Big themes for 2010

By: Dr Lynda Kelly, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 20 Nov 2009

As the Museum goes into the next stage of corporate planning what are the big themes we need to consider?

Our Director, Frank Howarth, has circulated a series of thought-starters for us to consider as we into the next stage of corporate planning. Here's Frank's list of big themes (in no particular order) with an associated thought-starter.

1. Increasing the accessibility of the Museum and its programs

Frank's questions: How do we make our Museum as accessible as possible to all visitors, regardless of their ability? How are we equitable in giving access? How do we ensure that we always think about equity of accessibility as we do things?

Thought starter: Making Museums More Accessible: report on Conference Day in Barcelona "How can we help blind people see art? Is there a way for people with impaired hearing to hear the power of artistic expression? How can we enable a person with a mental disability get the most out of art? In short, how can we improve access to museums and exhibitions for everyone? These and many more issues were the subject of a very intense Conference Day on 26 October in Barcelona."

My comment: people with disabilities are a key audience for museums. Our research found that while access was a key issue it was actually the content and social experiences that were the major drivers of visitation fo this segment. As Frank points out, mental health issues will be a major social issue over the next 10-20 years - how will museums respond??

2. Pushing the digital envelope: doing more in the virtual world

Frank's questions: How do we move fast and creatively enough in this rapidly developing world? How do we continue to see the virtual as part of our real business, not just an add on? How do we lead in areas of social media and for Museum users who exist and connect more and more in the virtual world?

Thought starter: Five rules for museum content (via Amsterdam), Seb Chan

My comment: We need to embrace the concept of write once, publish broadly, across a wide range of mediums. We need to find ways to streamline our jobs and and make the task of engaging audiences in inspiring ways wherever they are easy and efficient (and fun!). Web 2.0 is the tool that is now enabling serious discussions about organisational change.

3. Partnerships: more leverage and influence

Frank's questions: How can we gain in effectiveness and impact through partnerships and collaborations? How do we build useful collaborations in all areas of the Museum’s endeavours? What makes up a successful collaboration?

Thought starter: The Physiology of collaboration an investigation of library-museum-university partnerships, Miguel Angel Morales Arroyo, B.S., M.S., a study into how much we really know about collaboration.

My comment: Sorry, but I'm gonna be negative here. Unless the museum sector in Australia takes collaboration seriously we 're unlikely to get anwhere and I don't see it happening much in our industry (or else is a very slow and frustrating process). Is that just my jaded cynical brain at work here?

4. Linking cultural collections and communities

Frank's questions: How do we continue to build our connections with creator and other communities? How do we ensure our cultural collections make a difference? How do we get communities involved in the Museum?

Thought starter: The Museum of Anthropology's Native Youth Program (NYP) was introduced in 1979, it was the first such initiative to offer Native youth the opportunity to research and interpret their own cultures in a museum setting. [LK Note: this was all I could find online which is frsutrating if the program is so good...]

My comment: We did a large study with Indigenous youth which found that they want what all audiences want (which I have already blogged about here) with the addition of being able to work in our museums, whether on the front desk, in the galleries or in the collections interpreting them from a young person's perspective. Are we willing to accomodate this??

5. Increasing our advocacy: taking a stance on things that matter

Frank's questions: How do we better harness the trust people have in museums? How do we decide what to make a stand about and what not to? Where is the line between objective comment and political activism?

Thought starter: Museum Advocacy and the Law, Walter G. Lehmann, Lehmann Strobel PLC [scroll down the page a bit for this report]

My comment: This is a perennial debate in our sector and often used by museums as an excuse to do nothing as we need to be seen to be "impartial" or something along those lines. What is the balance between taking a stance and being the "honest broker"? What is the role of authority? There's a nice article by Dan Spock about this in the current edition of the Exhibitionist which I talked about here.

6. Getting more creative and lateral with what we call “exhibitions”

Frank's questions: What will “exhibitions” look like in five years? What is the most creative and effective 21stC approach we could take to exhibitions? How are we most creative and lateral with exhibitions?

Thought starter: Report of a discussion on The Business of Design at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, Agelina Russo.

My comment: Couldn't agree more with this theme - let's ban the word "exhibition"! (just joking Michael...) However, we need to develop an innovative and creative organisational culture that allows risk taking and celebrates failures. There is a really interesting piece, again in the current Exhibitionist, that discusses creativity with some choice quotes:

Michale Lane "I still believe that museums can kill creativity and I believe that is because we take oursevles much too seriously" and " [the facilitator said] the importance of an organisational structure that separates creativity from execution" (not sure I agree with that one!).

Matt Matcuk "We can't assume that creativity will just be an inherent part of the exhibition process that needs no special time devoted to it"

7. Getting more commercial without jeopardising our brand or values

Frank's questions: How can we do it best? How do we raise money while doing the things the Museum does best? How do we develop a culture of taking care of our own financial destiny?

Thought starter: International strategy for V&A Enterprises (scroll down the page a bit) - "The sense of 'world vision' inspired by the V&A, and by the wealth of its collections, is of central commercial importance to VAE."

My comment: To be honest - the money issue both bores and worries me. I perfectly understand the need to be more commercial and financially savvy/viable but I worry that it will be at the expense of what we're here for (in public programs at least) - to create fantastic social learning experiences for visitors that inspire the exploration of nature and cultures. I believe if we stick to the sentiment of this, then the money will follow (but then again I might be totally off the mark!). I think this warrants further discussion - we must be able to establish a happy medium.

8. Towards new approaches to cataloguing and understanding our biodiversity

Frank's questions: Many people are motivated to save the natural world. How do we harness that? How do we get the broader community involved in our research, collections and public programs?

Thought starter: Biodiversity: Amateur Biologists Join Global Bid to Catalog Species Report about the Encyclopedia of Life project

My comment: While money bores me, citizen science excites me - let's go for it! Visitors have long been wanting to engage with museums in a two-way conversation, and biodiversity provides the perfect vehicle for engagement, especially now as the web makes it even easier. The Centre for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) have released a report on "citizen science" which is well worth a read too.

9. Doing the things that are important and have impact, and stopping those that don’t

Frank's questions: How do we decide what to increase and build and what to reduce or stop? How do we alter what we do to respond to rapidly changing external priorities? How do we make these decisions for all parts of the Museum?

Thought starter: From the Corporate Plan of the NMSI - "Whilst ultimately we want to achieve maximum impact and benefit the largest audience we can, it is recognised that along the way we may need to work with smaller numbers if we are to reach new and diverse audiences and experiment with the creativity of our offer. However, such work must ultimately lead to an improved impact of experience for larger audiences. Likewise we must assess the value of investment in work which reaches larger audiences but which does not have a high impact on these audiences." They have a nice diagram which you will find in their plan somewhere.

My comment: I actually have no comment to make here but to agree, and say that let's then get serious about this. It will require a change in thinking and a change in organisational structure to demonstrate that we are taking this seriously.


Lynda Kelly - 7.12 AM, 13 December 2009

Thanks for your comment Des. I have posted that link on to our COP page  under comments. As for what the Museum is doing I can tell you that I'm involved in a large ARC grant looking at roles of museums in climate change. To date we have undertaken a huge amount of audience research and are in th proces of analysing and seeing what that means for our public programming. I'll be adding more information about that on our website in the next few days.

Des Griffin - 8.12 AM, 11 December 2009

On my website I have posted a blog drawing attention to a document compiled by Brett Parris of MOnash Uiversity who is chief economist for World Vision Australia. I have cross posted the comment at Museum 3.0 and MANexus.

Parris’ full document addresses 21 common objections to the arguments put forward in support of the proposition that global climate change is occurring and that it is due to activity of humans, principally through industrialization and the emissions of CO2. From my reading of documents at and other articles and presentations I would conclude that Parris’ document is as good a summary of the arguments and the evidence and an excellent refutation of the claims of others as I have seen.

My post addresses item 5 in the list of "Big Themes for 2010", advocacy. I ask what the Museum is doing about this issue. Lynda Kelly has commenced a forum over at Museum 3.0 relating to the COP15 meetings in Copenhagen.

Everyone at the Australian Museum surely knows that climate change is considered by many people to be the major issue facing us at this time. Consider the effect on major ecosystems of special interest, coral reefs and rainforests. Countries such as Indonesia may be called upon through trading of carbon credits to cease clearing of rainforests. This activity, often so that Palm Oil plantations can be created, has led to wonderful primates such as Orangutans and Gibbons becoming endangered.

Sophie Lieberman - 8.11 AM, 25 November 2009

Thanks Lynda -

Your point about a deeper relationship is challenging - also very exciting.

Working on projects that rely on partnership but categorised as 'outreach' I have been contemplating what terminology I can use that more fully reflects the equal contributions from both parties that partnerships and inclusion engender.

"Outreach" [engaging with audiences/ communities beyond College street] as a practice is vital to our mission but its value and its sustainability are reliant upon something that goes beyond the 'centre' reaching out (and only breifly) to the 'periphery'. It is a term loaded with concepts of authority that do no one any real it is expensive, resource heavy and mostly has little legacy  - a circus coming to town and leaving.

We need to be more than a travelling circus when we program  - and we ARE in a lot of our programs but we don't have a terminology that reflects this and so pushing beyond 'outreach' is complicated and difficult.

A challenge for friday = what language can we use to help us shift our practice to better reflect the rich contributions from all parties when we work with others....?


Lynda Kelly - 6.11 AM, 25 November 2009

Thanks for your comments Sophie. I think the points you raise regarding accessibility and social inclusion are really valid. The UK work is interesting as it was a government initiative of the time - I'm wondering whether museums would have taken this issue on if not for that? Anyway, Richard Sandell has written about social inclusion programs in both his 2002 and 2007 books.

As I mentioned in my comments about the Indigenous Youth project, people from different backgrounds often want to have a 'deeper' relationship with museums beyond 'just' visiting them and I'm wondering if these types of programs we're talking about promote that aspect of inclusion also? Either way, I think we have great challenges ahead of us.

Sophie Lieberman - 1.11 PM, 24 November 2009

Hi Lynda,

I am really looking forward to Friday and reading the above I have a question I think we should explore: Accessibility or Inclusion? 

I strongly believe that when we talk about accessibility we need to expand our understanding of who we are providing access to the Museum  for beyond those with physical and mental impairment to include those groups that are socially/culturally/economically dis-abled and therefore “handicapped” in their ability to choose participate (or not) in the cultural sphere.
To do this I think we need to replace ‘accessibility’ with ‘inclusion’ to most fully achieve our mission of inspiring the exploration of nature and cultures.  
Australian cultural institutions are not great at social inclusion – a subject that has been embraced widely in the UK and Canada and at the state level in the US. A few interesting  examples of this are:
The metropolitan museum’s work with Alzheimer’s patients which was recently trialled at the AGNSW.
Elaine Gurians work on the Museum as a Soup Kitchen
The Canadian model of looking at Social Capital in Action
This year the science communication unit developed a relationship with a social services provider to trial Museum Morning Tea’s a parenting literacy program providing access to our wonderfully rich programs for under 5’s to homeless young parents and their children. Based on the Science Morning Teas project by Scitech and Museum Victoria, this provided multiple insights into how we can use our existing cultural and social capital to provide ‘services’/access/inclusion - in the form of a personally meaningful (cultural) experience - to the socially excluded (or dis-abled).
The benefits of MMT’s  to the Museum included (but were not limited to)
Engagement of new audiences
Investment in potential future audience and partnerships
Widening of our understanding of our role as advocates = a form of institutional empowerment
Fulfilment of our mission = inspiring the discovery of nature and cultures
Powerful demonstration of our vales as a site and source of social capital
Grant funding
In 2000 the GLAMM report on Museums and Social Inclusion listed the benefits to institutions as: Increased self esteem, partnerships and funding – or, in terms of Franks challenges for us for 2010:
Partnerships: more leverage and influence; Linking cultural collections and communities; and, Increasing advocacy: taking a stance on things that matter. It behoves us to explore social inclusion as framework for who we are and what we do: it has the capacity to be a powerful tool in the exploration of nature and cultures for all our audiences regardless of their ‘ability’.
What do you think?

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