Monday, 18 June 2012

Connecting Through Collections

Connecting Through Collections

I’d like to start with a moment that sums up my passion for museums.

Using objects to create great experiences that change us.

A small stone sculpture, the Lovers’ Figurine (image below), the oldest known representation of lovemaking stood between Louise and Jill.  ‘For the first time in my life, I feel I’ve been listened to, taken seriously’ said Louise. She’s about 15, speaks with an East London accent and began her week at the British Museum surrounded by a palpable air of apathy.  ‘I’ll never be able to look at the Lovers ‘Figurine in the same way again’ said Jill Cook, who is a deeply knowledgeable British Museum curator with a strong passion for people and for equality.

Louise and Jill’s comments are reflections of the community programme Talking Objects, that they both attended earlier on in the year.  The programme brings together a group of disadvantaged teenagers from different parts of London to spend four days at the British Museum exploring a single object. It uses participatory drama, art and debate and at the end of the week you can see in the quotes above that Louise’s self-confidence was transformed and so was Jill’s understanding of the object she curates.  

So, how did I become the Head of National Programmes at the British Museum and where did my passion start?

I wanted to be a field archaeologist but quickly realised as I studied archaeology that it was hard work for little money and there’s no job security (I know it sounds like the museum sector now!)  As part of my studies I had spend a bit of time at the British Museum researching in the students’ room in the Coins and Medals department and I loved the museum environment and being around objects.  I decided a career in a museum was for me and wrote to fifty museums and related organisations across London enquiring about the possibility of a job. I had two responses.  One was from Pollock’s Toy Museum a very pleasant ‘no’ and the other from the British Museum inviting me for an interview.  So, my journey at the British Museum started with a two-month data entry contract followed by an Iron Age and Roman Coins curatorial position.

One of the joys of a national museum like the British Museum is its size. It’s perfectly possible to do a number of different jobs whilst remaining in the same institution.  So I chose to move from the curatorial position to one partly focussed on learning programmes. In this role I had the pleasure of setting up school programmes, community projects and a new programme of object handling in the gallery spaces.  Alongside this I worked on different projects through secondments. One supported the British Museum’s 250th anniversary events.  This was a privilege (the events played a small part in shaping the British Museum’s current approach to the world) but also a huge learning experience for me, teaching me that event management requires a ferocious attention to detail that I don’t possess!

But I found myself questioning how much impact I was really having so I left the British Museum for three years to work for an international development agency (a big wrench!) I learnt a lot from this experience about what’s really important (might be worth noting at this point that people in the international development sector, working with real issues of life and death, take themselves less seriously than most of us in museums) but my passion for museums and connecting through collections brought me back to the British Museum to run its community programmes.

I love the British Museum. The collections are extraordinary and probably the broadest of any museum in the world.  The depth of knowledge of my curatorial colleagues continues to amaze me. But even more wonderful is the fact that it sits at the centre of one of the world’s most diverse cities - a city that acts as an international transport hub and attracts people from every part of the globe. The relationship between the museum’s collection and its audiences is constantly stimulating and there are moments that show me the potential of the British Museum’s collection in London, connecting people and places through time:

  • A group from an Islamic supplementary school exploring the Rosetta Stone [see image below]
  • An Indian boy drawing an Egyptian sculpture in minute detail
  • A volunteer guide of Taiwanese origin giving a tour of the museum’s African galleries

My favourite job at the British Museum is my current one. I combine community partnerships with responsibility for the Museum’s national role working on projects that ask the question ‘how can we truly be a national museum?’ My job is to spot opportunities to partner with other museums and galleries in London and every part of the UK and I travel widely. On my wall is a map of all of the museums I’ve visited through my work and it’s covered with dots that extend from Shetland [see the image below of me paddling in the sea in January] to Truro and from Derry to Lincoln highlighting the dozens and dozens of brilliant collections supported by talented and enthusiastic museum staff.  My privilege over 15 years has been to challenge the British Museum a little in its relationship to its audiences and partners and I’m pretty sure that over the years I’ve played a part in changing it for the better. 

Sharing my journey

It’s been nice to share my working journey with you and if you would like advice on your museum career path or how to connect your collections with audiences in new ways in these difficult times please see my offer on Share London. I feel honoured to do the job I do and as I look at what the museum sector has to offer I am optimistic about the future.  

Author | John Orna-Ornstein, Head of London and National Programmes at the British Museum and LMG Committee Member

Photographs | Courtesy of the British Museum and John Orna-Ornstein.

A Hard Habit to Break

A Hard Habit to Break

Sustainability | How we agonise about the rhetoric matching the action

The view from Tony Butler’s desk at the Museum of East Anglian Life
where he sat and wrote this blog

The Happy Museum project proposes that museums are well placed to re-imagine a world where economic growth is not the principle measure of success of a society. Museums can show that materialism need not characterise our relationships to the world around us. A more powerful retelling of history by way of cooperation and collaboration and a more humble approach to the natural environment might help civic society address pressing issues such as climate change and resource depletion. The project suggests that museums take a more activist approach to working with communities and use their status as places for encounters to foster local campaigns.  

How far museums are able to help lead this change remains to be seen.

For some time museums have been pioneering thinking around environmental sustainability (The Garden Museum) and doing great work within their communities (most local museums!) However very few combine the two to foster the sort of citizenship that Matthew Taylor of the RSA sayshelps people to be the people they need to be, to do what they think they want to do’. At The Happy Museum Symposium last January, in typically provocative style, the Museums Association’s Maurice Davies suggested that museums were not able to link well-being with sustainability.  Our project is seeking to create a community of practice of UK museums committed to supporting transition to a high well-being, sustainable society. Two of the six museums we have commissioned to make these links explicit are:
  • Godalming Museum is working with allotment holders, cycling clubs and transition groups to develop displays and resources about a Victorian hydro electricity project in a nearby tanning works.
  • The Story Museum in Oxford has employed well-being experts and psychologists to work with architects and surveyors to influence the sustainable design of their new museum.

Faith in exponential economic growth is a hard habit to break.

Mainstream culture seems to be reluctant to question the primacy of economic growth or be brave enough (an agony for liberal cultural professionals) to suggest to the public that lower consumption might contribute to a kinder safer society. This mirrors a similar attitude in mainstream politics. The Labour politician Caroline Flint MP and the Shadow Climate and Energy Secretaries wrote a blog for The Guardian (02 April 2012) reporting that the public were more likely to accept climate change if policies were concerned with people’s everyday concerns - bills not bears!

As a Clore Fellow at the Southbank Centre in 2008 I was asked to design a sustainability programme.  On the one hand the redeveloped Royal Festival Hall had a sustainable ground source heat pump system and the Participation Team was developing programming strands around climate change through an artists in residence programme. The programme (run with Cape Farewell) pioneered a cultural response to climate change by taking artists to witness the impact of melting ice in the Arctic.  On the other hand, Southbank continued to fly in artists from half way around the world for one-off performances and relied on sponsorship from a big oil company to support the Classical Music Programme.  Here, one of the UK’s best-known cultural centres had an opportunity to have a dialogue with itself and its audience about the ethical dilemmas in bridging the gap between rhetoric, artistic excellence and the leadership responsibilities of a cultural institution.

Four years on, public funding priorities seem to be driving cultural organisations to take an ever more short-term approach. Creative Scotland recently announced that it would like to move to one-year or project-by-project funding agreements. The Department for Culture Media and Sport is driving organisations to make the most of corporate and private philanthropy. These further complicate the judgements made by organisations like museums in their programming choices and their own beliefs and values. So, big institutions that receive sponsorship from oil companies or weapons manufacturers (of late Tate - BP and the Science Museum - BAE Systems) should be prepared to substantiate why they enter into these relationships.  Bridget McKenzie, writes in a recent blog that organisations should not believe 'that when  money directly gained from ecocide or violence is given to a museum it is washed clean.' 

Tony and the Museum’s objects and land.  What sustainable challenges does he face?

So now, as the Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL), I face my own dilemma of balancing the Happy Museum rhetoric with the desire to develop new work and the need to pay the increasing costs of rates and energy bills.  In a blog 18 months ago I suggested that museums might look to the Transition Movement as a means to co-operate, share resources and innovate but this seems a long way off – even for me!  And in a recent conversation about the future of funding to museums with my local council the chief executive talked about how this would be dependent on local economic growth, in particular new housing development. With central government grants cut and council tax rises politically unacceptable, the only source of new income to fund some services would be through payment schemes such as the New Homes Bonus incentive.  I find myself arguing that one of the strongest justifications for the continued funding of MEAL is the economic contribution to the locality - which is over £1.2m a year.

Can you spot the molehills?  One of costs the Museum encounters through nature.

So what’s the likelihood of a museum developing a financial model that combines both a cash and exchange economy? 

Time banks or skill sharing schemes are great, but they won’t pay fuel, insurance and maintenance bills for the 20 historic buildings at MEAL. Through a Social Return on Investment study we carried out in 2010 we know that our museum creates £4.50 of social value for every £1 of cash invested. We are able to use these statistics to increase funding streams.  But to be fully sustainable shouldn’t we be working to convert the social value into something practical to exchange?  

A great place to start is Mission Models Money re-think programme which looks at how culture can contribute to the Transition and to a high well-being low carbon economy. In a society re-framed by an economy more aware of its environmental limits we can expect that people will consume differently, spend their time differently, and have different expectations of their lives.  This is all food for thought for our Museum Activist who will be starting in August and will be seeking a more cooperative and collaborative approach to our engagement with local people. 

What challenges will the new Museum Activist face to
bring well-being and sustainability together?

Author | Tony Butler, Director of Museum of East Anglian Life and supporter of LMG.

Photographs | Julie Reynolds, LMG Blogger.