Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Radical futures – new realities

The UK Museums Association upcoming conference will be held in Birmingham on November 5-6.

Centre for the Future of Museums, Radical futures – new realities, CFM Blog, 8 October 2015

… Today on the Blog Sharon Heal, director of the UK Museums Association @MuseumsAssoc, previews how their upcoming conference in Birmingham on November 5-6, will contribute to the collective foresight for our field.   

Sharon Heal

Sharon Heal, Director, UK Museums Association

“Museums are about the future not the past”. This challenging and thought-provoking statement was made recently by Mark Holmgren the CEO of the Bissell Centre in Edmonton. Holmgren is a proponent of Upside Down Thinking  – a method of viewing issues from a different angle to generate radical solutions.

Holmgren’s speech at the Alberta Museums Association conference resonated with me as I have been wondering lately what the role of museums is in a troubled world where contradictory messages abound.

The news in Europe over the summer has been dominated by the refugee crisis, with harrowing images of displaced people desperately seeking a safe haven on every news channel. The inconsistency between the theory of free movement and the reality of stringent border controls has been sharply exposed.

Globalization has shrunk the planet but we also have the spectre of devolution, separatism and nationalism. Hyper-connectivity brings with it hyper-surveillance and a world where cyberbullying is a worse problem among teenagers than drug abuse.

We are told that smart cities and smart villages are the future and yet we know that digital exclusion and segregation exist on a mass scale. Where do alternative currencies and cash-less economies fit with communities that have no economic power whatsoever?

And of course museums face their own contradictions.

On the one hand museums are thriving. There has been a well-documented boom in museum building and refurbishment globally. Museums are popular with visitors; we have all witnessed blockbuster exhibitions with queues snaking around the block. And museums increasingly have political power and can influence government agendas internationally.

On the other hand museums are struggling. In many countries their funding base is being undermined by public spending cuts. Collections are under threat of unethical sales. And some museums have become tired and irrelevant – how interesting is a mining museum when the industry that spawned it is dead?

The question for museums is: can they help us make sense of these turbulent times and conflicting messages? And do they cater for those pushed to the margins of society?

Hence the theme for the UK Museums Association’s conference next month: Radical Futures. Under that heading delegates will debate “Saving the Museum” – can we rescue museums under threat of swingeing budget cuts and closure? Which campaigns work and which don’t? There will also be discussion about the Magic Business Model: we’re all searching for that illusive, cure-all business model but does it really exist and if so how does it operate? And a session entitled “Renew Your Vows” will examine the civic contract between the museum and society.

Other sessions will deal with contemporary concerns from migration to co-curation to working with people with autism and learning difficulties. Some notable happenings include:

  • The Diversity Forum—which will discuss what can be done to work towards a more representative workforce and how we can work in partnership with diverse communities. Increasing concern in the UK about the lack of diversity in the workforce and also how relevant museums are to diverse audiences. People who work in museums have an abundance of enthusiasm and often an abundance of professional qualifications – but increasingly we are monocultural and much less diverse than the audiences we purport to serve.
  • Museums Change Lives—the MA’s campaign to increase the positive social impact of museums.
  • The Museums Association’s new Code of Ethics for Museums, which will be presented for approval. In addition to discussing the new principles that are enshrined in the code, we will be looking at what can we learn from the legal, journalistic and charitable sectors about ethical engagement and the public.
  • A Museums Change Lives pop-up museum highlighting the work institutions are doing to make a difference in the lives of people. This is an ongoing campaign that is crucial in connecting museums to those who have been pushed to the margins in society.

“Radical Futures” encapsulates some of the big issues that the sector and society faces. Thinking about and debating these issues will help us unlock what museums can be in the future and prevent us from getting stuck in the past.


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