15 Apr

Holding out for a hero?

Helen Wilkinson

Contemplating media coverage of Neil MacGregor’s resignation from the British Museum, one of my friends remarked ‘you’d think he ran the place on his own’. Most news reports of MacGregor’s intended departure last week had two common narrative elements: the extent to which he has reinvented the museum, and just how hard he will be to replace. This notion of the heroic leader may bring necessary narrative simplicity to organisational complexity. But the idea that MacGregor is the museum is a myth – even if some argue that his approach to broadcasting has done nothing to discourage it – and one that does no service to the richness and strangeness of the museum which employs him.

Not only is the BM’s narrative trajectory far more complicated than that of a Cinderella story moving from dust and obscurity to dazzling success, but no major institutional change is ever the sole creation of one individual. Museums are public institutions, and the kind of change that can happen in museums depends firstly on the backdrop of the broader financial, social and political circumstances of the time. Museums like the BM have a very long history, which also helps to determine what change is possible – not that a new leader is simply ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, but that they inevitably have to choose how to respond to that legacy. Especially in museums – organisations dedicated to preservation and continuity – it can never be year zero.

But most crucially, the culture of any large institution with hundreds of staff and volunteers is built on hundreds of thousands of relationships. Time for a bit of maths: in any given group where n is the number of members, the number of potential relationships within that group is n x (n-1)/2. So a museum with ten staff and volunteers has 10×9/2 potential relationships to contend with – 45. A museum with 1000 staff and volunteers has 499500 potential relationships which help shape its culture. The relationship between the leader and the others only accounts for 999 of those – or 0.2% of the total. Of course, some of those 1000 never meet – but that figure does point to an underlying truth. Not only is an organisation like the BM – one full of talented, clever and driven people – much more than its leader, it has a complex ecosystem of relationships which determine much of its character and will be affected but not reinvented by a change of leader.

The British Museum is not the only great European cultural establishment anticipating the departure of a charismatic leader. When Simon Rattle announced in 2013 that he would not renew his contract after 2018, speculation immediately began about who would replace him as music director of the Berliner Philharmoniker. News reports of his intended departure shared some of the tropes of those about MacGregor – charismatic, high profile leader transforms great institution, who can succeed him, etc. But there is a different element at play in the succession in Berlin where the final choice rests not with trustees, but with the orchestral players, who vote for their own leader. Staff at Bloomsbury do not get to choose their new leader, but they will continue to play by far the greater part in determining the culture of the organisation he or she takes on.

13 Mar

A new balance? Ethics and museums in 2015

Helen Wilkinson

The Museum Consultancy was pleased to have chance to respond to the Museums Association’s consultation on the review of the Code of Ethics last month. We’ve all been involved in the development and interpretation of earlier versions of the Code of Ethics from the inside, so it was interesting to take an external perspective on this revision.

Codes of Ethics have to be living documents, evolving in response to changing circumstances and new understandings of what museums are and can be. No statement of our shared ethical principles should ever be seen as fixed and definitive.

That said, some areas of the current code still seem absolutely robust. There is really no need, for example, to revisit the balance between access and preservation as the consultation suggested. The current code makes it clear that it is the job of a museum to reconcile the desirability of preservation with the obligation to optimise access: weighing the requirements of access against the requirements of preservation is at the heart of what museums do and an area where people who work in museums make finely balanced decisions every day of their working lives.

But in other areas, thinking and practice has moved on. Return of material to places and peoples of origin is more common now than when the current code was written, so the new code could take a more positive line. Museums can engage with requests for return positively, seeing them as an opportunity to build relationships with a source community and so enrich their work. We stressed in our response that museums should make every effort to reach a conclusion that is acceptable to the community of origin and to the museum’s local stakeholders, so that it can be the basis of long-term cross cultural understanding and dialogue. And there are good examples where this has happened – so thanks to the pioneering work of a small number of museums, something which used to cause much angst no longer seems so difficult.

If return of material is an area where museums feel more confident than they did a decade ago, other areas seem more contentious than before. In 2015, freedom of speech seems newly problematic – from social media to journalism to universities. In a year when freedom of speech has become no longer an academic question but a matter of life and death, what are the implications of this for museums, especially those hosting co-curated displays?

We think that firm guidance may be premature, as this is still an emerging area and practical experience is very limited. It is important that a wide range of people and opinions have the opportunity to contribute to museum content. Museums should aim for a wide range of views rather than taking a narrow editorial line – more BBC than newspaper, perhaps.

But what if some of those views are contentious or deeply offensive to others? Can museums allow partner organisations to cause offence within (or on) their walls? In principle, we think the answer is yes. Museums should not attempt to censor or control what people want to say. Freedom of speech, within the limits of the law, should be a fundamental value for museums. And freedom of speech should be more important than the risk of offending a particular individual or group.

But of course museums should also promote equality, diversity and human rights – values we stressed elsewhere in our consultation response. So, what to do when freedom of speech seems to come into conflict with an equality imperative? Perhaps that will be the most difficult balancing act for museums in the next decade.

12 Feb

The end of permanence: Are museums still for ever?

Maurice Davies

Leicestershire County Council has confirmed it intends to close Snibston, its largest museum, on 31 July; it will be demolished, replaced with housing and, possibly, a small museum on the mining history of the site.

The closure plans have been met with energetic local protest, and professional condemnation.

Unless the council has a rethink, Snibston will be the most significant museum closure from public-spending cuts. So far, closures have been limited to far smaller museums, such as ones in London boroughs. And museums have been surviving far better than libraries – over a hundred of them have gone.

So what does it mean when a major museum closes?

First, it reminds me I’m getting old. I remember when Snibston opened in the early 1990s, and even hazily remember a party there, when the Museums Association conference was held in Leicester.

More seriously, it demonstrates that museums are not always, in the words of the ICOM definition, ‘a permanent institution’. That might not be a bad thing. Aiming to exist for ever is quite a burden; it can lead museums to respond too slowly to changing demands as they perhaps think a little too much about the supposed needs of the future as opposed to the needs of today.

Thinking shorter-term than ‘permanent’ can be liberating, allowing museums to experiment and take more risks.

Certainly, it would be good to shake off the curse of the ‘permanent’ display (where permanent means ‘a decade or two’ rather than ‘for ever’). Permanent displays take years to plan, design and construct – and often feel dated on the day they open. Something easier to change and update, more fleet of foot and less, well, permanent would be better in many cases. Tate Britain demonstrates the benefits of regularly changing ‘permanent’ displays, even for a national collection.

And perhaps collections are becoming a little less permanent. Back in the early 1990s when Snibston opened, disposal was unusual, even frowned upon. Now, it’s standard practice to review collections and remove the less significant material.

Sale of collections is also becoming slightly more common. While controversial, when done responsibly it is perhaps less damaging to museums than once anticipated.

The long-term fate of Snibston’s substantial collection is not yet clear and the costs of dealing with it properly will be substantial. Perhaps, eventually, some will be sold. That may shock some people, but it may be better than keeping things in store for decades, unseen and unused.

Snibston’s closure is sad, and will be a substantial loss to the local area. It should make us think about whether museums are becoming less than permanent and whether that might be a good or a bad thing.

19 Jan

Same difference?

Helen Wilkinson

DCMS has announced that last year 48% of new public appointments to the boards of organisations it funds were women. This narrowly misses its 50% target, but it shows what can be done if you try.

I’d like to live in a world where positive action wasn’t necessary and everyone had equal opportunities and was promoted on merit. Until we live in that world, I think positive action is sometimes needed, and I welcome what DCMS is trying to achieve.

It sends a message to the many regional museums whose boards are woefully male dominated. (The recent ACE review of evidence on equality and diversity across the cultural sector workforce suggested that women were especially poorly represented at board level within the Major Partner Museums, compared to other parts of the cultural sector.)

But equal representation – of women, of black, Asian and minority-ethnic people, of disabled people – is only the beginning. Diversity of boards or workplaces isn’t just about who has a seat at the table. It’s also about how those people are treated once they’re there, and whether they are able to have an effective voice and to make a positive difference.

The Museum Consultancy undertook a piece of work for ACE last year on workforce and board diversity. Some of our interviewees who had been involved in programmes to diversify boards observed that sometimes people say they want diversity, but actually they just want things to stay the same. Organisations feel they’ve met an obligation and ticked a diversity box by appointing a trustee who looks different because of their race, age, gender or disability, but don’t give them the space to be different.

Boards that want to change their culture, not just their profile, have to respect and listen to the views of people who think differently. They may also have to offer support to people with expertise from another field who lack knowledge of the sector, so that they can become informed enough to offer helpful insight. It’s too easy to let certain kinds of knowledge, or even certain forms of language, become a shibboleth and place less value on the contribution of someone who doesn’t have them.

So let’s celebrate the 48%, but challenge all museums to demonstrate that they are open, thoughtful and respectful towards difference in the workplace and the board room – not just in their demographics and in their structures, but in the way that they behave.

15 Jan

Roll up, roll up. Get your lovely collections here! What museums might learn from street markets

Maurice Davies

Sometimes using analogies can help us think about our work. Herbert Coutts, who used to run the city’s museums in Edinburgh, once pointed out that if museums were indeed society’s new temples or churches (as many argued they were at the time) then the onus on curators was great, because it made them society’s new priests.

21st-century priests do not, I expect, spend much of their time researching and analysing the scriptures. They are busy planning and delivering church activities, fundraising to repair the roof or build a small extension, sitting in meetings with other community organisations and, probably most importantly of all, helping improve individual lives – giving a little help and hope to the lonely, the destitute, the ill and the bereaved. Modestly changing lives is what society expects from its priests.

If they are lucky, our priests might find a little time, probably during the evening (if they are not called away), to think a little about the next day’s sermon, largely drawing on knowledge they acquired from study many decades ago.

They in a small way help to care for and preserve religious knowledge and values, and they communicate that to their core audience. That’s usually on a Sunday morning, when most of their audience has turned up primarily for reasons that are social, rather than spiritual.

Not so different, perhaps, to the lot of the curator.

But museums are no longer seen as churches or temples. Rather they are seen as the forum or the agora: a central public gathering place, usually including a market, where people come together for a variety of reasons, perhaps attending simply because it is there. Once there, they might participate in shared activities, be exposed to new ideas, or experience goods presented in the market.

If the 21st-century museum is the agora, then perhaps curators are akin to market traders – gathering together things to meet people’s needs and desires, entertaining them, stimulating curiosity and animating a public space.

The market trader uses their skills and expertise to select the goods and present them to the people. Many of the goods are known and expected – safe and familiar. But from time to time there, the market trader challenges with something new in an attempt to expand the audience’s horizons.

Recently I was in the market in Hatfield, a down-at-heel place patronised mainly by a mixture of white working class people and overseas students from the University of Hertfordshire. I was queuing up and, to my slight surprise, heard the elderly white woman in front say ‘Oh, I’ve forgotten the sweet potatoes.’

Evidently at previous encounters at the veg stall, or perhaps with a cookery programme on TV, our elderly lady’s curiosity had been piqued, her tastes had been challenged and now her experiences were enhanced. The stall holder had performed her curatorial duty. She had introduced her audience to something new.

In the proper 21st-century curatorial manner, note that her focus had not been directed towards studying the wide variety of species of sweet potato, towards writing papers about them for other market traders or (heaven forbid) painstakingly recording details of each sweet potatoes in her stock control system (or, heaven forbid even more, travelling to international conferences to compare approaches to digitising records of sweet potatoes). Our market trader knows that the heart of her job is to engage her audience with her objects.

There is probably much else to learn from market traders in terms of low-cost operation, surviving and thriving in the face of globalised competition, changing focus to respond to new audiences (I expect many of the stall’s original sweet-potato purchasers were overseas students) and coping with the whims of local authorities.

I expect by now you get my point. The heart of the museum’s task is simple: to communicate with a wide audience about its collection; and the heart of the curator’s job is to engage people and modestly improve their lives.

This is an extract from a talk given to the conference Does the Museum just Preserve the Museum?

01 Dec

Slick or soul-full? Museums and commercial attractions.

Helen Wilkinson

There’s a long history of museums learning – or being exhorted to learn – from commercial attractions. And it goes back further than you might think: at the University of Leicester Museums Alive conference last month I heard a fascinating short presentation from Katie Murray, a PhD student in St Andrews, who is researching the commercial polar exhibitions which the pioneer explorers put on to help finance their expeditions. At a time when most museum presentations of polar exploration concentrated only on the scientific discoveries, the commercial exhibitions met a public desire for insight into the daily lives of the explorers – their sleeping bags, their clothes, what it felt like to be there. And in time museums were pressured into collecting this kind of material too.

Nearer our own time, the founders of the independent museum movement in the 1970s looked to the commercial sector, taking from other visitor attractions the idea that museums might actually be fun, and – perhaps in a deliberate example of ‘Épater la bourgeoisie’ – suggesting that Disneyland had much to teach the museum sector, in terms of ‘visitor friendliness’ and the ability to welcome and offer a good experience to large numbers of people.

I was pondering what today’s lessons might be when I had one of the odder mini-breaks of my life last month and spent a night in a Premier Inn in Stoke-on-Trent so that I could combine taking my kids to see the Staffordshire Hoard with taking them to Alton Towers the next day.

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery was almost entirely deserted on a Sunday afternoon, which perhaps reflects not so much on what the museum has to offer as on its surroundings. (I was delighted to read last week that regeneration is beginning to make an impact in Stoke, but Hanley town centre on a chilly November Sunday was as depressing an urban experience as I’ve had for a long time.)

But the museum is getting a lot of those ‘things you might expect museums to learn from commercial attractions’ absolutely right. Unprompted, a lively and engaging museum assistant came over to talk to my children about the hoard and spent ages pointing out tiny details to intrigue them. She obviously loved the museum and its collection and genuinely cared that visitors had a good time. Compare Alton Towers – some of the staff were friendly, some disinterested and off hand. No one particularly went the extra mile. Staff attitude to visitors? One-nil to the museum.

In the Staffordshire Hoard display, the museum had replica clothes and a helmet to try on and a corner of the gallery designed for photo opportunities. We all know that theme parks are great at offering photos to visitors – but at £10 a time, so I don’t really think that’s a point in the attraction’s favour either.

The museum has a well-stocked shop with a good pocket money range, a reasonable choice of books, plenty of unusual gifts and cards to attract passing trade and a great ceramic selection (of course) where I bought my new favourite mug (from the Moorland Pottery range). Alton Towers doesn’t lack retail outlets, of course, but you’d struggle to buy anything that genuinely captured the flavour of the place and couldn’t have come from any other theme park on the planet. I think that makes it three-nil.

I’d say toilets and catering were pretty much honours even (which is something neither of them should feel particularly proud about). And overall? Well of course, it’s nonsense to compare. On fun Alton Towers obviously won hands down. But I’d say that museums have plenty to teach commercial attractions about the importance of soul, values and genuine warmth over mere brand. At a time when museums have to pay more attention than ever to the bottom line, we should all remember that it’s never ‘all about the bottom line’.

06 Nov

Do regional museums care about the money?

Maurice Davies

There’s good news for the English regions in the recent report into arts funding from the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee. It states unequivocally that they are underfunded and that Arts Council should do something about it, quick.

Arts Council chair Peter Bazalgette agrees things need to change, but rather feebly says it’s all a bit tricky and it will take a long time – unless he gets more money. He also tries to give the impression that the Arts Council is increasing the proportion of funds it spends regionally, albeit slowly. However, independent analysis in the PLACE report suggests that may not be the case: arts funding may in fact be as unfair as ever.

One thing we do know is that museum funding is massively skewed in favour of London. That’s not the Arts Council’s fault at all, rather it’s because of direct Culture Department funding to the national museums, most of which are located in London, for perfectly understandable historical reasons.

So, the target of regional museums should be DCMS. In this, Arts Council could potentially be an ally, as could local authorities, universities and local MPs. There is an opening now in light of the Select Committee’s call for the Culture Department to create an arts policy and to have grown-up conversations with local authorities, the often unsung heroes of support for most major museums outside London.

The Select Committee report is seminal and the timing is perfect, with the general election just months away and all main political parties in internal chaos.

Now is exactly the time for regional museums to quickly build a strong campaign, working with arts colleagues, to argue for more government money. The key aim should be to get a few dozen backbench MPs engaged actively. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are all desperate to keep their backbenchers onside. It’s hard to do this around issues like migration and HS2, but improving regional arts funding would be an easy way to cheer up grumpy MPs – if only museums put the effort into making the MPs grumpy in the first place.

But the silence from regional museums and arts heads has been deafening. As far as I can tell, apart from Peter Wilson, chief exec of the Norwich Theatre Royal, there’s nothing from them in the national and regional media; there’s not even much on Twitter (unless I follow all the wrong people).

That seems a little negligent, especially as several people have been speaking up for the status quo. Mayor of London Boris Johnson and his team have been all over the place, peddling dodgy facts and inconsistent arguments. (I had my first disinformation presentation from the Mayor’s office at an 8.30am meeting the day the report came out.)

For the National Museums Diane Lees got her arguments in early in an interview for Museums and Heritage. And the Arts Council don’t look likely to do very much very soon.

So, regional museum directors, boards and staff, It’s up to you to make your case.

I’d be delighted to give you more detailed advice how you could go about it.

26 Oct

Where have all the good men gone? The inequality no one worries about.

Helen Wilkinson

The queues for the women’s loos at the Museums Association conference earlier this month often trailed out of the door. At times it reminded me of going to Cinderella at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, where I found it impossible to go to the loo and have time for an ice cream in the interval, but my husband could take our young daughters into the gents’ without fear of embarrassment because he was one of only a handful of men in the entire audience.

Is the gender profile of the museums workforce equally distorted?

Last week the Collections Trust announced a new programme of collections management traineeships, organised in partnership with Arts Council England. All twenty trainees are women. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the Collections Trust – I’m sure the appointments were made on merit and this lack of diversity reflects the profile of the applicants. It has long been the case that women far outnumber men on museum studies courses, and in entry level jobs, a phenomenon my colleague Maurice Davies explored in his 2007 report, Tomorrow People. Nevertheless, with gender profiles like this emerging, organisers of training schemes in the museum sector are going to have to start thinking seriously about positive action on gender.

Why does it matter? Firstly, of course, there is now a wide consensus that a monocultural museum profession cannot serve diverse audiences well (the Arts Council’s so-called ‘Creative Case’ for diversity). That has to extend to gender. The historic and continuing disadvantages faced by women do not make an absence of men somehow OK.

Secondly, there is an argument from self-interest, with extensive research suggesting that in the longer term the ‘feminisation’ of a profession or sector is bad for everyone who works in it. Society still often links status to gender, so work is seen to matter more if men do it.

So much for entry level, what’s it like at senior level? This week, the MA announced the appointment of Sharon Heal, pointing out that she was its first female director. (In fact, other women have held leadership positions at the MA – the list of female past presidents goes back to Mary Woodall in 1962 and Brenda Capstick ran the MA as its most senior member of staff from 1965 to 1983, although then the title of the top job was ‘secretary’, rather than director.) Does Sharon’s appointment mirror the wider sector?

Not necessarily; a report in 2013, based on a sample of 50 museums, found that only 28% of national and regional museum directors were female. Plenty of regional museums are run by women, but the nationals are still dominated by men, often privately educated.

At board level the picture is different. Regional museums’ boards tend to be male-dominated whereas boards of English national museums are more equal, thanks to the efforts of DCMS which has set a target for a 50:50 gender split. (Unusually in its recent history, the MA’s two top board roles are both currently held by men.)

Lots of women in the workforce evidently doesn’t translate to women at the top. In primary teaching, there is evidence that men who buck the trend and join the sector are promoted more quickly than women. Will that hold true in museums? What we need is more women at the very top, more men at entry level, and more equality everywhere.

21 Oct

Children and museums: Is gin the way to cope?

Maurice Davies

Artist Jake Chapman must have had a bad day at a busy exhibition when he said that taking children to galleries is ‘a total waste of time’. Perhaps he’d even had a hard time trying to engage his own children with the art he likes?

His comments led from one thing to another, including provocateur Tiffany Jenkins questioning whether children should go to museums at all. ‘Stop children taking over our museums and galleries’ screamed the headline of her article.

She perhaps can’t be held responsible for the headline, but she does say ‘for adults, museums and galleries are increasingly off-limits during the holidays and the weekends, and during term-time, because they’re overrun by children … At National Museums Scotland, it’s unbearably noisy… And at the National Gallery and the British Museum… large school parties career through the galleries and are placed in front of the “highlights” of the collection, making it difficult for anyone else to have a look or think. Adult spaces for study and contemplation have been transformed into playgrounds.’

When Neil MacGregor received similar complaints as director of the National Gallery he used to sweetly reply ‘try visiting after 3pm; you’ll find it’s quieter then’.

I rashly agreed to take part in a public discussion with Tiffany Jenkins at the Battle of Ideas. So, with a slightly heavy heart I trekked to the Barbican and performed the ritual of ‘find the door’. (In spite of spending millions refurbing the building, it seems harder to navigate than ever.) Once inside, Jenkins told me that there had been a bigger reaction to her children and museums piece than to anything else she’d written. She was still slightly reeling under the onslaught of comments and emails, plenty of them saying she was being ridiculous.

Undeterred, at the Battle of Ideas she repeated many of her earlier comments, supported by Telegraph music critic Ivan Hewett. They made the general point that parents are often too in thrall to their children – an observation, with which I tend to agree, exemplified by soppy parents who allow their little brats to keep their seats on the bus or tube when adults are standing.

But there were also wild claims that children don’t, or can’t, learn anything in museums, that museums have abandoned their golden age of serenity and that the ideal way to engage with a museum collection is through private contemplation. Jenny Wedgbury, responsible for children’s engagement at the V&A, made a robust defence.

A few of the audience agreed they didn’t like museums when they were busy and a few didn’t like more popular exhibitions such as Banksy at Bristol or the culminating section of the British Library’s Gothic Imagination, which apparently draws parallels with contemporary Goth culture.

In my rant I got the best laughs when I read out mid-19th-century criticism of the National Gallery because it sounded so much like the 21st-century Tiffany Jenkins.

Here’s Jenkins: museums are ‘overrun by children who are rarely asked to: “Shh”, or “Slow down”’. And here’s an 1850 House of Commons committee report: the Gallery has shockingly become ‘a place in which children of all ages may recreate and play’.

Here’s Jenkins: ‘large school parties career through the galleries’. And here’s Thomas Uwins, the keeper of the National Gallery in 1850: ‘On one occasion I saw a school of boys, I imagine 20, taking their satchels from their backs with their bread and cheese, sitting down and making themselves very comfortable and eating their luncheon.’

Uwins, and other elitists of the time, were eroding the founding concept of the National Gallery, its openness: Whig MP George Agar-Ellis had argued in 1824 that the gallery should be ‘situated in the very gangway of London, where it is alike accessible, and conveniently accessible, to all ranks and degrees of men… to the indolent as well as the busy.’ Just 10 years after the National Gallery opened Keeper Uwins, like Tiffany Jenkins today, was having none of it.

Here’s Uwins’ particular low point: ‘I saw some people, who seemed to be country people, who had a basket of provisions, and who drew their chairs round and sat down, and seemed to make themselves very comfortable; they had meat and drink; and when I suggested to them the impropriety of such a proceeding in such a place, they were very good-humoured, and a lady offered me a glass of gin.’

OK, then: ban the children, but bring back the gin.

With thanks to Brandon Taylor, National Gallery, London: for ‘all ranks and degrees of men’ in The First Modern Museums of Art, ed Carole Paul, Getty Publications, 2012

10 Oct

Thoughts from a home bound train

Helen Wilkinson

It was probably rash to promise my colleagues that I’d sum up my thoughts on MA Conference 2014 from the train home. It’s been an intense two days of new and old faces, new and old ideas. No doubt Mark Carnell, curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, was aiming to provoke when he asserted this morning that the annual conference can be ‘an echo chamber of platitudes’. Platitude or shared value? Tenet of faith or statement of the bleedin’ obvious? It’s a fine line sometimes, and any large gathering of people who work in the same small sector is bound to include its fair share of stuff you think you’ve heard before. But it set me the challenge of identifying ideas and themes which didn’t feel like platitudes, and perspectives that felt properly fresh.

Unsurprisingly, many of these came from outside the sector. Mat Fraser’s performance avoided the platitude in both form and content, vituperative rap not being a regular feature of MA conferences in my experience. Fraser, whose work is profiled in this month’s Museums Journal, challenged museums to recognise that they help shape society’s values, not just reflect them. Arguing that museums need to change the way they approach the histories of disabled people, Fraser stressed the power of history-making to shape the way we see the world and people in it, rapping: ‘what do you see? It depends on the history.’ I argued in yesterday’s blog that ‘changing lives’ needs to start from stories, objects and collections, not just projects, and Fraser’s performance seemed to embody that idea more eloquently than I could.

Martyn Evans, an academic with interests in philosophy and medical humanities explored the nature of wonder in museums. Evans acknowledged he was an outsider to the sector and his encapsulation of what is interesting about museums didn’t feel quite right to me, and made no reference to the (extensive) museum studies literature on wonder. But had I ever reflected before on whether museums pushed visitors to confront the fundamental philosophical problem of how consciousness can exist in a material world? Definitely not. I don’t think it’s an insight that offers anything that I’ll be carrying forward in my thinking, much less in a practical way.  But it did expand my mind for a minute or two and that’s more than you can fairly expect from a post-lunch session you wandered into by accident.

Antonio Vieira’s presentation on the Museu da Mare, based in a squatted building in a favela in Rio, gave an extraordinary account of how the museum aims to change both attitudes to and the experience of people whose lives are lived in conditions of poverty and violence. It was moving enough, even without his closing revelation that the museum is due to be evicted from its site and forced to close in a matter of months. The MA has promised to provide information on how people can campaign on behalf of the museum on its website.

This was also the first conference I’ve been to with a poet in residence. Martin Daws closed the conference with a work inspired by the two days and some thoughts on the experience. He said he’d enjoyed spending time with people who shared many of his passions, but he noted an ‘undercurrent of fear’ with everyone worrying about funding and the future of their jobs. Be brave, he urged, people need you. Bravery doesn’t mean quite the same in the UK as it does in the developing world, but perhaps we can all borrow some of Vieira’s courage to take home from Cardiff.