2014 recipient of the Robert R. Janes Award for Social Responsibility, hosted a Modelling What Works workshop to share their experience connecting with their community through their Community Garden. Workshop participants came away with knowledge, plans, and enthusiasm to inform and encourage their own socially responsible work – and were able to get their hands dirty in the garden!

Gardening on the prairies is not for the faint of heart! Although Fort Calgary’s community garden was blessed with a warm spring and warm fall the summer can best described as a “challenge!”

Two major hailstorms back to back in the afternoons of August 4th and August 5th, ultimately affected the yield but despite that we had another successful summer. The hail came at a time of peak harvest which was very unfortunate. It was devastating to watch an act of god destroy such good intentions and hard work  – but that turned quickly to watching Mother Nature’s amazing power to heal. The hailstorms were also a nice reminder of what life was like on the prairies. A hailstorm could mean a very stressful and bleak winter to settlers who relied on their garden to feed their families.

Fortunately, our Suncor Energy Foundation garden measures success in many ways. While the yield was down we continued to offer a variety of vegetables and herbs to The Women’s Centre in Bridgeland, two Wood’s Homes youth at risk programs, and the Alex’s Homebase community kitchen program – all social agencies in Calgary. The garden continues to employ from the hard to employ sector and was home to numerous volunteers throughout the summer.

The garden location at the west end of the new Elbow River bridge increased the garden profile significantly. There is an estimated 300,000 people using the bridge annually - many of them now stopping to learn about Fort Calgary and the garden. The Mountie scarecrow continues to be the star and subtly educates passers-by on the roots of the Fort.

We continue to be proud recipients of the Robert R. Janes Award. For those of you who attended the garden workshop in the spring, the lettuce that you planted that day was harvested several times and is now producing seed for next year!

In another couple of weeks we will put the garden to bed for the winter – so it will be ready to “grow” next spring. Stay tuned!

Friday, 21 August 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Interview Part TWO: Mark Holmgren, CEO, Bissell Centre

Mark Holmgren, CEO of the Bissell Centre, will deliver the Saturday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address on Upside Down Thinking. This method of thinking utilizes unconventional propositions to force us to redefine how we think and how we see our organizations. In anticipation of his upcoming keynote presentation, David Ridley, Executive Director for the Edmonton Heritage Council, met with Mark to discuss his work with Upside Down Thinking. Click here to read Part One of this interview
DR: Some of these premises that have emerged from your thinking are provocative and intended to prod thinking. But there’s also a potentially demoralizing truth for those committed to the work. The museum sector, when we’re being honest about it, has its own counter-intuitive realizations that point to less than desirable results. How does one go about Upside Down Thinking without hitting a personal or organizational dead end?

MH: We have a lot of people in a lot of organizations that are already demoralized. It varies depending on what field you’re in, but all of the pressures of non-profit sector are no different: resources, talk about transformation, and the need to reinvent ourselves. A good number of people are already wondering - what is so wrong with what we are doing? For me, I am looking for tools to help people wrestle with that. A series of wicked questions would help other people develop dialogue strategies. Dialogue has a structure to it - it’s not just communicating. So I’m really into how to develop tools to help people have those difficult conversations.
In a sense, they are change tools, and the challenge when we talk about transformation, for me, is that it is on the far continuum of change. Small changes, incremental change, we’re pretty good at that. We can rearrange the room and come up with a slightly better system or do something a little quicker, but it doesn’t really impact us in a significant way. It’s just a little bit better. It’s still not transformational. The struggle we have is that organizations are owned by people and perpetuated by people. It’s hard to change because your identity is all tied up with this stuff.
You can’t pose this as a way to make people feel bad; that’s why the setup is so important. This is a go-forward kind of exercise, finding the core of what we need to consider changing, and getting at it in a way that we usually don’t. By proposing what we never propose. Once you identify them, you don’t just say “that’s a lot of junk”, you say “we have something to work on”.

DR: One thing most organizations don’t do is create that reserve for innovation. If we’re really forcing those heretical thoughts and approaches, we should drill down into deeply held assumptions about what we do and why we do it -- come up with some alternate hypotheses about what we’re doing, testing it, why is this true. What are the experiments we do with radical intent, to test things out or to try something new? That’s something that, for many museums, or any organization, demands on resources don’t allow. It’s about the human spirit of an organization and allowing people to breathe and try new things on.

The radical part is interesting. Sometimes the way to tackle becoming more innovative is to start looking at how we do things now - it’s too easy to say we don’t have time or money. I was sitting with my Chief Programs Officer, and I said to him, “our organizational structure does not allow innovation”. And that’s all I said. I didn’t say it was bad or silly. I just said I don’t see innovation coming out of this structure. We talked about it and changed our structure, and now I’ve got managers who are working laterally in ways that they never did before. It doesn’t use up more resources and they’re getting more done by leveraging each other’s programs and each other’s ideas for everything from daily services to administrative stuff. Sometimes I have the opposite problem where I manage just how much innovation we’re trying to do, which is a much better place to be. 
There are lots of way to get a radical conversation going, but one of the ways I’ve done it in the past is to ask: the purpose of museums is what, and what are your main functions? What if you couldn’t do any of your main functions but you still had to meet your mission and mandate? How would you do it? It wouldn’t be easy but I don’t think it would be impossible. Is there only one way to do things?

DR: You write about the “gospel of collaboration”, noting that “collaboration” has become an entirely plastic word: we use it to describe everything we do (like wide use of late of the word “curating”). What do you see as the greasy underbelly of collaboration for organizations? What should we be realistic about in pursuing collaboration?

MH: So, it’s not about being anti-collaboration. My organization has many partnerships, both formal and understood. I believe in that stuff, but what happens with so many things - outcomes, collaboration, now collective impact - the pendulum swings too far. There are too many people on a bandwagon without knowing why they’re riding it or where it’s going. I was having a conversation with someone and she referred to my organization as a partner and I said we’re not your partner. We don’t have a partnership agreement, we have a funding agreement. You’re a great funder and I support a lot of the things that you do, but we can’t start calling everything a partnership. It becomes a meaningless word. Sometimes things are just cooperative, or coordinated without being full scale collaboration.
There are some that think collaboration will save us money. Research or valuation cannot show they are more efficient, but they can be more impactful. It’s the same with collective impact. Now they want to fund collective impact, but what about the niche things or other small things that should be funded that aren’t necessarily large scale collaborative change?

DR: The plasticity of the word makes it lose its precision. It’s the equivalent of having 22 different words for snow: it’s important in that environment. It’s important in our complex environment as well, we’re starting to lose meaning.

MH: When people say they are collaborating, sometimes they are competing, and it’s important to realize that. It’s not like for-profit where we’re trying to put the other side out of business. I do try to position myself as a top quality organization. We try to think about what sets our brand apart, and so should other organizations. Those are more competitive activities that people should be okay with. I go to any collaborative table with my personal agenda, and so does everyone. That’s how we come up with collective agendas: people sharing their own personal agendas and finding the match. Sometimes collaboration becomes such a strong ideology that we don’t talk about how we’re in a competitive environment.

DR: You have been recognized as a National Thought Leader by the Tamarack Institute, whose goal is to achieve collective impact on complex community issues. How does Upside Down Thinking fit into Tamarack’s work with large scale change?

I wrote a piece called Collective Impact, Watch Out for the Pendulum Swing. I think the genius is in weaving together practices that they noticed across numerous landscapes and identified them. The principles are awesome, but I would say – if I was challenging collective impact (to make it better!) – how can shared management destroy collective impact? Trying to get people to look deeply into the main principles of it and find out why it might not work and then fix that. Tools like this, as well as others that Tamarack pitches, help people actually get to the meat of what their collective impact initiative should look like. Does every collective impact have to have a distinct backbone organization? Is it right for an organization to select themselves as a backbone organization? I’m just trying to find ways to raise those questions, and sometimes you have to raise them in a way that gets peoples’ attention. That’s how it relates to what Tamarack is trying to do, to give them tools to help them have positive skepticism. It’s too easy to get into the flow and be positive about everything, but sometimes we have to get into why it won’t work.
Even working with groups around thinking and what kinds of thinkers you have in your organization– you need creative and critical, and know how to blend the two together. Kids don’t get that in school. Some of it is just creating a culture that helps people have those tools. Anyone can be a creative thinker. It’s not just Upside Down Thinking, it’s creating a culture of change and dialogue where people can be liberated to explore things they have never explored before. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Friday, 14 August 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Interview Part TWO: Sharon Heal, Director, Museums Association of the United Kingdom

Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association of the United Kingdom, will deliver the Friday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address, Leading Change: Why Museums Can't Live in the Past. 
In anticipation of her upcoming talk, Lucie Heins, Assistant Curator for Western Canadian History at the Royal Alberta Museum, met with Sharon to discuss her work with “Museums Change Lives”. Click here to read Part One of this interview. 
Lucie Heins: Another principle of Museums Change Lives is “Justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.” Can you elaborate on this principle?

Sharon Heal: I think there are lots of ways this principle plays out. One example is equality of access to the public. This is not just about physical access, although that is very important, but also about intellectual access and emotional access. It’s about unlocking stories and giving people a voice, and making sure individual stories and community stories are respected and given room to breathe. It’s about access and public engagement, and museums are striving to reach out and be really inclusive spaces.

We have talked for a long time in the museum sector about museums as inclusive spaces, but I’m not sure we have ever fully achieved it across the board in the sector. By that, I mean a space where everyone feels welcome, where those barriers to engagement have been removed, whether it is at an intellectual or emotional or physical level. There are great examples where museums are working towards it in a really creative way. It can be achieved through display, co-curation, listening to your audiences, listening to the public, and listening to non-audiences - understanding the reasons why people don’t come, and respecting different views and different stories.

It’s about understanding that museums can play a role in tackling some of the injustice in society. It’s not just about equality of access, but understanding things, such as learning outside of the classrooms has been demonstrated to improve literacy and life chances for young people, and is a great way of enhancing young people’s future prospects. Museums are delivering that with communities in terms of creating those opportunities; they’re delivering social justice and enhancing the chances of people who might have otherwise not had those opportunities.
LH: The vision statement explores three ways museums can increase their impact: wellbeing, better places, and ideas and people. How can museums enhance wellbeing?

SH: Museums and the cultural sector can, in some cases, be better for people in long term illnesses than medical interventions. In the UK, museums have a strong track record working with people who have dementia, and it’s a range of museums. Again, it’s not the usual suspects. For example, the Scottish Football Museum[i] has worked with men who have dementia (a group that is quite often neglected in that field) using with their collection around football memorabilia as an aid to reminiscence. They’ve rolled that out with other organizations in Scotland so it has a much broader reach. Weald and Downland Museum[ii] in Sussex brings in local community groups who may have dementia and organize tea dances to use them as a community access space. There are some fantastic examples of where that work is being done. It allows these people to explore the museums at their own pace and in a way that is suitable for them, and it really does enhance wellbeing.

LH: Museums are rooted in places; they help shape and convey a sense of identity. How can museums create better places?

SH: This is more than about cultural regeneration. In the UK over the past 20 years, there has been a big investment in cultural hubs and cultural quarters to make up for the decline of manufacturing, and revamp city centres when there has been post-industrial decline. That’s good, and sometimes it works to put an architecturally designed museum or cultural centre into an area of decline, but sometimes it doesn’t. Building a new museum and hoping that it will make people feel better about the area is one thing, but what you need in those cases in community engagement. We’re talking about conveying a sense of identity and giving people the confidence and the voice to talk about and explore what connects them to their local area. This makes them feel a confidence and awareness of that connection and the history of the place.

There is a museum in the northeast of England called Bedesworld[iii] in Jarrow that creates that connection by working with young people and integrating them into their volunteer workforce, and you can see the transformative effects. They may have come as reluctant volunteers with a lack of anything else to do in that very isolated northern town, but now they actively volunteer and want to continue their work after they are done their project.

Museums in Yorkshire have been working with local audiences and sharing the experiences of the cities’ industrial past. This is a very ethnically diverse audience due to the level of immigration into the UK and Yorkshire and the north west of England around the manufacturing industry in those areas. They’re using an industrial museum in Bradford[iv] to connect some of those communities and look at that industrial past, but also look for the future. It’s about local stories, so they’re created from a sense of civic pride. It is about making that connection and reconnecting with communities to give them a voice again.

LH: “Research into public attitudes to museums shows people see museums as places of stimulating ideas, where learning is active.” How can museums inspire people and ideas?

SH: This is something that I feel quite strongly about: that museums should encourage debate on contemporary issues that matter to society and communities. I live in the east end of London and where I live, young girls have left their schools and travelled to Syria and joined ISIS. They feel some sense of disengagement, disenfranchisement, disrespect, or something that drives them away from London and their families, their communities, and their support networks. I think museums in that area - and in any area where that might be an issue - who have collections that might resonate really should engage with those communities and those schools to talk about that issue and why it’s happening. It happens that in my community, there is the Museum of Childhood[v]. That museum should be having dialogue with communities and schools and talk about how they might engage with young women who are under threat of radicalization.

This is a very difficult, contemporary, and timely issue. Museums may think it has nothing to do with them, but it can be everything to do with them if they’re of that local community and they have collections or subject matter that might resonate with that community. It’s about being bold and brave, not being afraid of that discussion. It doesn’t mean you have to take a side or invite a debate you’re not ready for, but by talking to the community you can unlock some of those issues opening conversations.

In the museum, you’re not a neutral space but you’re a trusted space, so you can foster discussions in a way that might challenge prejudice and assumptions and might help to provide alternatives to where those young girls ended up.

LH: I know that your keynote presentation will touch on other ways museums can take action. How will a museum know they have social impact? What does a museum that changes lives look like?

SH: In essence, it should look like any museum because any museum can do it! It doesn’t matter what the size of the museum is. You could be the Canadian Museum of Human Rights or a small, local museum in Canada or the British Museum or a small, local museum in the UK. Any museum can do it if they want to because it doesn’t matter what your collection is. What you need to do is talk to communities and see what their issues are. If there are things that those communities are saying they want your support with, see how you can work with other organizations that are already in the field to do that work. Evaluation and measurement are important and we have to have the right tools to demonstrate these impacts.

Museums do change lives, but human stories are essential because that’s what people remember. That’s why we tell stories and that’s why journalists create stories. It’s about humanizing - it’s about being able to say we changed this person’s life in this way and that’s how you can replicate this type of work. It’s conferences, sharing practice across the field, and talking to peers about the type of work that you’re doing and learning from each other so you’re not reinventing the wheel, but it’s crucial to go to the community and do needs assessment and really talk to people.

Check back next week to read the rest of our interview with Saturday`s keynote, Mark Holmgren, CEO, the Bissell Centre.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Thursday, 6 August 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Saturday Keynote Interview Part One: Mark Holmgren, CEO, Bissell Centre

This year's Alberta Museums Association Conference, Nurturing Organizational Resiliency, focusses on exploring the ways museums nurture organizational health and community engagement on their path towards resiliency.  As museums move towards a sustainable future, it is more important than ever to have a strong sense of social purpose, and utilize intelligent visioning and strategic foresight when engaging with communities.

Mark Holmgren, CEO of the Bissell Centre, will deliver the Saturday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address, on Upside Down Thinking. This method of thinking utilizes unconventional propositions to force us to redefine how we think and how we see our organizations. In anticipation of his upcoming keynote presentation, David Ridley, Executive Director for the Edmonton Heritage Council, met with Mark to discuss his work with Upside Down Thinking.

David Ridley: How did you arrive at the idea of “Upside Down Thinking” in relation to your work and personal experience?

Mark Holmgren: I never really coined the term Upside Down Thinking until a couple of years ago, but I've always felt like I think a little differently than other people. Not better, just different. About three years ago, I became involved with Tamarack [Institute for Community Engagement] and really started to talk about wicked questions. I really like wicked questions, but they’re not really the same thing as how I saw a more radical way of getting at difficult questions.

For example, a wicked question could be: how can we continually move towards achieving our outcomes while at the same time questioning if they’re the right ones? What it doesn’t do is question the very nature of outcomes – it assumes that outcomes are a given, and I wanted to go deeper than that. Sometimes what we really need to do is propose something that’s outlandish - like “outcomes destroy innovation” - and then seek out why that might be true. It is not to be a jerk or to create demoralizing dialogue, but to create a frame and rules about how it’s okay to talk about it. Why not look at what’s on the downside of that: how do outcomes get in the way of being creative and innovative? It is not meant to destroy being results focussed, but if you’re so results focussed you stay in the status quo, it starts to affect how you view things like innovation. It’s going to be iterative as you go forward. If everything is put into a logic model, we’re doing ourselves an injustice.
I realized that years ago when I was Executive Director of Operation Friendship. When I got there, they had somehow convinced the government to build a multi-purpose centre with a rooming house for hard to house seniors. As we built it, we got to the point where my team and I were trying to decide who lives in this rooming house. So we started talking about admissions criteria, and started doing what anyone else would do and thinking ‘those aren’t hard to house people’. It hit me – let’s have eviction criteria be admission criteria. They must demonstrate they’re hard to house in order to live here. People shook their heads, including me, but that’s exactly what our intent was.
When I talk about wicked questions, they are a provocative inquiry. You have two polarities and try to deal with both of them concurrently. Upside Down Thinking in the frame that I use it is heretical proposal, and what you do with your colleagues is you try to prove it true, not prevent it. It’s an exercise at looking into change, looking into issues, what’s stopping us, what’s hurting us, what’s not working, how we can get better. All of those kinds of questions are in that process.

DR: It sounds like it presses staff to raise their comfort level with paradox, and how to hold a couple of things together that seem diametrically opposed.

MH: Who is the guy who talks about opposable mind? [Roger Martin]. He talks about being able to hold two opposing things in your mind concurrently, and being able to deal with them – not necessarily pit them against each other. When I present on Upside Down Thinking, I spend a lot of time talking about thinking – critical thinking, creative thinking, integrative thinking – and you can do Upside Down Thinking with all of that. It’s not a separate, distinct cognitive tool. I don’t mean that there is only one way to do it – I do talk about conditions where it might be helpful, or how an organization might ready itself for it, but I don’t want to prescribe it beyond saying “ask yourself a heretical proposal and free yourself to consider it.”

DR: So that is one of the important conditions. What are things that need to be in place? Ground rules? Conditions? Atmosphere? Climate? Ecology?

MH: My background is organizational leadership and change, and a lot of that is adaptable. If the culture in your organization is such that you have a hard time talking about anything, I’d suggest that should be the first thing you tackle. The answer for people unable to speak or have really good conversations is some tools or protocols and rules on how to dialogue and have generative conversations. There is a certain readiness; there is a cultural assessment you have to do. If there are enough people that are willing to try this Upside Down Thinking thing, then probably you might be ready. You wouldn’t entertain it without some sense that you could pull it off.

I think people should talk about what it is first and try to identify their own work and where they’ve seen it, personalize it before we just jump into creating heretical proposals. Some of it is about taking the time – it’s not a day long retreat, it’s more of a process. I do think someone should facilitate it, at least at first. Organizations should do it together, and there are a lot of people who would animate that. You need someone who will not only help you through the disruptions that will happen, but also be a bit disruptive by making sure you’re asking heretical questions.

DR: This draws a parallel with what’s happening in the cultural sector. We seem to be in a period in which everyone is trying to identify their core values. There are a lot of challenges to that. Is Upside Down Thinking the answer? Or are these things strategy? In your own work with other organizations, how can you start on that process?

MH: I’ve not yet done it with the entire organization – I’m selective about who is in the room with me. There has to be a certain level of trust. [It’s] about having the right people in the room. Who can play in that space? I’ve had real life people call me a poverty pimp. They don’t even know me. That’s how they view the work that we do. It’s not a pleasant feeling. My staff hate it. So I said, “Let’s prove that’s true. Let’s prove that we do perpetuates poverty, and talk about the ways we do that.” I can’t say that to my frontline staff out of the blue, but I can say that to my Lead Team. So one of the small examples for me was to consider: what do we do that perpetuates poverty? We came up with some of the roadblocks we put up to people getting help. We didn’t go out to identify those, or blame people, but now we knew how to fix it.

David Ridley

Executive Director
Edmonton Heritage Council

Check back in the following weeks to read the rest of Mark's interview, as well as the interview with Friday's Keynote Presenter, Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association of the United Kingdom.

For more information about AMA Conference 2015: Nurturing Organizational Resiliency, please visit

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Friday, 31 July 2015

AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Interview Part One: Sharon Heal, Director, Museums Association of the United Kingdom

This year's Alberta Museums Association Conference, Nurturing Organizational Resiliency, focusses on exploring the ways museums nurture organizational health and community engagement on their path towards resiliency.  As museums move towards a sustainable future, it is more important than ever to have a strong sense of social purpose, and utilize intelligent visioning and strategic foresight when engaging with communities.
Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association of the United Kingdom, will deliver the Friday AMA Conference 2015 Keynote Address, Leading Change: Why Museums Can't Live in the Past. Sharon’s presentation will explore the core purpose of museums as it relates to public need. How can museums broaden access to culture, and what impact can this have on both institutions and their communities?
In anticipation of her upcoming talk, Lucie Heins, Assistant Curator for Western Canadian History at the Royal Alberta Museum, met with Sharon to discuss her work with “Museums Change Lives”.
Lucie Heins: Sharon, your various roles prior to becoming the Director of the Museums Association (MA) of the United Kingdom were mostly program and audience-based. How has this assisted you in your directorship role? Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming the Director of the MA?  
Sharon Heal: My background is actually in journalism, in editing and writing. That’s where my training initially was and that’s where my career developed, but I also developed events and the conference at the Museums Association. For me, there is a lot of commonality and crossover in journalism and museums. Museums are all about people, about making connections between objects and stories. Journalism is about people because when you write and edit, you consider your audience. It’s about sharing ideas; it’s about sharing practice as a museums association. In the wider sense, in a campaigning role as an association, it’s about connecting people to museums and connecting politicians, stakeholders, and funders to those really pertinent stories of the impact that museums can have at an individual level.
Having edited Museums Journal for a number of years and worked on our annual conference here in the UK, I think I have quite a good understanding of the sector and the people who work in it: what they’re really interested in, what their passions are, and what drives them at an individual level. But in many ways, I’m quite different from people who work in the museum sector because I don’t have a background in museums. I’ve never worked in a museum and I don’t have that kind of education in terms of Museum Studies degrees, etc. that a lot of people who work in the sector have. In many ways that’s an advantage because it makes me very grounded and enables me to have a wider view. I have the advantage of knowing people in the sector and knowing how the sector operates, but still being able to think about what museums do from a public perspective, to view museums from the view of an audience member, step back and see it through that lens.
LH: The MA’s Vision Statement “Museums Change Lives” must be the shortest vision statement ever developed, yet so powerful. What motivated the MA to embrace such a provocative vision?
SH: I don’t think it is that provocative! Museums historically have had a social role. Many of their early creators saw the potential for museums to be transformative and to play a social role with the public and with audiences. But I do agree that the statement is there to challenge the sector as well. I think a lot of museums are doing this sort of life changing work around social impacts that we’ve described in our campaign. It’s always good for any organization to have a succinct vision and one that people can remember - something that’s easily encapsulated in a few words so that you know who your audience is and you know what you’re trying to achieve. That is the short, snappy vision. The depth comes from the principles that are attached to it: the idea that museums can help create better places, enhance health and wellbeing, and inspire people and ideas. It shows that underneath it there is a whole host of positive things that museums can do for and with communities.
LH: The MA states that “museums, however they are funded and whatever their subject matter, can support positive social change.” We are certainly starting to witness museums making that shift. How can we encourage others to do the same? How can museums find ways of maximizing their social impact?
SH: I think there has been a shift over the past few years, internationally, with museums recognizing and celebrating the positive role they can play in society. “Museums Change Lives” has been translated into a number of languages. Internationally, a lot of people are saying that this really strikes a chord with the type of practices that they’re engaging with at the moment. There is a move in that direction. It’s very encouraging and positive that museums around the globe are looking at what their role is, examining their reason, their purpose, why they exist. A lot of Western European countries [are experiencing] very challenging times economically. It’s a good time to have a look at why museums are there. Funders are looking at museums and wondering why they’re funding them.
At the American Alliance of Museums Conference, the MA ran a session to share practice, and we’ve been on the road in the UK talking to our members, people who work in museums and galleries and to funders, politicians, and stakeholders about Museums Change Lives and social impact. That’s one of the ways we’re trying to encourage other museums to do the same. As a member organization, we have members’ meetings throughout the UK where we invite all of our members to come along. We’ve also run workshops and had meetings with funders, stakeholders, and politicians to ensure they hear the case about what museums are already doing and their potential to do more. On our website we have examples of museums working in this area to inspire others, and to show range of size and scale of museums doing this work. It’s not just the usual suspects – there are a few at the forefront of this type of work where you hear case studies. There’s a whole host of museums who do this work because they’re really connected to their communities and they believe in the value of what they are doing.
With museums, for them to maximize their social impact, it’s about talking to and listening to what their local communities want and need. Those conversations are key. Working with other organizations outside of the museum sector, charities and third sector organizations is important because they’re often the experts in the fields that museums want to work with. If museums wanted to work with people who have dementia or with their caregivers, then working with charities in that field will be a really good partnership and way of maximizing impact in that area and sharing practice and making sure that you’re working to the best of your capacity.  There’s no need to fear this type of work. You just have to start somewhere. You just have to begin those conversations. Begin with identifying need and talking to local communities.
LH: One of the principles of Museums Change Lives is that audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge. Can you provide examples of this dual role and how their insights and expertise can affect how other visitors experience the museum?
SH: I think there are some really great examples of this type of work out there. This type of practice becoming more and more common: for example, a town museum in Yorkshire, Experience Barnsley[i], has done a lot of collaborative work with community because it started with very little in [the] way of a collection. They had to go out to communities to create their entire museum. They asked for objects and stories, and worked in a very collaborative way with their local community. The whole museum came out of that, and it’s a really glorious museum as a result.
One of the exhibitions that recently came out of their community links was the Women Against Pit Closures Exhibition, marking the anniversary of the miners’ strike in the UK last year. They worked with women who were involved in the campaign against pit closures, and they were fully involved in the creation of the exhibition. There are lots of lovely stories about women finding the trade union banners in their loft and finding the leaflets they used and the campaigning material, and they added their own stories and knowledge to the exhibition. The impact that had on the town was that it helped the younger generation, who had no memory of the strike and the role that women played in particular, understand the impact of that strike and the destruction of a local industry. This was a great example of how co-curation can lead to benefits with new audiences and into intergenerational learning. 
St Fagans National History Museum[ii] in Wales has done brilliant community work, and has a long track record of working with communities and co-curating. Its Refugee House Project[iii], worked with asylum seekers to recreate the conditions they were living in. This led to new knowledge for the museum and new relationships for that community, but also tackled some difficult issues for visitors, and confronted prejudice and stereotypes. It really was a challenging exhibition that dealt with some of those contemporary issues that museums are capable of dealing with if they’re brave enough to take them on.
Lucie Heins
Assistant Curator for Western Canadian History
Royal Alberta Museum

Check back in the following weeks to read the rest of Sharon’s interview, as well as an interview with Saturday`s keynote, Mark Holmgren, CEO, the Bissell Centre.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.