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.


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