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. 


Thursday, 2 July 2015

Six Steps to Community Engagement

By Christine Moreland, Ontario Museum Association

The Ontario Museum Association has just released Engaging your Community: A Toolkit for Museums (EYC). This free toolkit outlines a six step process for museums to work with their communities to assess institutional relevance and create a plan to deepen the museum’s relationship with its community, in turn increasing the sustainability of the museum. The intended outcomes are to:

  • Provide your museum with a process to deepen your understanding of what community engagement means to you; 
  • Examine, evaluate, and articulate your current relationship with and role in your community; 
  • Explore how community engagement can be part of planning and delivery, at all levels and in all aspects of the museum.

Who can use it?

Anyone! One of the main goals during the development of the toolkit was to make it user-friendly. The toolkit includes instructions and activities that we hope are straightforward and accessible for museums of all sizes.

This year, the Ontario Museum Association will assist four museums in completing the Engaging your Community process. Participating organizations will write case studies on their experiences to share their learnings with the wider museum sector.

Are you ready to Engage your Community?

Read or Download the Toolkit

Want to learn more?

Join us at the AMA Conference for a pre-conference workshop to test drive some of the toolkit activities:

Thursday, September 17

10:00 am to 3:00 pm
Lunch and refreshments provided. 
Registration required.

Engaging your Community: A Toolkit for Museums is an initiative of the museumsuccession project, funded by the Trillium Foundation, an agency of the Government of Ontario. The toolkit was adapted from The Learning Coalition’s Building Responsive Museums (2009) by Tamarack, Institute for Community Engagement, and the Ontario Museum Association.