Museums Association Conference

MA conference11-12 November 2013

Don’t worry I’m not going to give you a blow by blow account of this conference, I just want to tell you about the cool things that happened there.

Big Art for Little Artists, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

In this session professionals involved in this wonderful children’s gallery told us about their ethos in putting the gallery together and the activities that are run there. The gallery was designed for children under eight but is best suited for children five and under. There was a short section of video which recorded approx. three childminders and three children around an art and craft activity. It was startling to see how much the adults boss the children around and take the most simple choices away from them. I was shocked to the core, but I may have acted in a  similar things myself without realizing it. If we don’t allow children to have autonomy over a simple thing such as choosing which colour paper to stick on a picture, how can they get any sense of satisfaction from making the picture? How can they learn to make decisions for themselves?

When I was relating this story someone asked me a very interesting question. Did the children enjoy themselves less because they were being told what to do? I said that I couldn’t think of a way of measuring that in such young children (age 3-4) as they wouldn’t understand the question. After further thought, I wonder if you could set up an experiment where you observed a group of children making a picture and let them be bossed around one week and then in the next week asked the adults to be supportive without making suggestions or decisions for the children. Would you notice a difference in behaviour?

However, the staff at the Walker Art Gallery and their academic partners have done some research on their gallery and I can’t wait to read it. There was also an opportunity to visit the gallery (at 7.30 am, thanks for the bacon sandwich). I was very impressed with the way real objects were displayed in the gallery to inspire the little ones. There were also lots of books to read, postcards to write and draw on, touchy feely boxes, sensory areas etc. Staff offer a range of different making activities.  I think the staff are a little frustrated that the furniture and fixtures in the room are not very flexible. When they do very messy projects they use a lunch room and cover the walls in paper. It is certainly the most inspiring gallery that I have come across for young children.

Participation on Trial

In this session the speakers acted out a mock trial for “participation” including gowns and wigs! Participation was accused of perpetuating banality, undermining knowledge, dumbing down, and fake democratisation. It was found innocent of the first three but guilty of the last. I agree!

Digital for Digitals sake?

Mark Macleod (Head of the Infirmary Museum and fellow Museomixer) and Uta Hinrichs (Research Fellow St. Andrews’ Computer Human Interaction Grou)p ran a session on the use of digital media in museum exhibitions. I think they were a little disappointed there wasn’t much in the way of ferocious discussion but by the end of that session I came to the conclusion that the people in that room (if not museums professionals in general) have gone beyond digital for digitals sake and are now looking for creative and innovative ways of engaging their audiences that may or may not use digital technology. If you were going to commission some kind of digital wizardry I would get Jussi Ängeslevä, form ART+COM. Their stuff is amazing! At the Natural History Museum in Berlin they made binoculars for looking at the Dinosaur skeletons, when you look through them a short animation is played showing you what they looked like when they were alive and stomping around their habitat. The coolest  project they did was at a riverside visitor centre. They made a sculpture (digitally) that looks like the surface of a rippling river. When you shine a torch on it, the light is reflected on to a wall and forms text!

Curtis Watt

For the closing session poet and musician Curtis Watt performed two poems that he had written while watching the conference. He wanted us all to join in but instead of badgering us to be louder or show more enthusiasm in the way so many performers do, he said “I know you are all tired, but if you want to, you could say “time” when I do” and what happened? Everyone joined in gladly because they hadn’t been patronised or badgered in to it. It was an amazing performance and I could not believe that he wrote two really good poems in the space of a day!

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