Dissent: Museums Association Conference in Belfast

I’ve just got back from 5 days staying in Belfast for the excellent dissent-filled Museums Association Conference 2018. It was my first visit to the city, and indeed to Northern Ireland, and it has, just as its title suggested, inspired both hope and change on a personal as well as professional level.

I would like to say a huge thank you to the Museums Association for awarding me a Trevor Walden bursary (to Sarah Briggs for drawing my attention to this, and Tamsin Russell for organising it), which enabled my attendance. It seems fitting to read about Trevor Walden himself, a man who, amongst various accolades was instrumental in establishing my alma mater, the School of Museum Studies in Leicester while running the museums service there. I would also like to thank everyone at the Museums Association – its staff and team of volunteers – and the helpful, friendly and patient staff at the Belfast Waterfront Hall– for their hard work, and of course thanks too to all speakers and fellow dissenting delegates.

Belfast. What a city for a conference on the theme of dissent! Roisin Higgins, our conference host, introduced Belfast as a place that ‘breaks your heart’ – but also as a place of ‘creativity, joy and courage’. In my short time there, I found all of this (and much more).

Here, in no particular order, are some of my initial reflections: on the city, on dissent, on the conference, on my learning, and on my hopes for the future.

Welcome to the conference in hall

MA Conference 2018: Welcome

Belfast: City of culture 

Staying at the Easyhotel was a great find, as its helpful manager, passionate advocate of the city, Kevin, used to be Head of HLF for NI (!) and was full of tips, perfect for a museum geek. As well as a packed conference timetable, I also used my time in Belfast (Weds-Sun) to actually get to know the city a bit. I really had no idea what I’d find – no idea that the city was surrounded by beautiful purple hills and rocky outcrops. Even in what felt like the bleakest parts of city, the countryside – and freedom – beyond, was very present.

Expressions of ‘creativity, joy and courage’ were all over the place in Belfast’s museums: in the Linen Hall Library where I had lunch on my first day, I got my first taste of political posters; at the stunning City Hall where we had a lovely drinks reception courtesy of the city of Belfast (and which would definitely be worth a longer visit next time as it houses a museum of the history of the city); at the Ulster Museum and its open-ended Troubles Gallery, and crowd-pulling Dippy exhibition; on the brilliant organised tours to the Crumlin Road Gaol with superb guide Terry sharing his knowledge with just the right balance of humour and trigger warnings prior to discomforting experiences (something that did not happen in a later conference session on medical collections and babies in jars which I found incredibly difficult to be confronted with, with no warning); at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum with piglets and donkeys and a packed event for miniature railway enthusiasts; at the Titanic Experience – but equally on board its tender SS Nomadic and in the actual stunning drawing offices of Harland and Wolff (now the lovely bar of the Titanic Hotel – thanks to Kevin’s recommendation!). Just listing all this is making me a bit dizzy – and giving me good reason as to why it was so tiring. I clocked 25.3 miles of walking. And this doesn’t include the miles of thinking and voice worn out from talking to lovely colleagues and friends old and new…

The conference was framed with the brilliant Rita Ann Higgins (on CryinAir, Belfast being ‘clean and posh’, and on guilt in Irish) and Glenn Patterson (‘up your hole’): I love the way the conference involves people from outside the sector – more of this!

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Belfast: City of fragility

On the Wednesday, I started my time in the city with a (non conference organised) political walking tour of West Belfast. Beginning at the bottom of the Falls Road at Divis Tower, site of the death of the first child to be killed in the Troubles, we were led by former IRA member Jack. (Divis is named after a mountain, but, I reflected it could also stand for ‘division’, even now alas…) It is not every day that you meet someone from the IRA, and it was incredible to hear his perspectives. He focussed particularly on the roots of the Troubles in the civil rights movements of 1960s and as a campaign for social justice. He was also very keen to tell us that it wasn’t simply a Catholic v. Protestant thing. This part of the tour culminated in seeing Bobby Sands’ mural (whose story apparently was the first news story to ever capture my attention as a 3 year old in 1981, wondering if he’d eaten yet), and then a walk past the ‘peace wall’ – an oxymoron if ever there was one, with mesh barricades and cages over people’s gardens. I just had no idea.

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We then met the second guide, a staunch Unionist, Mark, at the gate between the two communities, which still locks at 7pm every night. I asked Jack how the tour worked, whether he and Mark were friends… No. They were professional colleagues who said hello to each other – but basically, that was that. No crossing into each other’s spaces. So then Mark showed us the sadly neglected areas off the Shankill Road. Unlike Jack, he did speak of the situation in terms of Protestant and Catholic. And we walked along the road itself, to the site of the bombing of Frizzell’s Fish and Chip shop in 1993. The poppies, the images of the Queen, the (violent) murals. I felt weirdly much more uneasy in this area, especially after seeing a memorial with text panels and propaganda demonising Jeremy Corbin, horrific images of bodies… It is all so fragile, so complicated – and so neglected by the British media and in our own education system. The whole thing left me feeling a complete sense of ignorance, of not knowing, and being let down because it is not taught. And because who knows what will happen with Brexit. Fragility.

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Dissent

So to the actual conference itself. I recently wrote a blog post about being defiant. And I think that the idea of dissent shares some similarities – perhaps too with what Sara Ahmed calls ‘willfulness’. There is something necessary about being willing to dissent – to be opposed to the prevailing idea – for democracy, and because usually this is connected with unequal hierarchies of power: inequality. But when does a dissenter become a dissident? A question for us all, but absolutely central being in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, amidst all the turmoil of the Troubles. And what happens when dissent does not bring about the radical change it aimed to do? Or when everyone is dissenting but in different ways without a unified cause – or with ‘opposite’ causes? Or with violent ones? The idea of how we tolerate the intolerant is bound up in all this, and was a strong theme throughout the conference. How do we include people that we hate and fear within our spaces? Should we?

Three dissenters were there throughout the conference: Elaine Heumann Gurian, Paddy Gilmore and Sara Wajid. (I’d met Elaine some years before, and was reminded of one of my Leicester PhD colleagues from Germany telling her then that she was ‘so old’ (she’s inspirational at 81!) – meaning to reflect that she was ‘so experienced’, but it got lost in translation and made us all, including Elaine, laugh a lot!). Elaine situated herself as a German Jew from America, completely unprepared for the horrors of Trump. Strangers seeing each other in public places is, for her, the bedrock of peace. Paddy, in NI, talked about needing to know one’s values – and moral core, and that it takes courage to say when you dissent. Sara talked of her experiences at BMAG, bought in as ‘commissioned dissent’: it is hard to make change as an insider, but that so often people are brought in to make change when an organisation is not ready or willing to be changed. Can a museum ever be decolonised? How can we provide positive conditions for provocation? ‘Dissenters generally don’t get sent to conferences’, was one of Sara’s comments that has stuck with me: it is a rare thing to have power to actually effect change…

Festival of Change

I completely loved the Festival of Change (although it is still positioned at the peripheries of the conference, and I’m not sure about this… Museum as Muck, the Vagina Museum, the Museum of Dissent, the Museum of Femininity – perhaps all of these could/should have had a central stage – although I also really like the fact that they don’t – that they are just there and in everyone’s face…) But as well as loving the Festival of Change, it left me very uncomfortable. Discombobulated. And it left me reflecting that actually this is the very best state I could have left in: because it is when we feel uncomfortable about a thing that we need to do something about it. Dissent. I don’t identify as working class, but the Supermuckers’ (@museumsasmuck) shop and jobs board sticks in my head and left me with lots of questions about class and injustice and privilege and entitlement, that are very difficult. I left pledging to tell people about their work, to donate to Arts Emergency, and to ensuring that class and inclusive practice is absolutely part of volunteering, recruitment, and board processes. And I came across something to read: the Panic Report. At the Museum of Dissent, where only the curator was allowed to impart the actual ‘factual information’, we looked at the challenges of (teacup) labelling in a ‘reverse’ anthropology – where ‘the accompanying tealeaves are of particular importance to the natives of the isles and cause the nation to be at a constant tipping point’ with civil unrest between the PG and the Yorkshire clans (!); at the Museum of Feminity there were sensory exhibits with instructions: touch me, smell me, insert me, taste me… at which I learnt more about how to do a breast examination than I ever knew before (using a commonplace silicone boob used in USA schools), that contemporary smelling salts are not to be inhaled deeply, and suggested an addition of a moon cup to the collection; at the Vagina Museum I struggled to label all the parts of a clitoris and loved the (b)unting. This could definitely be a new festival line. In fact, the whole conference did feel like a festival: that mixture of there always being something to do, while there’s also something else equally exciting that you could be doing.

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Museums are not neutral

And neutrality is not neutral anyway. I don’t have the t-shirt, but there is one, and it is doing a roaring trade. I loved Laura Raicovich’s keynote on this theme: in particular that she’d resigned from her post as Director of the Queens’ Museumin the most diverse area of New York because of frictions between her inclusive values and those of the board of trustees. Taking inspiration including from liberation theology, and other civil movements, she talked about Art Space Sanctuary– a place for us to declare our spaces as sanctuaries and safe public spaces for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, immigration status, sexuality, religion, politics etc. And yes, this is absolutely right and positive and good. But again there was that question: who decides what is or is not appropriate? Where is the boundary between promoting a set of values (of inclusion), but including those whose voices we don’t agree with too? How can we be political but not partisan? I’m not sure I have the answer to this yet (and maybe if anyone did, the world would be a whole lot more peaceful). And just as museums are not neutral – neither are we… So we have to take a stand.

Knowing your values

I think for me, thinking about, and trying to define my own values has been the strongest and most important thing to come out of the whole conference. I was lucky to have been allocated a coaching slot as part of the careers development element, and spent a very useful, hopeful and change-making hour with coach Louise Emerson from Take the Current. So I was already immersed in thinking about what makes me tick (and what I want to make me tick) when I went to Janneke Geene’s hosted session, led by gurus Hilary Carty, Richard Sandell and John Orna-Ornstein, on ‘values-led practice in troubled times’. Janneke began with a comment that our work is (and has to be) an expression of our values. Having recently left a job because of this, this was a deeply moving and important session.

Hilary began by listing her values – bish bash bosh – as easy as that! (Except I’m sure it was not easy.) For her, to be true to herself is about 1) integrity, 2) generosity and 3) curiosity. Those are her key values, from which all else arises – mingled in with the need for self-care. If we are going to challenge things, we need to look after ourselves along the way. Yes. Richard and John then talked about the Prejudice and Pride project – how Richard participated in Exeter Pride with the National Trust’s rainbow banner, with all the spectators saying ‘OMG it’s the National Trust’! The Kingston Lacey project came post-Felbrigg and culminated in a debacle over whether or not the rainbow flag could be flown from the rooftops in Dorset. I completely admired the absolute honesty of the speakers in this session: opening themselves up to really talk about how it was for them in such a generous and trusting way.

I’ve been thinking about what I value ever since, and have the beginnings of a long list – but it needs rethinking and refining, and probably turning into a useful ‘bish bash bosh’ checklist. At the moment, and in no particular order, it is something like this:

  • Imagination and curiosity
  • Not knowing– humility, letting go, and opening up
  • Courage – to speak out, take risks, make change
  • Giving – generosity, being kind and caring for people and planet
  • Inclusion– connecting, reaching out, welcoming in, sharing
  • Equality and justice– for people and for the planet
  • Body/mind/spirit– materialities, embodiment, senses, emotions
  • Doing and thinking– research and practice as intertwined

One other thing I have done post conference is to write a list of all the people I had conversations with, the people I didn’t have conversations with but wanted to, and the people I want to send follow-up emails to as a result. I love networking. Writing a list though is something I haven’t done before. It took a while but I think will be useful. (The app was brilliant, including for this).

Engagement

There were lots of sessions that dealt with amazing community projects as always, but here I’ll just look at what engagement looks like in the digital realm. Martin Grimes, my former colleague and web manager at Manchester Art Gallery kicked off thinking in this vein with his open and honest talk about #nymphgate, and how the gallery simply wasn’t ready for the storm post Guardian articles following the arranged feminist take down of Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs by artist Sonia Boyce. He started with an image very familiar to me from the Mary Greg project back in 2008. But rather than talk about this project as having been a good way of engaging people (which is the language I usually use, as it opened up the stores for rummaging by members of the public), he used it to talk about its digital presence in a more negative way: basically one of broadcast, rather than engagement. The old problem of didactic learning rather than any other sort of constructed and open ended learning. We are, he said, on the whole, pretty good at engaging with people within our museum spaces; this is what learning teams do brilliantly. But this is still not so in the digital world. Often people dealing with social media have nothing to do with the learning team. Not quite hiding under their desks, Martin described how the team at MAG ‘lost control of the message’ and by the end were ‘not even sure what the message was’ (interestingly this debacle coincided with a lack of director, and an absent deputy director). PhD student Maria Arias then talked about how she’d been able to keep track of these Twitter conversations for her PhD research using free software TAGS, a very useful practical piece of advice. The discussion post-session was one of the most lively and honest in the conference. The closing comments by one delegate was that the whole scandal was nothing to do with the content, but it was about a pattern of voicelessness in the world. People in the current climate do not feel they are heard, but they do have a voice and so shout on social media. How do we as museums deal with this – giving space and a voice?

Opening up and letting go

The session on digital engagement was followed by absolute unit legend Adam Koszary from the MERL and his now infamous big sheep, soon followed by chicken in trousers – see his write-up here. Again, Adam talked about the distinction between broadcasting to people, and actually engaging people online. For me, the key to his presentation though was around knowledge of the collection. In order to open up the collection, to let go of it for people to engage on their own terms (which surely is what we all want – and what, had I been to the session on Collections 2030, I might have heard more about – alas a regrettable clash), we do still need to know our stuff. Don’t just put a picture up and tell people what’s in it, but make stories, embrace experimentation, allow people to take it and do as they will, grounded in what is there. Social media can only be used for debate, dissent and dialogue when it is treated as an engagement tool, not as a marketing tool. Yes. Social media should not just be done by marketing (unless they are skilled in communications and engaging with all audiences). It reminded me of the debates raging almost 20 years ago about digital in museums: ‘digital is not a department’ – everyone needs to embrace it. No department is a silo. Twitter at the MERL works because they know their stuff and engage people with it, with good humour as a way in. (Incidentally, I’m loving this week’s cock-related liaisons avec Le Louvre).

I enjoyed hearing Chris Rolls talking about his project 64 million artists. Everyone is creative.  An office of just 3 staff members had the task to develop digital resources for everyone to develop their own creativity. These can be found on DOTHINKSHARE. Interestingly, I think this was the only time during the conference that I heard ‘by, with, for’ (almost the ‘ofbyfor’of Nina Simon). And it was chaired by Ross Parry who is always generous and worth hearing as much for presentation/chairing style tips. But there were questions: yes, we can let go and give things over to online publics, but is the digital ever really democratic, when so many people do not have it or use it?

Mendoza

It is a year since I read and wrote a blog on the Mendoza Review on my way to the 2017 conference in Manchester. So it was interesting to be in a room – a very ‘top heavy’ room (with some comments that made me squirm and feel that there’s such disparity even within the sector – its ‘elite’ versus its own ‘muck’), with Neil Mendoza, Ian Blatchford and Laura Pye, sharing their thinking a year on. One positive discussed, was that the ‘HLF/ACE peace agreement’ had been signed. But Laura Pye said it as it is: recognising that the panel was not a diverse/representative one, and that the report did not do enough. That there is a crisis in the sector: funding, diversity, collections management and relevance. She talked particularly about funding. Her view was to support a mixed model of funding – including introducing a tourist tax – £1 per night per room would generate more money for culture than the whole current culture budget. Another pot would be the ‘cultural development fund’ – which would stop local authorities making a choice between health and culture for example. Sounds like a good idea. There’s a huge difference, she pointed out, between just surviving (as per Mendoza) and really thriving (as per the good old days of Renaissance). All panel members talked about the need to better articulate what it is we do – but particularly the difference that we make. And so it continues…

Hopes

Elaine ended the conference by saying she wants museums ‘to be forces for peace’. Maybe this is why we are all in it. Seeing people’s humanity is the first step in forgiveness. Vital in a city like Belfast. And this made me glad that I’d started the conference off by meeting and listening to Jack the republican and Mark the unionist in West Belfast. My hope is that one day they will go for a pint together.

If you’ve got to the end of this, well done! And thank you again to the Museums Association for supporting me to attend a brilliant conference.

All the world’s a stage…

I’ve been thinking about theatre and performance quite a lot recently.

At the end of September, I was asked to facilitate three days of workshops at Chatsworth for the University of Sheffield by Professor of English, Jane Hodson. Three of her PhD students, now in their third year, are doing AHRC White Rose collaborative doctoral awards there: Hannah Wallace, Lauren Butler, and Fiona Clapperton. These three have been researching the lives of servants on the Chatsworth Estate in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, by delving into largely untapped archives, finding amazing bundles of letters, exploring other found items, meeting with relatives, and wandering through the estate in search of its former inhabitants. Their exciting work has even been featured in national newspapers and on the BBC. They have uncovered some truly wonderful lives and stories as yet untold.

Photo of Chatsworth House

Chatsworth

Amongst other aims, the research project seeks to rethink interpretation in country houses by focusing on the whole life of its servants as they go about their daily business in the landscape, and not defining them just by role, as has happened in so much ‘upstairs downstairs’ research. My facilitator role over the three days was to work together creatively with these researchers, with other collaborators from the University of Sheffield including computer scientists, Dr Mark Stevenson and Dr Steve Maddock and theatre academic Professor Frances Babbage, and with staff from across most of the departments at Chatsworth (including collections, exhibitions, engagement, development, archives, interpretation, visitor services) to explore ways to make the research engaging and accessible for Chatsworth’s visitors – particularly those just walking through the landscape. Add into the rich mix the outdoor promenade performance company, Burn the Curtain, and a really exciting set of ideas emerged from the participants during the three days. Not least, and inspired by comments from Chatsworth colleagues, we talked a great deal about the house and its grounds and its staff as performative in and of themselves. Perhaps more on that another time.

Creative workshop using objects

Using the Object Dialogue Box to facilitate ideas
Exploring the archives

Fiona, Lauren and Hannah exploring the archives at Chatsworth

It was certainly a wonderful opportunity to work closely with theatre professionals, Joe Hancock and Fiona Fraser-Smith, to explore what we might mean by place as performance by hearing more about their place-based work. One thing I’ve been pondering ever since, was a comment raised by Frances Babbage. She talked eloquently about the paradox that is performance. As audience, we are both utterly there, in it, immersed within the action on the stage, part of the story. Yet we are also at the same time completely aware that we are not and cannot be there. That we are inhabiting our bodies. Sitting on a seat. In a theatre. (Or wherever). With other audience members. Worrying about shopping lists and dentist appointments and defrosting the dinner. But also that the whole performance is make believe and of another reality. Two worlds. And perhaps the worlds of the imagination and of fact/reality collide and are made stronger because of each other’s existence.

And by sheer coincidence, this piece of work and the ideas it generated have also happened at a time when I’ve been to various performances. Burn the Curtain were playing in Thetford Forest as part of the Forestry Commission’s Forest Art Works programme just a couple of weeks after the workshops. Joe and Fiona invited me along to see The Hunting of the Snark, based on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem – a quest through the woods to find the elusive snark. I went alone but was quickly snapped up to be given a suitcase to carry through the woods on the hunt. (We opened it halfway through to reveal some missing bloomers!) Audience numbers were about 100, and everyone had had to choose to identify with a particular group of characters before it started, each with its own characteristics and its own different objects as props: Baker’s cousins, Makers, Twitchers and Scribblers. I was a Baker’s Cousin. The performance took the form of a magical walk, a sensory immersion, encountering people and things – lots of fabulous objects (all beautifully crafted and environmentally friendly), projections, twinkly lights and mysterious sentences gathered along the way as we hunte. At times we split into our different groups, collecting different bits of evidence from new characters for the Captain (a strong female protagonist, I was delighted to see), eventually coming to a wonderful finale after we had walked for at least 3 miles in the dark. I was both immersed, but also wonderfully aware of other audience members, often chatting to them as we walked with wooden forks hanging round our necks, and jam jars full of provisions. I loved it.

People standing in a line, characters from the Hunting of the Snark

The Hunting of the Snark (image from Burn the Curtain)

Since then, I have seen two more plays: a performance about the life of Mary Shelley at the Maddermarket Theatre, and Rufus Norris’ NT production of Macbeth in Norwich. The blurring of truth and fiction, and boundaries between being there and not there were alive in each. For a start, I knew embarrassingly little about the life of Mary Shelley, of her radical parents – feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher father William Godwin, her tragic relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their familial connections with Lord Byron. So hers was a story exciting to learn. Facts. And with a stunning set reminiscent of Blickling’s book project that I’ve written about elsewhere. And with a haunting repetitive melody (think Mozart and Nine Inch Nails ‘Hurt’…) And with really good acting from the amateur cast. I loved it. And I learnt some new things about history and women and poetry and death and motherhood. But I was very aware of myself in the audience. Of it being a too small audience. And of knowing others in that audience. Whereas in Macbeth, I knew no one, but ended up irritated with the person sitting behind me for sniffling and rummaging about too much. And trying to ignore it only made me notice it more. But what a tale. What hideous characters. I’d forgotten how many people end up dead. Based on history, but again, the merger of fact and imagination, and being able to be there but not there. Performance. Is that what it all is?

‘Stealing with the eyes’

The title of this post is the title of the latest book by my friend Will Buckingham (with the subtitle ‘Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia’). I started reading it one night this week, and finished it the following day on train journeys to and from Cambridge. Quite a surreal way/place to read it, it turns out. I left the train at a point at which Will was on death’s door having refused an injection, and worried all day about what would happen to him. So it was a relief to get back on the train (after a day of Gormley, Tutankamun and Louise Bourgeois) to find out what happened next.

It is an absolute joy to read. It made me laugh out loud, cry, wonder, want to know more, want to go off to new places… All the things that a gripping – but real – book should be. I love it. It describes Will’s encounters in the 1990s – with people, sculptures, witches, octopuses, histories, insects, ancestors, weather, travellers, anthropologists, illnesses and medicines – I suppose really with life and death – in the remote Indonesian Tanimbar islands. Which I had never even heard of before I started this book.

But above all, it describes a growing concern with the (colonial?) activity of the anthropologist. The title ‘stealing with the eyes’ is a phrase used by one of the people Will meets, sculptor Matias Fatruan, from a place called Ruma Salut on the island of Sera, to describe what he sees outsiders doing when they come to ask questions, take photos, record conversations. How can an outsider ever understand the ways and lives of others, not least when they are entwined with the place, with the ancestors?

Anthropologists are not immune to fantasies of the exotic, even if anthropology has a hard time owning up to that fact… I, too, am guilty. And recognising the fact does not diminish my guilt. Perhaps it augments it. (Buckingham 2018, p.177)

It has made me think hard about my own research in India and my ambitions to return. Perhaps the only way to travel and to explore, is to do exactly that – to see what happens with no agenda? I’m not sure. There’s always bound to be a ‘failure’ in any sort of anthropological endeavour. But there’s still an absolute desire in me to go back and do some more exploring, meeting people, going to new places. But I think this is not because I think we can ever fully understand anything – but because we absolutely can *never* understand it. Going to an unfamiliar place is a way to recognise this. That we cannot know. We can just encounter things and see what happens. (And now am I sounding greedy, pretentious, privileged and like all of those distasteful things about anthropology…?)

Anyway, I highly recommend a read of Will’s book. I might have to read it again now. And think about new adventures.

The Word Defiant

In the LV at school (Year 9), I was somewhat rebellious. I still love my 13-year-old self. Part class clown needing attention, part provocateur needing to challenge authority. And perhaps because of this, I like the word ‘defiant’. I think teachers used it of me, with deliberate negative connotations. But I took it and owned it. I was defiant and I was proud of being so.

At about this time (actually I think it was the start of the MV/Y10), we read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in our English lessons with Mrs King. The impact of this book was transformative. That books were ordered to be burned in some kind of dystopian totalitarian state was quite possibly the most shocking thing I had ever read. It was the job of firemen to burn books. How on earth could that be? Until the fireman called Montag was defiant. People rebelled. They learnt the books off by heart. And it was reading this that made me realise that books – or the things in them – change the world, and that learning was the most important thing there is.

So, going to see brilliantly titled The Word Defiant at Blickling Hall had a fair bit to live up to. It’s part of the ACE funded Trust New Art scheme, designed to open and shake things up a bit for new audiences, and is on until 28 October 2018. Theatre Company, Les Enfants Terribles have been commissioned to respond to what is the National Trust’s largest book collection in one of their house libraries. The library is about to undergo a massive conservation programme, and this intervention highlights the plights of books – both their environmental destruction, but also contemporary issues around censorship, banning, destruction through war and violence, natural damage,and threat to books by digital technologies.

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From the hushed audio of Chinese people reciting Winnie the Pooh (who knew this book was banned in China?), to an overflowing bath representing a library in Venice where books are stored in baths to prevent flood damage, to a stunning newly opened up room in the cellars full of burnt books representing the ISIS destruction of the library in Mosul, Iraq, this is such a thought-provoking, challenging and captivating creative response – it brings the house alive. I will remember the house because of this: it will not get muddled into a sea of other National Trust properties with their expected walk through dining rooms, four-poster beds, comical loos, and kitchens downstairs.

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At the end of the house, the library awaits, its books spilling out of the shelves and onto the floor. Living? I love the way that the latter times I have visited, more interpretation has been added – as if to explain themselves to the visitors who don’t like this novel approach to story-telling and getting people to think.

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One of my favourite things about this exhibition is the very mixed visitor response. Downstairs, an interpretation room has brilliant creative tasks. A redaction table taking its cue from a morse coded installation in the kitchen corridor.

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A giant scroll for visitor conversations. It would be amazing to evaluate this. I’ve been to visit on three separate occasions, and alas, the grumpy comments of the traditional National Trust going visitors have always outweighed the positive ones. People seem to be quite irate that books have been used, that the house has been contaminated with an artistic intervention, that they can no longer contemplate the great works of art on the walls and rooms stuffed full of antique furniture. I’ve also enjoyed talking to the volunteers – again, with very mixed views. Some of them, I notice don’t even talk about it, but steer conversations onto the actual books in the actual library. I love this almost as much as I love the installation itself. Here are some of the nicer comments I saw:

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Extraordinarily, this is an intervention by a theatre company. Amongst many other things, it leaves me wondering where the boundary is between this and contemporary art. Let’s have more of this sort of thing. Shaking things up. Being defiant.

I think I need to read Fahrenheit 451 again.

States of flux

I am currently in a state of flux. An adventure awaits, journeys to places, pastures new. I’ve left one thing behind and am toying with several exciting ideas about what comes next, whilst trying to enjoy the moment as much as I can.

We are constantly learning. Only this week, I went on an amazing course on how to make Mud Resist Textiles, at Print to the People in Norwich. Our teacher was the fantastic Sevanti Roy, now living in Norwich, but formerly working in Jaipur for textile companies including Anokhi, FabIndia and East. She’s what a good teacher should be: inspiring, trusting and allowing people to get on and learn for themselves. It was brilliant. A bit hot and sweaty, but brilliant.

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My test piece, including laurel leaf, bobbin, lids, door knob and traditional printing block

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a lot of objects.  Things collected, found, bought, given. I took several of these along with me to see whether they would make interesting prints. I quite liked the combination of natural laurel leaf, plastic lids and door knob, bobbin and small Indian printing block (not for mud resist though, which needs to use bigger blocks with larger negative spaces). And circles were the theme of the day. I love the accidental seepage of indigo dye into mud, leaving a sort of marbled effect. I’m looking forward to making up the recipe for myself and experimenting with my laurel hedge… Is this the start of something?

It’s funny how links to India pop up all over the place. The weekend before, I had kindly been invited by colleagues from Norfolk Museums Service to participate in a visit by three international participants from National Museums on the British Museum’s ITP scheme to Blickling Hall, to see ‘The Word Defiant’ (my third visit to this wonderful intervention by theatre company Les Enfants Terribles – another blog post on that forthcoming). It’s a small world: one of the visitors, Suruchika, works at the National Museum in Delhi which is also home to the National Museum Institute where I’ve worked. Needless to say, we had several friends and colleagues in common, and again, an idea began to spark.

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Hoda Chiyeh (Lebanon), Suruchika Chawla (India), Yohana Rosales Frias (Philippines) – on the ITP scheme, visiting Blickling Hall

So, although I’m not quite sure what will be next, I’m making the most of opportunities to get out and about, meet new people, think new thoughts, learn new things, and dream: que sera sera.

 

What the strikes have taught me so far…

I had never been on a picket line until the USS strikes. It was a terrifying – and very lonely decision to take – to be on strike for 12 days (alas I was ill for the first 2 of the full 14). I took courage from friends and colleagues striking at other universities (especially @amy_ryall in Sheffield and @rotster in Leicester), but I had no idea what my own colleagues would think (and still don’t – I have been the only one striking from my department – the Sainsbury Centre at UEA).

I was consciously leaving piles of work behind (some of it already delayed due to large workload), at a time when I was already incredibly stressed and dealing with things at work beyond the remit of my contract. I was leaving unsupported the team I manage. I was not doing things – my own CPD for example – that ultimately would have left me better off. I was not communicating with colleagues on the management team, including my own line manager. I took striking, withdrawing my labour – not doing any work and consequently not being paid – very seriously. I did not check my work emails, or even use the time for ‘work-related’ research and writing. I have been completely on strike. And it has been stressful.

But as time has gone on, I have understood more and more why this has been important. More and more why this has been the single most significant thing I have done in my post, and beyond it. After years in universities (Birmingham, Cambridge, Leicester), as a student and now working in one (UEA), I couldn’t *not* have gone on strike. What was the point of all that education, of everything I have fought for up to this point, if I didn’t demonstrate and practice what I preach? Fairness and justice.

So – why? The strike began as a pension dispute about a change from a defined benefit system, to that of defined contribution, and a potential loss of £10k per year, or £200k in retirement. Money which is deferred payment for work already done and promised through our contracts, but that was effectively going to be taken from us. This affects worst those setting out in their careers, those on zero-hour AT contracts, those who are still students. Those whose current posts are precarious.

About six weeks ago, I had no idea what DB/DC really even meant, let alone all the other pension details I’ve learnt about, or at least come to recognise, so quickly. And then things began to unfold and crumble in front of us. Thanks to some fantastic academics and journalists, especially on Twitter (@DrJoGrady, @ProfAFinlayson, @JosephineCumbo, @mikeOtsuka, @jntod) things were unpicked very rapidly. The pension valuation was based on dodgy maths. We discovered that the process for voting to accept the valuation was undemocratic, and the number/type of people who had signed it all off was fudged. That Oxford and Cambridge colleges had been counted bizarrely and wrongly. That tiny institutions were part of USS and having the same weight as massive universities. We witnessed a farce on twitter late one night with regard to negotiating meetings with UUK not having a clue what they were doing. And to cut a long story very short, a proposal was eventually put on the table. It was rubbish (check the pension calculator to see how – meaning paying in more and getting less from it, and also including having to reschedule teaching lost by striking – unpaid). There was despondency. It was a horrible day or two of waiting and wondering. Really horrible. There was self-doubt. Despair. But the proposal was overwhelmingly rejected. By all of us. #NoCapitulation

Numerous twitter streams and blogs explain all this far better than I do. So instead of analysing things I don’t fully understand, here’s a list of some of the things I have learnt – lessons for life:

1) Solidarity

I haven’t met so many amazing, interesting, wonderful, friendly people since starting my job 18 months ago. Despite working at UEA, I have never felt such a part of the university. It’s been far better than any one to one meeting, or networking scenario, or trying to work out who does what in which department, when I’ve been to meetings in other buildings on campus. It has been real. Social. Political. Dynamic. Passionate. Coffee-fuelled. Baking-shared. With dogs. And singing. And snow. Gather a group together who are fighting for the future of education and this is what happens. We are the university.

2) The union makes us strong

It does. I had only just joined the union (actually not because of the strikes, but because the safety and unity of membership is important). I am in awe of how I was welcomed in. In awe of the hard work done on our behalf by the union reps and staff and all those working hard to share the latest updates (thank you Brett, Claudina, Trevor, Amanda et al.) We all share a common purpose and a common goal. Strength in unity. And strength in number. And it’s across the whole country. We are part of a big thing. Solidarity with university workers we will never meet, but feel united in this. I watched ‘Pride’ last night and felt it. We are the university.

3) Not just lecturers

This has been a very important rallying cry. Universities are all their people. Not just lecturers or academics, but people working in public engagement, libraries, museums, archives, professional services, teaching and learning, administrators etc etc (and huge apologies to those I have missed). I am only sad that membership of UCU is not open to staff on pay-bands below Grade 6 (I think?), as this meant that many of my colleagues at the Sainsbury Centre who may have supported the strike otherwise could not join in. (This tells me both that my colleagues need to be paid much better but also that the union might rethink its membership criteria so that it’s not so lonely on the picket line for a museum professional?) The support from ATs, PhD and other students has been particularly incredible, often losing their entire earnings to strike. We are the university.

4) Students are absolutely amazing

‘Their working experience is our learning experience’ as many inspiring students shouted, amongst many other brilliant statements on the picket line. Students came forth in their thousands. With messages of support. With banners. With Students’ Unions issuing statements in support of the strike up and down the country. And then they started occupying. Calling out the overpaid VCs with their pornstar martinis. Demanding meetings. Demanding fairness. Demanding what it was that they had come to university for. I will never forget the powerful speeches by students Michael Kyriacou and @MaddieColledge. We are the university.

5) Twitter is transformative

I’m a bit addicted to Twitter at the best of times. But this was something else. The speed at which new news emerged, was shared. Statistics were pulled apart. Documents were analysed in real time by world leading experts – for free, and in their own time. Because this is important. But also we saw Dame Lego VC, the Solidarity Dinosaur, fabulous, funny, creative people doing fabulous, funny, creative things with social media. People began sharing more widely. Their stresses and worries and what it was like to work in their situation, talking openly beyond the pension crisis, and to the general state of being overworked and under-valued, with ridiculous systems and metrics to judge us, from REF/TEF/impact, to cultures of bullying and being stressed and being expected to work 50+ hour weeks. We had conversations on and offline. We made new virtual friends. We are the university.

6) Remember this

Space and time for just chatting to each other is vital. We need to recreate, and ensure this interdisciplinary, interdepartmental socialising, idea-sharing and change-making continues. The creativity shown by so many was inspirational. Banners made. Slogans, puns, fabulous statements of support and rejecting the lies we’ve been fed. One of the highlights at UEA was that Jon McGregor refused to cross the picket line for a lecture, and instead, the Students’ Union held a wonderful ‘Writers for the Strike’ event – with Jon McGregor, Rebecca Scott, James Meek and inspiring words from students. There was the alternative university every day. Coming together for a rally. For rousing speeches, not just by politicians, but by students. Who gave the best speeches by far. Going to the pub together. New friends. Rabbits of resistance. We are the university.

7) University museums are the university

Yet it seems as though university museums currently sit somewhere between. Or even, sadly. apart. I was the only one from my university museum striking. It was lonely. But I discovered many others in university museums elsewhere (through twitter) who were on strike. It is not helpful for us to sit outside the university as some would have us do. We sit in a boundary space – not entirely academics, not entirely professional services – we teach, we research, we work with the public, we develop object-based learning. We are asked both to conform to the university (e.g. through REF processes), yet we are somehow set outside it. What can we learn from this? And what will happen (for example through the University Museums Group) as a result? We are the university.

8) Pension cuts hit women most

And in the sadly male dominated museum patriarchy – where most museum workers are women, but most museum directors are men, this is all the more disturbing. In that sense, it was a joy to be on the university picket line which seemed more balanced in terms of gender than the average museum (although I know the patriarchy is alive and well in universities too). But women will suffer the most from the pension cut proposals. And I learnt about Athena Swan, and wonder why we haven’t talked about it at the Sainsbury Centre yet. We will now. We are the university.

9) Marketisation

This is all part of a wider picture. Privatisation. Brexit. Trump. Where education is a commodity and not seen as having intrinsic value. Where it is something to be bought. A culture of students as consumer versus rest of the university as service provider. This makes me feel sick. Where privatisation means that there are more and more people struggling. Where VC pay goes up and up and the empire is worth more than the staff. This is not what education is. We are the university.

10) Strikes work

See what we have done already? It’s amazing. It’s not too late to join UCU (or whatever union you can join) and fight for what is right. The fight continues.

See you on the picket line. #NoCapitulation #wearetheuniversity

Mendoza Review

I’ve just read the Mendoza Review on the train to the Museums Association conference in Manchester. I haven’t yet read any comments/opinion pieces on it yet, so these are my immediate, rather ill-structured reflections. I am sure many conversations will emerge in Manchester over the next 3 days, and in the coming weeks, and my views that follow may shift…
So, what did I think? Although there is much to welcome (not least the joining of forces between various sector organisations – I really like the use of lottery funding for much needed back-of-house development – p.15, the need to continue diversifying audiences and workforces – p.40, to develop leadership – p.57, ensure digital understanding by senior leaders – p.61, and focus on collections – p.44), I have to say I feel slightly disappointed…
The report asks: ‘What can government do to assist in creating and maintaining a thriving, sustainable and effective museum sector in Britain?’ (p.6) My answer: it can provide funding, enable another ‘Renaissance’. The report states: ‘we estimate that the government provided total funding of approximately £844m in 2016/2017.’ (p.7) But what does this mean? Are we supposed to think this is a lot, a generous gesture from the government? How does this figure compare with the government spending on education, health, sport, defence? Surely that would give a better indication of how much museums are really valued? And what about their intrinsic value?

And then there, in black and white: ‘It is unlikely that there will be significant additional money available for the sector in the immediate future. The main thrust of our recommendations is, therefore, to ensure that we use existing funding in the best way possible.’ (p.7, italics mine). Dash our hopes straightaway. 

Despite trying to think about regional activity and the local placemaking agenda of museums, the report still reads as a very London-centric (or certainly nationals-centric) report. And as such it is hierarchical (and somewhat patronising?) in tone. The section on ‘National responsibilities for national museums’ grated particularly (p.14): ‘The Review team recognises the excellent work already taking place, but would like it to be more strategic to ensure audiences and museums outside London get what they need from the nationals’. Fine – yes, this is of course an important aim – but what about what the regionals might give the nationals? Nationals need things and can learn hugely from the non-nationals/regionals and their approaches. Nationals are still going to be getting the lion share of the funding. ‘Our great national museums are open to all and free to all’ (p.8) – they also benefit from huge numbers of tourists, and while I don’t begrudge free entry in the slightest – would that all museums were free for all? – I wonder at the financial sense here. It’s also fantastic that recommendation 9 is to grant local authority museums more freedom, but where is the funding and support to actually enable this to happen?

Our ‘wonderfully different’ (p.5) museums are exactly that. And there’s a definite recognition here building on things like the MA’s Museums Change Lives that museums can ‘bring people together and promote community cohesion’ (p.5) even going further to suggest that they are ‘integral to placemaking and economic regeneration’ (p.5) This, I would argue, happens par excellence in places other than national museums. It is fantastic that growing and diversifying audiences is prioritised, but I couldn’t help being slightly disappointed that issues around access haven’t been spelt out – mentioning different types of sensory engagements for all, for example – and importantly physical access into spaces (not least for those with disabilities who don’t seem to get a mention), but emotional/intellectual access (including through interpretation – a word not mentioned at all?) for all too.
I enjoyed the brief summary in Annex B – a history of museums policy – but was disappointed by the comments on Renaissance. ‘The MLA took on responsibility for Renaissance, which never quite took off.’ (p.84) Now I’m a career ‘child’ of Renaissance and the DCMS/DfES Strategic Commissioning programmes (the latter not mentioned in this report). Starting out my first paid role in the sector working for a hub museum in 2005, and then moving to a second one in 2007 enabled the most dynamic, risk-taking and exciting work with local communities that I have been able to enjoy. There was funding. I thought the desire and ability to engage with the most disadvantaged communities was the norm, and that there would subsequently always be funding to support such work. How wrong I was. Renaissance funding was abandoned: ‘The 2009 Selwood report reviewed it and concluded that it had suffered a lack of strategic focus, as well as funding. A new strategy replaced the existing nine regional hubs with 22 partnerships funded on merit.’ (p.84)
There is little about the funding crisis for HEFCE funded university museums too, although a review is promised. The mention of ‘over 60 university courses in the UK specialising in museum practice, producing hundreds of graduates in museum studies each year’ but that are not necessarily providing students with the knowledge needed is significant and points towards a new partnership model perhaps.
So – my main thought – some good stuff, but there’s a still a drastic need for regional funding. Anyway, that will do for now. I’ve just checked into the conference and my hotel and am all ready for #museums2017. Here we go.