Event Blog | What makes a museum a museum?

Rhiannon Davies shares her thoughts on the 2015 Museums Association Conference...


Before joining the Audience Agency I spent a number of years working with museums, most recently at Arts Council England and, prior to that, at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. As a result, the Museums Association (MA) conference is something that has become almost mythical in status, with nearly everyone I worked with decamping to a city somewhere in the UK for three days each autumn.

This year for the first time I got to join the 700 other delegates heading to conference, which took place at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Evidence of just how popular this conference is in the sector happened before I’d even crossed the border into Wales; on boarding the train at Birmingham I counted no fewer than six other people in the same carriage as me heading for the conference, and I’m reliably informed the same was true of pretty much every train heading that way from every part of the country.

The programme for the conference was packed full and at every session I found myself torn between all the sessions on offer. Once I’d made my decisions though I was richly rewarded. Whether it was discussing perceptions and prejudices around visitor data, the power of collaborative working between museums, universities, agencies and commercial companies, funding models for museums or the issue of ethics within the museums sector, each session built on my existing knowledge and providing plenty of food for thought. However, there was one session which provide a veritable feast for thought; The Collection in the Cloud which asked what we mean when we say something is a museum.

Chaired by Iain Watson of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, this session began with Rachel Morris from Metaphor discussing the concept of the imaginary museum. Morris discussed physically “real” museums such as the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, a museum that anyone can visit but one where the objects on display relate to a character in the Orhan Parmuk book of the same name. She compared these to the virtual museums of the internet and of fiction; places that our mind can visit and which often have a history (real or otherwise) yet which are not tangible. The question she posed was which is the real museum, seeming in the end to decide that it is the extent to which all of these museums engage with the imagination that makes them real, irrespective of their physicality or the ‘truth’ of their history.

Speaking after Morris, Martyn Evans of the University of Durham took the idea of there being a concept of what a museum is and discussed whether this means there is a concept of what a museum object is. He argued that unlike art which, as an object created to be displayed is in its ‘natural habitat’ in an art gallery, an object in a museum could be considered to be in a zoo; it was never intended to be put on display there but once there is bound by the construct of being on display to become more art-like and being forced into an interpretation that may never have been intended for it.

I am unsure of the extent to which I necessarily agree with everything Evans said – especially around the idea of art being created solely for display in an art gallery – but of the concurrent sessions that ran across the conference it is the one that stuck with me the most. That said, whilst The Collection in the Cloud will stay with me due to the thoughts it provoked, it is the keynote sessions on Thursday evening and Friday morning that had probably the biggest impact of the conference.

This year’s conference theme was ‘Museums Change Lives’, and the keynote speech delivered on Thursday evening by Antônio Vieira of the Museu da Maré, highlighted this more than any other session. The Museu da Maré is a community museum in one of the largest favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Vieira spoke of the troubled history of the favela; its issues with gang warfare, drugs, gun and knife crime, the low expectations given to those from the favela and the extreme poverty some in the favela face. Since its founding in 2006 the museum has become a place where the young of the favela come together to learn about their history, a history that is often overlooked by the more prosperous areas of the city. Vieira spoke of the change in attitude that he has observed amongst those in the favela, from one of being ashamed of their background to one of pride. At the end of the speech every person in the hall joined together in a standing ovation for the work that Vieira has done which visibly moved him to tears. As David Anderson, current president of the MA, commented in his closing remarks, the work that Vieira does with the Museu da Maré speaks loudly and clearly of the very real way that this year’s theme is working in practice.

On Friday morning we were given a slightly unconventional keynote speech in that it was a performance by the actor Mat Fraser of his critically acclaimed show Cabinet of Curiosities: how disability was kept in a box. Over the course of an hour through a combination of images, anecdotes, songs and an examination of actual museum objects, Fraser covered some of the turbulent history that museums have with disability. He looked in turn at the medical, social and charitable models of disability and how each of these models brings with it differing attitudes and approaches. Whilst in parts he found humour in what he was relaying at other times he approached a subject close to his own heart with an honesty and frankness that moved the audience to tears.

When on Friday evening the time arrived for me to head back to the train station and away from the conference, I found myself doing so with a heavy heart. Over the course of my short time in Wales I learnt a huge amount and had a great time doing so. It’s fantastic to have the space and time to debate and consider important questions about our much cherished institutions.

*image by sumofmarc under Creative Commons